CASABLANCA, Morocco – Arab women wearing traditional headscarves and silk veils over their faces walked barefoot around the towering marble-columned Hassan II Mosque, the 7th largest mosque on the planet where old-world architecture meets new-world technology in a grand Islamic structure that rises up from the Atlantic Ocean.

At the entrance of the mosque, through a huge horseshoe-shaped archway of ornate bronze and classic Arabic craftsmanship, we slipped off our shoes and wandered through the cavernous mosque of mile-high ceilings, Turkish-style swimming pools, an ablutions hall with more than 40 fountains, and a hand-carved dark-wood balcony where women go to pray separately from men.

The 21-year-old mosque is partially built over the Atlantic Ocean and features a 690-foot minaret that stands over the bustling city of Casablanca. One of world’s most high-tech mosques, it offers heated flooring, a retractable roof, and a section of clear-glass flooring for worshipers to kneel and pray over the ocean. Six thousand men working in 24-hour shifts built the mosque in six years at a cost of an estimated $800 million. The mosque can accommodate 105,000 worshippers.

I was mesmerized by the mosque while touring Morocco with a group of African American newspaper publishers representing The National Newspaper Publishers Association, (NNPA) a coalition that publishes 200 newspapers for an estimated 20 million readers.

For black journalists visiting North Africa, Morocco is a place filled with adventure, a history that dates back 12 centuries, and scenery that sometimes bears no resemblance to Western culture. Two members of our delegation had visited Morocco before and several journalists were first-time visitors to Africa yet everyone appreciated the cultural connections: African Americans standing on African soil was a teachable moment.

But Morocco is also a place of political controversy. President Barack Obama, who considers Morocco a steadfast ally to the United States, met with Moroccan King Mohammed V1 at the White House in November and commended the King for “deepening democracy” and “promoting economic progress and human development.”

Human rights groups criticized Obama, saying the president missed an opportunity to tell the King to end violence, torture and abuse in the Western Sahara where Morocco is embroiled in a bitter, long-running conflict with Algeria over who owns that part of the region.  Human rights groups want Obama to put pressure on Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara their right to live where they choose.

Moroccans, however, say they are also suffering abuse by Algerians who are holding Moroccans in prison camps. Morocco says it has a peace plan moving forward. While many are suspect of Morocco’s strategy, White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama believes “Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible. It represents a potential approach that can satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.”

Politics aside, Morocco remains a popular destination for Americans – and black Americans as well. Walking along the busy streets of Casablanca is a tale of two worlds where ancient Morocco intersects with Western culture. While some women are often covered in the traditional hijab, (headwraps) and older women are cover all parts of their bodies except their eyes, modern Moroccan women wear blue jeans, stylish leather jackets, and teenage boys hang on street corners talking on cell phones, texting, and listening to hip-hop music on their Ipods.

While the official language in Morocco is Arabic, Berber dialects, and French are often the languages of business, government, and diplomacy. A nation with 33 million people, Morocco is situated in North Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, between Algeria and the annexed Western Sahara. A large part of Morocco is mountainous. The Atlas Mountains are located mainly in the center and the south of the country. The Rif Mountains are located in the North of the country.

Casablanca is now Morocco’s largest city with a population of almost 4 million and also boasts the world’s largest artificial port. It is also the most liberal and progressive of Morocco’s cities. Young men flirt openly with women, designer labels are the norm in the chic, beach front neighborhood of ‘Ain Diab and many young Moroccans speak to each other by alternating simultaneously between Arabic, French, and English.

Over a dinner of steamed fish, spiced shrimp and seafood soup, Lahcen Haddad, the Moroccan Minister of Tourism, talked to us about the stability of Morocco, the safety of cities like Rabat, (the capital of Morocco) Marrakesh, Tangier, Casablanca, Fez (for early Islamic architecture) and how every region is proud of its particular characteristics.

“Morocco offers something for everyone,” said Haddad, holds a Ph.D. in comparative cultural studies from the University of Indiana.

Haddas, who was relaxed and thoughtful at our informal gathering, talked about the geographic diversity of the country from the embroidered fabrics, ceramics, jewelry, wooden sculptures and leather objects in Marrakesh and Rabat, to a museum in Tangier that is housed in the former British consulate, to the Sahara Desert, mountains, valleys and the sea.

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The King of Morocco, Mohammed V1, holds vast executive and legislative powers, especially over the military, foreign policy, and religious affairs. The King’s presence lives large throughout Morocco. The King’s portraits adorn the walls of every government office, is seen on street billboards, as well as in shops, both small and large.

Morocco is a relatively safe country with an old-style tradition of hospitality and travelers touring Morocco seem to feel secure and welcome. The beauty and cultural together with exquisite modern hotels, and resorts; world class golf courses makes Morocco one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world.

It’s no wonder Morocco’s new tourism slogan resonates with visitors: “The country that travels within you.”

For more information, click on www.visitmorocco.com.

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