CASABLANCA -- The Casablanca airport is not as you remember it. Not, that is, if your memory is based upon the final scene of the film classic, Casablanca, wherein the airport runway is fogbound and a single DC-3 stands ready, waiting for Ingrid Bergman and either Humphrey Bogart (her lover) or Paul Henreid (her husband) to be spirited away to Lisbon. Instead, it is all jets, jetways, and acres of chrome and glass.
The airport befits a modern city of five million persons, sophisticated, multilingual and seemingly always in a hurry to do business. In a hurry, but friendly, hospitable to visitors and giving off an air of cheerfulness.
Downtown Casablanca is a creation of the French Protectorate (1912-56) and today is dominated by nondescript high-rise buildings, mingled with French colonial blocks that remind one of Paris. In the midst of it is the Medina, the walled city dating from the 17th century in which today's merchants deal largely in everyday modern items.
Dominating the Atlantic seashore is the Hassan II mosque, built between 1987 and 1993. Designed by a French architect, the nearly 50-story-high minaret and the main building, surrounded by large plaza, seem to float in the air. Inside, the mosque can hold up to 25,000 in prayer.
Although nearly all Moroccans are Muslims, their country is an example of Islam seemingly at peace with secular life. Weekends are Saturday and Sunday, not Thursday and Friday as is the case in most Muslim countries. Workers who want to attend prayers on the traditional holy day, Friday, are given time off from work. While many women wear hooded jalabiyas, is would be hard to find one wearing a veil, at least in Casablanca. The city has six Catholic churches, one Protestant and four synagogues.
King Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999 upon the death of his father, Hassan II, gets generally high marks for his liberalization policies. Expanded women's rights (the mudawana policy) brought girls into the public school system and will raise the female literacy rate from 39 percent (it is 66 percent for men). Many job opportunities have opened up for women. The king's wife, a computer engineer, is the first ever to be photographed and to take a more public role.
Abundant prosperity is on view. Miles of new seaside villas south of Casablanca attest to this, as do ones rising around Marrakech. The economic growth rate is currently high (about nine percent), but subject to fluctuation due to the dependence on agricultural products and a general lack of natural resources (other than phosphate). Mohammed VI's policies have opened the country to greater foreign investment, which is intended to expand the economy and create more jobs. The annual unemployment is still stubbornly high -- about 20 percent in the cities, which have depressingly squalid shantytowns. These are hidden by walls, but exist in the midst of modern apartment blocks and middle-class neighborhoods.
Ever since a coordinated set of 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Moroccan security officials have been worried that the shantytowns are breeding grounds of resentment and the seduction of young unemployed men by radical Islamists.
In March this year, one such man blew himself up in a cybercafe. He had been caught in a police dragnet following the 2003 bombings and spent time in prison where, apparently, he came under the influence of extremists. A month after his suicide a pair of brothers from a middle class family blew themselves up in front to the U.S. consulate in Casablanca.
While there is a general air of it-can't-happen-here, security forces aren't so sure, Next door, in Algeria, al-Qaeda-in-the-Maghreb has surfaced and carried out a series of terrorist attacks. The Algerians, battle-hardened after a decade of dealing with extremists, know how to deal with such things. The question is, do the Moroccans?
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