The Arrival at Casablanca

Excerpted from the eventual book, Common Sense and Whiskey:

Casatrain 7:48 a.m., Saturday Nov. 20, Casablanca: I’d have never believed we’d have left on time. At 7:40 there wasn’t a train in sight along quai deux. At 7:45 we were underway from Casablanca Gare de Voyageurs, right on time, on the express to Marrakesh.

Gare de Voyageurs was dark but not foreboding at 7 a.m., friendly and do-able, with a short queue for billets and hot café available. Pictures of the new, young King Mohammad hadn’t yet replaced his father in the magasin.

At least at first, we were alone in our premiere classe compartment for six, the sun playing cat and mouse with clouds in a tropical-style rain, big drops but cool, a torrent that looked to occur only here just onshore. The low eastern sun made the clouds in the western sky foreboding blue.

Premiere classe cost 100 dirhams, ten bucks, for the three hour ride into Marrakech, and the Sheraton Casablanca wanted seven dollars per LaBatts. We drank two and a half round trips on the Marrakech Express in an hour last night.


Royal Air Maroc’s 747 had delivered us right on time, six hours forty minutes flying time from New York Kennedy to Casablanca Mohammed V International. A twenty dollar grande taxi would surely be the most expensive in Morocco but it was a long ride, more than 45 minutes, at first through the Oulad Salah Zone Industrielle and alternately, fallow brown land. Just after dawn, with the sun so low, the fair weather clouds were lit orange from below in a definite November chill.

Horse-drawn buggy drivers in distinctive Moroccan pointy-top hooded djelaba robes and pedestrians alike stamped their feet and blew into their hands. Scooters and funny French transports. Kids with backpacks surprised us on their way to school on Friday, the Muslim holy day (they go a half day).

People stood in ones or twos on the roadside, it seemed like at random, and since we saw no buses or bus stop signs, we couldn’t tell why.  Most of the women wore head cover. Given that you see people standing absently at the roadside all across the developing world we didn’t take their loitering as indolence – it just looked that way.

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Fifty Photos #37


Men at a mosque in the old city of Fez, Morocco.

Here's a story from our trip to Morocco. See 118 more photos from Morocco in the Morocco Gallery and 250 photos of holy people and places in the Worship Gallery at

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Moon over Morocco

Excerpted from the eventual book Common Sense and Whiskey, in which we venture east from Marrakech, Morocco into the high Atlas mountains in 1999, and learn something of Ramadan:



It was another slow, late morning, pots of tea and coffee and CNN in the hotel room. I ordered another car and driver and we availed ourselves about 12:15. Today we had Mohammad, a charming, balding man in a suit with a better, cream-colored Mercedes and every bit as much English as our French.

Off we took along a tarmac roughly parallel to yesterday’s, toward the more often visited Ourika valley where, along with various photo stops, many at mosques for views of minarets with the background of snowy mountains, we made steady progress up the Ourika River, in a wide, rocky valley, and the temperature steadily plummeted.

First stop, the Ourika Hotel, where it was just warm enough in the sun to share the terrace with one other couple, French people who’d brought a picnic from town, and enjoy the sorta jarring view of the river and snowy alpine peaks, yet with a sun-baked brown-clay housing settlement high on the far bank.

The proprietor here was a big, bluff, agreeable guy, and Flag beers were equally agreeable at two bucks apiece. We chose from the guidebook a place called Auberge Ramuntchko as our ultimate destination for this afternoon because of, as it told us, “an elegant terrace shaded with white umbrellas, filled with the sound of the river, and basking in a magnificent view of the mountains.”

It’s a puzzling name – doesn’t Ramuntchko sound vaguely Russian to you?

On the way, Mohammad knew of a view panoramique off a side road where he took us to see far away, and into a nearby valley where there was a villa he told us, “of Mick Jaggair.” He took us past the Ramuntchko a bit for some stuff he thought we’d want to see. On the way we saw the devastation from a 1995 flood that moved boulders bigger than us down the Ourika valley, destroyed houses, and killed people and livestock.


In fact, just “last week, road is closed” because of the high water, and today it was only open as a rutted, one lane track. We visited a remarkably self-contained berber home on the river, and they showed us how their self-constructed mill over the water ground barley into flour, and walked us through the pens for the cow, the barley and vegetable garden, the common rooms, the room with six mattresses for six kids, the steam bath, and the kitchen, where a tagine pot sat cooking and a jolly grandmother and a young boy warmed a kettle over the fire.

As we began our drive out of the valley back to Ramuntchko we realized that, at just a few minutes before three o’clock, the sun had already left the Ourika valley. It was far too cold for the terrace at the Auberge Ramuntchko but there was plenty of inside seating, you could still see the rushing river, and there was plenty of sun left on the mountains. We enjoyed rounds of Flag beer, the view, and we were amused watching a table of aggressively red-wine-drinking French people eat lunch.

On the way back to Marrakech, Mohammad conveyed to us the most elaborate thing I’ve ever been made to understand spoken in French. He told us how just this past year he’d left Morocco for the first time – to the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was awed by it all and spoke of it with obvious warmth.

I asked if he worked, himself, during the holy month of Ramadan, when the devout must not eat, drink water or smoke from sunrise to sunset and he said he did.  This is what he told us in French: When this moon, rising full tonight, wanes and first reappears in two weeks, Ramadan begins. It begins a little earlier each year, to the rhythm of the moon rather than the calendar, and he’ll work this year and it won’t be so hard not to drink water all day because it’s winter.

But the years around fifteen years ago Ramadan was in the summer and buddy, if I may paraphrase his French, Ramadan was one pain in the ass.

Read more from the eventual book, Common Sense and Whiskey.

See 119 photos in the Morocco Gallery at Photos from

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