Prayers from the mosque’s loudspeakers meld with reggaeton blasting from multiple car windows and techno music that reveals a party taking place on the second floor of a nearby McDonald’s. This is Casablanca. And in this city—immortalized in a film by vintage Hollywood—one is affronted by a cacophonous yet complimentary swath of cultural influences that make up Morocco, a country directly south of Spain in Northern Africa.
Casablanca sits at the juncture of the Arabic, African and European world and is just is a 7-hour nonstop flight from JFK. A 3-hour flight from Paris and a 2-hour flight from Madrid.
Few places enchant me like Morocco. Oozing with rustic glamour, the smells of cinnamon and cardamom alive in the souks, and intricate Arabic-Andalusian designs, the beauty of this place is both instantly familiar and exotic. It's easy to see why people fall in love with this country.
A clash of cultures, infused with both modern luxuries and an old world charm, Morocco is accessible, yet nonetheless mysterious, especially if you don’t speak French or Arabic (though visitors can get by with English and Spanish).
Heartwarming in a humorous way, you’ll never go a couple feet without hearing a joke. While rummaging through my bag, the security officer at the Casablanca Airport pulls out my copy of “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar and remarks with a wry smile, “This book is illegal in Morocco.” Of course, I laugh.
"We know more about your Western culture than you know about us," says our guide, Jamal. "There are more similarities than you think." He points out a small sample of common English words that derive from Arabic: like “algebra,” “alcohol,” “coffee,” “magazine,” “guitar,” and even the number “zero.”
One cannot be in Casablanca and not visit one of the most beautiful structures of Moorish architecture that I'eve ever seen: Hassan the Second Mosque.
While in Casablanca, I stayed at the beautiful Four Seasons. It’s a dry hotel, serving no alcohol, but BYOBers abound. At their popular lobby lounge, Mint, I watch the handsome and well-heeled Casablanca set in their polo shirts, donning loafers (sans socks) and large gold wristwatches, smoking cigarettes like there is no tomorrow.
I’m traveling in Casablanca right before Ramadan, the month called Sha’ban. This proved timely, as I was invited to a Lila ceremony, a Gnawan musical ritual. Gnawa is an ancient African Islamic culture of spiritual religious songs and rhythms with roots in West Africa. During Sha’ban, in preparation for Ramadan, there is a Lila ceremony somewhere in Casablanca every day.
I was honored to be invited to experience the Lila. As it is a personal family and friend only event, you need to be invited by either the person hosting the Lila or the musicians playing. Our connection to this particular Lila was through the musicians.
Through a gnawa musician I know from Brooklyn, Samir Langus of Innov Gnawa, I meet Khalil Mounji, a digital communications manager who runs www.gnaouaculture.org.
En route to the Lila that he will be filming that night, Khalil shows us his app “Play Guembri”: an app that you can download and instantly acquaint yourself withthe guembri, a three stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa.
Before reaching the Lila—which is to start at midnight—Khalil takes us to a local spot with no sign at the Port of Casablanca (Le Port de Peche) for a snack - savory shrimp omelets served in a pan with a helping of cheese on top.
But we only had a snack before the Lila because, as Khalil tells us, there is always food at a Lila. And he was right.
After a first set of spiritual songs and dancing, the band intermissions, and the guests scurry to tables for a family feast. It was finally time to dine at 3am, which seemed a bit late - but it was energy to fuel the next part of the Lila, featuring intense, powerful beats, singing, incense and holy oil, all to induce rapture and trance-like convulsions of men, women, and children alike. This was a beautiful and powerful ceremony of song and dance that was to last until the break of dawn.
This is just the beginning... Stay tuned next week for more of my Moroccan adventures!
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