Mint tea + more in Morocco

Sweet, fragrant and delicious mint tea is the requisite national beverage served throughout Morocco.

Maghrebi or Moroccan sweet mint tea is a green tea prepared with sugar and spearmint leaves and typically served hot in the cooler months and refreshingly cold during the heat of the summer months. The western part of North Africa including Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, collectively referred to as the Maghreb region, is where this sweet mint tea has become a cultural staple.

Moroccan tea is consumed day and night and if you are lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home or even into their tent in the desert, you will be immediately offered a glass of tea. It is, of course, impolite to refuse.

We were lucky to watch a number of teas prepared for us during our trip. Traditionally the tea is made by brewing green tea until it is very strong. It is then generously sweetened with large chunks of sugar from a sugar loaf and brewed again until the sugar has dissolved. After a 3-5 minute rest, one glass is filled and poured back in the pot two to three times to mix the tea. Finally fresh spearmint sprigs are placed in each tea glass (never a cup) and the hot tea is poured into each glass from a height of 15-30″ above each glass. The reason apparently is to swirl the loose tea leaves to the bottom of the glass and to gently aerate the tea, thereby improving its flavor.

Brass teapot

We joined a tour group to explore Morocco and when our group was invited to its first tea ceremony we arrived with the coveted gift of a sugar loaf for our hostess. (a Moroccan loaf of sugar is as compact as a sugar cube, shaped like a large white bullet and weighs about 4.5 pounds) We learned that 2 loaves of sugar are also traditionally offered as a gift during a marriage proposal. If the loaves of sugar are returned, the gentleman knows his marriage proposal has been turned down. To avoid any misunderstanding, our single male tour guide discreetly asked one of the ladies of our group to present the gift of sugar to our unmarried hostess. Lol

Compared to many Muslim nations, Morocco is fairly tolerant about the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is permitted in a few licensed hotels, windowless bars and some tourist areas. Moroccans themselves may consume alcohol but are restricted to drinking indoors. So it was fun to hear that the locals lightheartedly refer to the ubiquitous sweet mint tea as ‘moroccan whiskey’.

Casablanca

Prior to the 15th century this city was known as Anfa and maps continued to label the city Anfa well into the 1800’s. Much of Casablanca was destroyed in the deadly 1755 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Moroccan coast, with waves ranging 50-75 feet (15-24m) high. The flattened city was rebuilt and renamed “ad-Dār al-Bayḍāʾ” which translates as “the White House”. The city is still today, known in Arabic, as Dar al-Bayda. It is not clear why it was named ‘the White House’ but according to one legend there was a white washed tower sitting on a hill above the ruins of Anfa that Portuguese sailors used as a landmark. One Portuguese cartographer noted in the early 16th century that the city could easily be identified by the white tower. The Portuguese translated “ad-Dār al-Bayḍā, the White House” into their own language as “Casa Branca” and later the Spanish calqued it into “Casablanca”.

Although not the capital of Morocco, Casablanca is the country’s largest city, largest economic center and largest port. It is also considered the largest financial center in Africa.

We opted to fly into Casablanca a few days prior to the start of our tour of Morocco in order to have time to explore the city. The most recent census shows the population is at nearly 4 million residents yet we quickly discovered that Casablanca’s tourist attractions are actually very few. The sites we did visit however, although small, were gems. We visited the only mosque open to westerners and the only two museums we could find. We spent one day wandering through the old and new medinas and we enjoyed a long leisurely walk following the shoreline on the pretty la Corniche promenade all the way to El Hank Lighthouse. We attempted to visit the soaring art deco styled, deconsecrated, former Church of the Sacred Heart of Casablanca and the city’s main art museum, the Villa des Arts, but both were unfortunately closed.

Former Church of the Sacred Heart of Casablanca

Abderrahman Slaoui Foundation Museum

This museum opened in 2012, 10 years after the death of Abderrahman Slaoui (1919-2001), a businessman and avid art collector. He was passionate about Moroccan and Arab-Muslim art and wanted his collection to be shared with the world.

We found interesting kohl flasks that were used by women to hold eyeliner powder, one of the very early cosmetics. The powder was also used to protect people’s eyes from the desert sand and wind.

Kohl flasks

The paintings and posters created by the french artist, Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) caught our eye. In 1917 he traveled to Morocco. He stayed in Casablanca for a short while before traveling south to Marrakech. He fell in love with the vibrant colors in Marrakech and he eventually settled there. We especially love the warm colors and scenes he painted that remind us of the many places we visited and the vistas we saw traveling through this beautiful country.

Jacques Majorelle – Kasbah of the Atlas

All manner of curiosities in the museum captured our attention, including antiques, art, books, ceramics, jewelry, posters, statues, vases and many more treasures. It is a lovely small museum focused on Moroccan art.

Museum of Moroccan Judaism

Jews began immigrating to the region as early as 70 CE. They have a long history of cohabiting with the Berbers and Moroccan Arabs.

Casablanca is proud to note they have the only Jewish museum in the Muslim World. The Museum opened in 1997 and it displays religious, ethnographic and artistic objects used in the daily life of the Moroccan Jews. There is a veritable treasure of menorahs, oil lamps, jewelry, photography and traditional costumes in the museum displays.

A yad, meaning hand, is a Jewish ritual or Torah pointer. A yad is shaped like a long narrow rod, capped by a small hand with a pointing index finger. The Torah was written on parchment scrolls and the reader would use the yad to follow the text during the reading of the Torah. Using the yad would ensure that the parchment was not touched because the fragile parchment could be easily damaged. Vellum parchment does not absorb ink so touching the scroll with fingers could damage the letters and writing.

Jewish yads or pointers

Hassan II Mosque

Casablanca’s pièce de résistance has to be the magnificent Hassan II Mosque. Completed in 1993, it is the largest mosque in Morocco and amongst the top 10 largest in the world. The Hassan II Mosque is also one of only a handful of mosques in the world that welcomes westerners. It has become an important tourist attraction in Casablanca.

Hassan II Mosque

The remarkable mosque stands on a manmade jetty overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The walls are marble, the roof retractable and the minaret towers 60 stories high, or nearly 700 feet (210 m) tall. There are 41 shaped and beautifully tiled fountains dotted around the courtyard and a garden around the Mosque that is open to the public.

Ablution Hall

Inside the more than 50,000 square foot structure we were able to visit a prayer hall and a small but striking museum. The grand Ablution room pictured above is where visitors, attendees and worshippers wash-up prior to entering the grand prayer room.

The colorful porcelain mosaics used on the columns, walls, fountains and minarets are incredible. The decorations are truly works of art.

The interior of Hassan II Mosque

The art of Morocco is symmetrical and mesmerizing. From the delicate hand-carved furniture, rich colors, arched doorways, arabesque motifs, geometric pattern on tiles, calligraphy, elaborate metal cutwork and ironwork to the ornate lanterns with their panes of colored glass that create a kaleidoscopic effect when lit. The elegance and ornamentation of intertwined squares, circles and corners are what is considered traditional Moroccan art, and we loved it.

Moroccan Art

Casablanca’s Medinas

We spent most of our first day in Casablanca exploring a couple of Moroccan medinas.

A medina is basically a car-free historical district that may once have been a part of a walled city. When Morocco was being run by France in the early 20th century, in order to make way for the new cities they had built for western occupants, they often marginalized the local cultures and walled them into designated sections of the city.

The ‘ancient’ medina we first explored had very narrow streets lined with dozens of shops, primarily food shops. Unfortunately it had rained overnight so the streets were quite muddy and slippery. The shopkeepers were friendly yet left us to discover the medina at our own pace. Tens of thousands of people live and work in the medinas and it’s clear that tourists are a minor contributor to the overall economy within the souks.

Markets within the medina

The ‘New’ medina we visited in the afternoon was much cleaner and the streets wider although it did not have the authentic atmosphere of the ‘ancient’ medina. Less food and more household items were available at the new medina. The patterned brass trays were so attractive and tempting.

Brass trays

Rick’s Café

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

This being our first trip to Casablanca we decided we had to rewatch the famous 1942 Academy Award winning Best Picture, “Casablanca”, with Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. Much of the movie takes place in ‘Rick’s Cafe’. We enjoyed watching the movie a second time, especially having experienced this amazing city.

Kathy Kriger (1946–2018), a former American diplomat, opened Rick’s Cafe in 2004. She was inspired to design a restaurant/cafe that would recreate the atmosphere of the Rick’s Cafe from the film. The curved arches, sculpted bar, balconies, balustrades and architectural details are reminiscent of the film. The restaurant showcases the talent of the Moroccan craftspeople as well and is filled with beautiful tiles, woodwork, carved marble fireplaces and painted plaster.

There is an authentic 1930s Pleyel piano that is played most nights of the week focusing on music from the 1940’s and 50’s. The movie’s hit song, As Time Goes By, is requested and played each and every night.

We enjoyed a lovely lunch with a big band soundtrack providing background music, but perhaps a dinner reservation would have been more in character with Rick and Ilsa’s tête-à-tête.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Rick’s Cafe

The residents of Casablanca left us with a good first impression of this country. They were warm and friendly, calling out ‘Salaam Alaikum’ (a blessing / greeting meaning peace be unto you) followed by ‘Welcome to Morocco’ as we walked past.

‘Salaam Alaikum’.

Bssaha from these Moroccans,

Ted + Julia

Casablanca, Morocco
— Rick’s Café, Casablanca
— Ancient Medina, Casablanca, Morocco
— New Medina, Casablanca, Morocco
— Sacred Heart Cathedral, Catholic church
— Villa des Arts
— Hassan 2 Mosque esplanade and garden

Abderrahman Slaoui Foundation Museum

Museum of Moroccan Judaism

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, Morocco

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