Amid the strong smell of incense floating through narrow alleys and courtyards, white-turbaned Berbers sit cross-legged on the floor, pounding out North African rhythms on leather-hide drums while costumed women chant traditional Moroccan folksongs. Nearby, in the arched passageways of a bazaar, vendors sell brassware from Meknes, jewelry from Fez and hand-woven carpets from Casablanca, and, across the way, a lavishly decorated restaurant, "The Marrakesh," offers exotic North African cuisine prepared by the finest chefs of Morocco.
It’s not real, but the atmosphere of this walled "city" seems so authentically Moroccan that an unknowing visitor might actually think he was in 11th-century Marrakesh. In fact the visitor is closer to Miami than to Marrakesh; the surrounding minarets, medinas and marketplaces are all part of Walt Disney World's newest addition to what is called Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT): the Moroccan Pavilion.
Last September, with drums rolling and hundreds of balloons bubbling into the sky, the Arab World opened its first permanent presence at Walt Disney World, one of America's most popular tourist attractions. Muhammad Belmahi, Morocco's Minister of Tourism, attending the ceremony at the Disney World complex near Orlando, Florida, said "Our dream was to bring a part of Morocco to America. Today that dream is fulfilled."
Mr. Belmahi and Moroccan embassy counselor Ahmed Bourzaim were on hand to cut the ribbon to the $20 million pavilion, which is also the first to be added since the original opening of the EPCOT World Showcase in 1982. Other countries with permanent exhibits are Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the United States.
Joumala Lamrani, a 24-year-old Moroccan woman who worked in the pavilion as part of a one-year, government-sponsored visit to Florida, said the exhibit will give Americans a chance to see what Morocco is really like. For example, says Miss Lamrani, many Americans, before visiting the pavilion, were not even aware that Morocco is a Muslim nation.
This Islamic heritage is very much in evidence at the huge pavilion. Decorative artwork, for example, includes typical geometric forms, painstakingly hand-painted on thousands of small colorful tiles. And in order to duplicate the exact art forms used in Moroccan mosques, Disney executives brought over 19 Moroccan artists who worked on the pavilion for five months.
During the first month of its opening, visitors were entertained by 80 Moroccan singers, dancers and acrobats sent to Florida by their government. Their colorful costumes represented the varied cultures of Morocco's 21 million inhabitants - from nomadic Berbers of the Sahara to French-influenced inhabitants of Casablanca.
Among the main attractions at the pavilion are an art gallery displaying Moroccan ceramics and a replica of the ornate Nejjarine fountain in the medieval medina at Fez. The pavilion's entrance is guarded by a replica of the tiled Bab Boujouloud gate, a main entrance to old Fez. And, towering over the entire pavilion, there is an actual-size reproduction of the famed Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh.
The EPCOT showcase sent two emissaries to Morocco to hunt down bargains on leather goods, ceramics, brassware, carpets and jewelry to furnish the pavilion's seven shops with genuine Moroccan handicrafts. The pair, who often bought out the entire stock of roadside stands, returned to Florida with more than two tons of goods - making the pavilion one of America's largest importers of Moroccan handicrafts.
Some of those exotic furnishings can be seen at the "The Marrakesh," a lavish, 250-seat restaurant serving fine North African cuisine. Among its specialties are couscous, steaming semolina topped with lamb or chicken and vegetables, and bastilla, a sweet-and-spicy pigeon-meat pastry. Like the rest of the pavilion, the restaurant is wholly authentic; the restaurant's owners, Rashid Choufani and Rashid Lyazidi, have operated some of the finest restaurants in Morocco, including the five-star Hotel Europa in Agadir, and the famed Palais Jamai Hotel in Fez.
Mr. Belmahi said he hopes Americans who tour the pavilion will one day visit the real Morocco too. But for at least one temporary Moroccan resident in Florida the Moroccan pavilion serves another purpose. Says Amina Habib-eddine: "I come here when I feel homesick."
Larry Luxner, a staff reporter with the Leesburg Commercial, free-lanced for one year from the Middle East.