When travelling to a new city, the best way to test the true pulse of its character is to watch the nation’s football team in action. But by that, I don’t necessarily mean in the stadium or a comfy hotel sports bar – you need to go off the beaten track and head to the cafes in the city’s less touristic districts and watch it with the locals.
And if you don't know when the game is or where to watch it, don't worry, the local cab drivers will have you covered. I asked my cabbie, Ibrahim, for a recommendation for an authentic place to watch the African Nations Cup game that saw Morocco play against Ivory Coast.
“You want a place to watch in peace or you want to shout and be emotional?” he asked. I told him I craved passion after a solitary day of writing and he promptly dropped me and my Algerian colleague, Boumeddiene, at a vibrant and slightly ragged venue called Cafe Bologna (the waiter later told me it is named after the north Italian city where the owners are presently retired).
We were in a gritty area called Yaqub Mansour, 40 minutes away from the manicured gardens and well-maintained roads of downtown Rabat. The place was teeming with street vendors selling everything from socks, torches and pens to an inflatable rubber dinghy (more on that later). We all huddled outside the cafe, where a second screen hung from a wall allowing us to watch the match.
One of the first things I noticed was the range of hot drinks people ordered. Grown men sipped glasses of hot milk, while others had the usual mint tea and Moroccan coffee favourite, called "nos nos". Translated in Arabic to half-half, it is essentially a macchiato with white milky foam at the top of the glass and brown coffee at the bottom. It has been my morning staple throughout my trip.
“Where are you from?” enquired the man beside me and pointed to the music festival press badge I was wearing. His name was Emad and he gave me the lowdown on the area. “This is an old district, going back about 40 years,” he said. “It was all farms back then and slowly the buildings started coming and is now a family area. No tourists here, just people who live in Rabat.”
Just before kick-off, I asked Emad what the Moroccan sensibility is when it comes to barracking. Are they shouters or light-hearted when the national team plays? “Shouting, but no insulting the player’s family when they make a mistake,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Also, we support all the Arab teams. So, if the UAE is playing, then this place will be full with us supporting you. Unless you are playing against us, then there is no friendship.”
The game was a joy to watch, and not just for the action on the screen. The fans at Cafe Bologna were pensive and missed opportunities were met with a litany of prayers and blessings upon the player.
As Morocco won the game, confirming their place in the second round of the tournament, Yaqub Mansour's central thoroughfare, Naseera Road, was a hive of activity with fans tooting car horns in celebration. Khaled, who for two Moroccan dirhams (Dh1) serves boiled chickpeas with paprika in a plastic cup, says he wouldn't have it any other way. "I was born and raised here," he tells me. "There is energy here in these neighbourhoods that you won't find in your tourist areas. "Everyone lives and makes their money by whatever they sell. It is all one big market here. You can sell anything and people will be interested."
Which brings me back to the man with the inflatable dinghy. He’s a tall African man – he tells me he is from Cameroon – and he said his orange raft can be mine for 200 Moroccan dirhams. I thought it was a bit steep for a beachside holiday, yet it was all so random that I couldn’t resist snapping an image on my mobile phone. Alarmed, the seller took a step back.
“Does it go to Spain?” Boumeddiene enquired. The man looked him over. “It can fit two people easily,” he said. “If you have three, then it can get complicated, but it can be done.”
Boumeddiene nodded and walked off. When I caught up to him, he explained what had happened. “He is selling a boat for African migrants to go to the nearest islands in Spain,” he says. “It is very dangerous, but people will still do it. We can travel for enjoyment, but others will travel to live a better life.”