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July 3, 2009 Touristing in Rabat

Rabat is a seriously zween city. Once blogspot stops acting weird, I’ll post pictures.

Rabat’s Avenue Mohammed V is broad, palm-tree filled parkway running from a huge downtown mosque, past the conveniently-located Rabat Ville train station, all the way down through the medina to a lovely cemetery overlooking the coast. (Out of respect, though, if you want to go down to the beach, please walk around.)

It makes a wonderful stroll, especially if you time it to see the sun setting over the Atlantic and then walk back to see Rabat at night, with floodlit mosques and all the bustle of any major city’s nightlife.

If you’re looking for formal touristy things, Rabat’s on the thin side. It’s the government center, home to ministries and embassies, so doesn’t have the cultural weight of Fes or Meknes. It feels entirely European, despite the visible minority of women still choosing to dress in headscarves and jellabas. It’s a city of suits and power meetings, and it feels like it.

The two tourist-like things I’ve done in Rabat are the Archaeological Museum and the Zoo. The former is a must-see, the latter…not.

The Archaeological Museum (10dh per adult) is just a block off of Mohammed V, near the big mosque. It features the best sculptures and findings from Morocco’s Roman era, most from Volubilis but a few others from Lixus and Tangiers. You’ll also find stone tools from the dawn of humanity, and artifacts from every major era of Morocco’s long history.

The collection is limited, but excellent. The docents seem to be delighted to find people who want to hear what they have to say, cheerfully filling in for the mostly-absent signposting. (Individual artifacts are labeled, but the museum lacks the broader contextual information you’d expect to find in the British Museum or Smithsonian.) They speak Arabic and French, plus some English and a handful of other languages.

The Zoo (9dh per adult) is a few kilometers outside of town: a 35dh taxi ride or a 3.5dh bus ride, depending on your budget. :) I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. Flamingoes, Barbary lions, chimps, Barbary sheep…couldn’t wait. I always look forward to visiting zoos, and somehow manage to forget that I always find zoos depressing. Wild animals don't belong in captivity.

But some zoos do their best to create clean, inviting, homey spaces for the animals and the visiting humans. This zoo feels like its waiting for the animals to die off so it can close its doors. It has the same weary, burdened feel of the 30-year public school teacher who keeps showing up but who hasn’t taught an engaging lesson in a decade. When first constructed, the Rabat Zoo made headlines and drew crowds…but now it’s more notable for its filth, neglect, teeny cages, animal abuse, and other heartbreaking images. (Yes, abuse is a strong word. I’m not hyperbolizing: I watched one trainer scare his creatures into acting out, trying to impress us by putting on a show. I felt nauseous. The chimps have been so brutalized that the dominant male runs around shrieking like a 1950s version of King Kong.) The only redeeming characteristic was the set of Barbary lions. There are many, because the zoo is working to breed back a pure Barbary lion, by crossing the last survivors (all in captivity for decades) with an African [Savannah] lion and then crossing it back and back. The lions themselves are gorgeous and powerful and everything that lions should be...even though they're in cages the size of Barnum & Bailey cars. They have a few hours a day access to a “run”, but it's still … wrenching.

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