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Rabat: Morocco's Forgotten Gem

David Cicconi Avenue Mohammed V, one of the Rabat's main throughfares, in the medina.

Photo: David Cicconi

Compared to Arab capitals I am more used to, such as Cairo or Beirut, Rabat is orderly to a fault. Risking the rental of a small Peugeot, I found the driving almost eerily slow and deliberate. It was Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and I failed to hear a single horn toot, even at that desperate sunset hour when commuters rush home to catch the breaking of the fast. Early evenings brought throngs of sated strollers onto the Avenue Mohammed V (named for the current monarch's grandfather) for a very Mediterranean paseo, but the volume of their chatter never seemed to rise above a murmur.

Midway along the avenue, the terraces of the Hôtel Balima, an imposing landmark erected in the late 1920's, command a view of the great Moorish gingerbread confection that is Morocco's parliament. Seated on high one night with a café express and a bottle of Oulmès, Morocco's superior, slightly salty answer to Perrier, I watched as a crowd of perhaps 200 well-dressed youths accumulated in the avenue's wide central aisle. For half an hour they chanted protest songs, observed by a sprinkling of police. The demonstrators were unemployed university graduates, it turned out. For the past few years they have gathered here regularly for the not very revolutionary purpose of demanding jobs from the government.

The politeness and regularity of the protests say much about the present state of Morocco. Joblessness remains a persistent problem, a reflection of fast (if slowing) population growth and of an economy still struggling against such handicaps as illiteracy and corruption. But the politeness of the police speaks of change. Under the last king, Hassan II, street protests were a bad idea. The chain-smoking, golf-mad tyrant, who ruled for 38 long years, was famed for hurling his enemies—and sometimes their brothers, sisters, and children—into some of the world's dingiest dungeons and losing the keys in the folds of his hooded robe.

His legacy still seems to hang over Rabat, not only in the mysterious silence that emanates from the long, crenellated walls of the palace quarter (where the old king kept a stable of concubines and, some say, eunuchs), but in its citizens' wary mind-your-own- businessness. Yet since Hassan's death, in 1999, a political thaw has enlivened public life. The police can still be mean, and officials venal, but ordinary folk now have little fear of saying so. The current king, Mohammed VI, the 23rd in a line of Alawi monarchs, does not simply belong to a more outward-looking generation. Although he keeps up pretenses as the theoretical Commander of the Faithful, donning a white burnoose and red felt skullcap for solemnly televised visits to the mosque, the 42-year-old king is clearly more at ease at the nearby beach resort of Skhirat, on a pair of water skis.

The king's own projection of clashing identities mirrors the complexity of his realm. The people who run the country—the secretive royal court, the political men in suits, the French-speaking business class—are something of a caste apart, divided from the people at large by yawning disparities of wealth, cosmopolitan manners, and, frequently, a relative laxity in religious devotion. Although tourism has long been Morocco's main source of income, the average, proudly pious Moroccan is not entirely comfortable with large numbers of scantily dressed guests.

In Rabat, this social mix can be seen at its most tolerant and relaxed. The main streets of the Agdal quarter, near the university, look much like any European college town's, if a lot more clean-cut. The proliferation of fancy coffee-and-snack joints here, and of international-brand chain stores clogged with credit card–wielding youths, hints at an upward mobility that might enable Morocco, at some future point, to enter the Euro zone. But across the little Bouregreg River lies Salé, a city that used to be Rabat's rival in the piracy business and is now a suburb of the capital. Here, behind the walls of yet another medina, complete with still more souks and whitewashed houses, the mores are solidly Muslim and traditional. Head scarves predominate, and the five daily prayers set the pace. At dusk during Ramadan, Salé's only visible residents are cats, stealthily pacing the alleyways through a heavenly fog of cooking smells: cardamom, sesame seeds, pickled lemons, all bubbling atop the stoves in cone-hatted clay tagines.

Back in my own medina, on the Rabat side, I find that Ramadan inspires a potent sympathetic hunger at this time of day. A determined heave swings wide the studded wooden door that leads off the now hushed alleyway. A vaulted passage leads into the pointillist-tiled courtyard. There I find my hosts beckoning me from a side room to join them around a steaming tureen of harira, the gloriously thick, peppery, tomato-and-chickpea soup that is Morocco's second staple after couscous. The Khribeche family, originally from Fez, bought this rambling 18th-century town house, the Dar Al Batoul, six years ago. Nabila, who graduated from a Swiss hotel school, undertook its transformation. Her taste is flawless: the place is a blend of simple comfort and high Moroccan style, all dappled shadow and bold color, with textures of wool and brass and marble, plaster filigree, and potted ferns. The sleeping quarters, each unique, give onto a second-floor terrace that encircles the courtyard, with the whole open space topped by a useful modern touch, a sliding-glass roof for rainy days.

Between servings of soup and dates, I ask Nabila's father, a retired engineer, what brought him here from Fez. "Quite simply," he says, "Rabat is the most agreeable of our cities." I couldn't have agreed more.

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