June 18, 2019
Jutting out of the skyline of the densely packed ancienne medina, the world’s second tallest minaret beckoned us. Ki and I walked to the direction of the newly-invigorated Boulevard de la Corniche along the Atlantic coast. We followed an elderly man with a walking cane crossing the scenic highway toward Casablanca’s architectural jewel – Hassan II Mosque. As if emerging from the ocean, the majestic place of worship marked the western tip of the Islamic world.
King Hassan, whom the mosque was named after, commissioned the building project to be an iconic landmark for Casablanca. In 1993, a French architect and a host of local artisans realized the king’s vision of a magnificent structure designed in religious and traditional style. Its seafront location called for salt-resistant materials, hence the massive and elaborately-carved titanium doors, none of which were open. Perhaps we came too late in the day. It was a missed chance as not all mosques welcomed non-Muslims, especially tourists.
We hung out at several courtyards outside the mosque along with groups of families huddled in the shadows of arches and columns. A boy was attempting to fly a kite in the marble-paved open space. Apart from people-watching, Moorish embellishments on walls and doors kept us snapping away with our phones. Tiled and embossed geometric designs replaced religious icons and statues commonly associated with places of worship but forbidden in Islamic belief. Keyhole arches, so ubiquitous in Morocco, were well-represented. It was the first time I had ever set foot within the premises of a mosque. I walked on eggshells and reined in my naturally facetious self that might offend religious sensibilities.
We retreated to the esplanade by the ocean later in the afternoon. By then, the call to prayer reverberated from the towering minaret. It was a reminder that we were on sacred ground. Local people, though, seemed oblivious to the singing announcement. The crowd gathered along the breakwater was more in picnic mode than prayerful. They were sunning themselves as vendors peddled snacks and drinks. The esplanade was a public park where we could feel the leisurely pulse of the city.
I stopped to look up the minaret rising nearly 200 meters above the promontory on which the entire mosque stood. The minaret’s austere marble and green tile skin belied the reinforced interior built to withstand earthquakes and strong winds. It could well be a lighthouse, although the laser beam at the top pointed toward Mecca, opposite the ocean. The qibla spotlight would have been a sight to behold, but we left way before darkness fell.
A smaller building across from the mosque, La Fondation de la Mosquée Hassan II de Casablanca, stood as the administrative office and cultural center with a museum and library located therein. It was likewise closed. We sat under the colonnaded walkway to watch both the faithful and the playful going to the mosque or to the breakwater behind it. The arches also provided a photographic frame for the mosque in the distance.
The concrete breakwater protecting the mosque from the constant crash of oceanic waves had become a diving spot for young men in Casablanca. By late afternoon, a large, rowdy group was taking turns tombstoning to the shallow edge of the ocean, the stony seabed still visible from our vantage point. Soon, three police officers approached to shoo the daredevils off the concrete ledge. I observed with interest how the scene would pan out. The authorities had barely turned back when the sea stunts resumed.
We never had the chance to observe religious rituals in the mosque. As unfamiliar as I was with Islam, it would have been an eye-opener. It turned out there was no cause for worry about offending anyone. What we witnessed, instead, was the carefree joy with which Casablanca citizens spent the summer afternoon under the shadow of their majestic mosque. Who were we to say they were not contemplating “God’s sky and ocean”?
I wish Casablanca to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time … I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.King Hassan II