Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Casablanca Stopover

April 1, 2015

Casablanca Stopover


I’m often pressed for time, though I always feel guilty when I haven’t written in some time. Pesach eve is particularly true. My current circumstances and internal dialogue have gone through so many twists and turns that I feel a lack in not documenting the journey.

I didn’t write about a unique Shabbat in Tel-Aviv which to me represents the very future of the Jewish people. But just as I have to pick my battles, I also need to triage my writing efforts.

Based on popular demand, I will write a few lines on the Turkish Air Bomb Threat I was an unwilling client of. First, it wasn’t really a big deal. Second, I am getting to know multiple airports and their nuances, really well. For example, in Istanbul, they will not announce that the plane is boarding or if the gate is closing, so those who are used to that luxury, consider yourselves forewarned.

On one of my legs from Israel to Montevideo, I had the privilege to travel on TK 15 from Istanbul to Sao Paulo. Mid-route over the Sahara Desert, the captain announces that we’re stopping in Casablanca. I was frankly too tired, numb and/or plugged in to whatever movie I was watching to give it much thought. When I asked the stewardesses, they mumbled something soothing but unintelligible and suddenly their spoken English skills and understanding deteriorated significantly.

No matter. We landed in Casablanca, just as my movie was getting to its resolution. Everyone needed to get off with all of their belongings. Two sets of staircases led us down onto the tarmac. We walked out onto the hot and dry Moroccan afternoon. The desert wind blew on our backs. We seemed to be at the very end of an abandoned runway. I could tell it was infrequently used by the extensive and tall weeds growing between the cracks of the concrete. We were surrounded by an army of police in smart beige dress uniforms. There was a firetruck or two, a team of police in full riot gear, an ambulance and several buses. Police were stationed in a perimeter around us, spaced approximately 10 meters from each other.

Dogs and their masters commenced sniffing all the belongings of the passengers. A guy in funky white overalls and a space-age sensor gun pointed his device at every bag. The crew were the last to come out of the plane and kept to themselves. An important looking guy in a suit and a phone to his ear kept running in and out of the plane giving orders to various people. The whole time we were uninformed.

I don’t know why, but for some reason scenes from the movie Entebbe came unbidden to my mind. Two young Israelis spotted me and stood next to me. They both took out cigarettes and smoked nervously. On the horizon I could see the airport control tower miles away. I was perturbed by the police perimeter and the non-conformist in me was tempted to make a run for it, for no other reason than dislike of restriction, but I figured the consequences would be unpleasant at best.

A dog barked excitedly around the hand luggage of the crew. His master released him and the dog went bounding through the luggage. However, after closer examination the dog decided it was not what he was looking for and moved on to other leather-clad and Samsonite-tagged prey.

After the dogs and their masters were satisfied, after the important man with the phone had finished going in and out of the plane, after the space-age white jump-suit guy had finished scanning all the luggage, they formed us in lines and body-scanned each of us before herding us onto the terminal buses.

By this point at least an hour had passed and my bladder was hoping for salvation. We arrived at the terminal and another long line. The policemen were kind enough to offer water to whoever wanted. I saw the universal sign for the men’s room and moved in that direction. A policeman firmly stopped me and indicated I needed to stay on the line. I promptly obeyed, not wanting to cause any trouble in this strange and unexpected situation. The line slowly meandered. I found myself surrounded by very devout looking Muslims and what I assume were their wives, though except for being completely covered in black, there was no other sign of humanity besides the general contours of a human body beneath the burka, gloves, stockings, etc. There was not one millimeter of flesh to be seen. These eminent men with their dark companions received respectful bows from the Moroccan police.

The line inched forward. I started to examine the policemen more carefully to determine which ones were armed and with what. I considered making a run for the bathroom, and weighed the odds of getting shot.

Considering it was a really big plane and I was one of the last to disembark it took a really long time until I approached what was the airport security counter. At that point the pressure was so strong, I was willing to admit to whatever it was they were looking for, just for a reprieve.

This part was familiar at least, and I went through my well-polished security ritual (put all metal, watch, phone, coins, etc. in your jacket beforehand, remove jacket and place on tray – much faster than removing everything at the conveyor belt).

As my stuff came out the other end of the X-ray machine, a lone plastic watch appeared. It wasn’t mine and nobody nearby claimed it. The security guard asked everyone nearby, but there were no takers. He continued up and down the long line for the next half hour until he found the watch’s owner. I have rarely seen a more determined example of someone performing the commandment of returning a lost object (hashavat aveda).

Finally, we made it to immigration and now I had a dilemma. Do I use my American passport or my Israeli one? I couldn’t recall the exact state of international relations. When I received the immigration form I found myself automatically filling in: Residency: Israel, Nationality: Israel, Profession: Rabbi. It was a good distraction from my bladder issues.

As the moment of truth approached, I noticed the immigration officer writing on everyone’s form. He looked at my form and at my passport, didn’t write anything and let me through. Now there was another long line to get back onto the bus to board the plane. I spotted the same bathroom (we had made a long slow circle of the small terminal) and before anyone could protest, I walked firmly through the metal barricade and made a bee-line for the bathroom.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, though the stewardesses were still tight-lipped. I landed in Sao Paulo too late to make my connection and was put up in a nice hotel for the night. In the morning, I was advised at the gate that only one of my two pieces of luggage was on the flight. When I arrived in Montevideo, I was now told that both were on the flight. One arrived. However, in an unusual circumstance that I have trouble imagining exactly how it occurred, a different piece of luggage arrived, with my tag on it.

Now I find it normally difficult after a trip to rip apart the luggage tag the airlines place on the bag handle. How that tag came off my luggage and reattached itself to someone else’s luggage demonstrates either foul play or a level of serial incompetence that is difficult to fathom. I still have some hope that it will be found, hopefully before Pesach.

And now that you’ve shared in my writing therapy I will return to the urgent business of preparing for Pesach. I am aiming to do a meaningful communal Seder in record time, while at the same time ensuring that my non-interested clientele fulfills some of the basic commands of the night (eat matza, drink four cups, say “Pesach, Matza & Marror”) – non-trivial to say the least.

For me at least, I have had a small personal exodus from an African desert, from a mildly threatening if not antagonistic regime with limited bladder sensitivity and a hot and dry climate.

I was able to proceed with my movie which had an enjoyable resolution. The hero frees the people from the rule of an evil, deceptive, megalomaniacal tyrant and in the process destroys their god. What is truly ironic is that it was based on the Greek legend of Hercules. One can find Pesach anywhere – even in Casablanca.

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