Monthly Archives: August 2013

Ode to Casablanca

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Before I begin, I should mention two quick things—firstly, that this isn’t a true ode, at least not in the Pablo Neruda sense of the word. And secondly, that until recently, I didn’t like Casablanca.

Casablanca to me had always been a place to pass through. I would come into the city for a few hours for a meeting at INJAZ and to have lunch with my friend who works at the U.S. Consulate. I always associated Casablanca with the stress and sweat I accumulated as I sat on the train from Settat, rushed from the Casa Voyageurs train station, shoved past the pushy cab drivers who would try to cheat me out of my money, and made my way onto the tramway. As soon as my meeting was over I would repeat this process in the reverse direction and return to El Borouj just as quickly as I’d left it. Occasionally, me and a few other volunteers would come to Casablanca to forget that we were in Morocco—by taking a visit to the un-creatively named Morocco Mall.  The Morocco Mall is the closest you’ll get to America in Morocco. It is a 3-story mega mall replete with a food court (McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Pinkberry, Starbucks, Chinese food, etc.), IMAX theater, ice skating rink, aquarium, air conditioning and of course the requisite high-end clothing stores (oh, and a Payless). What more could you need to convince yourself for a few hours that you’d returned to America? Well maybe they could add a Taco Bell . . .

So you see why Casablanca was never a place in which I desired to spend much time. In all of my haste to get in and out or to escape the country in which I live, I never really realized that Casablanca is, quite beautiful.  In many ways, it is your traditional big city—expensive high rises crowd the downtown, interspersed by historic government buildings. The city’s first tramway was just completed in 2012 and rumor has it that the city has plans to build an underground metro system, which would put it on equal footing transportationally with many American cities. It also has a swanky beach area known as the Corniche which is known for its trendy nightclubs and bars. And of course, like any other major city, Casablanca experienced urban sprawl and has a slew of neighborhoods where one shouldn’t find oneself at nighttime.  But getting back to my point, Casablanca really is quite beautiful—you just have to know where to look to find the beauty.

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Sacre Coeur Cathedral

A lot of my Moroccan friends would hate me for saying this, but I think the Art Deco style buildings built during the French occupation are my favorite. If you’ve ever been to Miami and liked the style of the hotels lining the beaches there, you’d like Casablanca. It might take you a lot longer to find them, as many of them are well hidden (and well neglected) but they’re still here. In my opinion, the best examples are the Cinema Rialto, the Hotel Volubilis, the Sacre Coeur Cathedral, and the government buildings around the Place Mohammed V. One of my other favorites is this old abandoned house just a few doors down from the Starbucks on the Boulevard d’Anfa. It has the kind of wrap-around porch where you could spend an entire afternoon just whiling away the hours, consumed by a good book or watching passers-by. I can’t walk by it without stopping to wonder what lucky person once lived there. I’m not sure if a house can be called romantic, but this one certainly is. If only it wasn’t abandoned, windows broken in, and yard buried in garbage. If I could, I would buy it and fix it up, returning it to the grandeur it must have once known.

If you can shut out the noise of the streets and admire the old architecture for what it once was, you’ll be filled with a sense of what the French call la nostalgie. (The French do, more than any other nationality I believe, have the most unfailing ability for remembering things as they once were.) Now I’m not suggesting that Casablanca return to the way it was, but I think that as any city is developing into the future, its architects and planners should try to preserve elements of what once made it great. There is one group of artists and architects here called Casa Memoire who hope to do exactly that. According to their website they were created in 1995 and seek to preserve 20th century architecture through public awareness campaigns, events, and by lobbying local government to preserve Casablanca’s historical buildings instead of tearing them down.

Hotel Volubilis

Now I know that I’ve spent the majority of this post talking about the French architecture that I love so much, but don’t mistake me—Casablanca is, uniquely Moroccan. As much as the French occupation is part of Casablanca’s rich history, so is the port, first begun by the Phoenicians and then later used by the Romans. And so are the neighborhoods of Derb Sultan, Hay Mohammedi, and Sidi Moumen, where lower-class Moroccans go about their day buying hobs (bread) to eat with tagine and visiting the local mosque to pray. As with other great cities, Casablanca isn’t just the port, or the Morocco Mall, or the Art Deco architecture. It is the sum of its parts.

Casablanca isn’t like Vienna or Paris or London. It might not be immediately obvious to you that Casablanca is a beautiful city. You have to look a little harder to find the beauty amongst the chaos. In this way, it reminds me a lot of Detroit. What most people forget when they write about the decay and destruction of cities like these is that they still possess so much beauty—you just have to know where to find it.

And so I appeal to all of you explorers out there to come and discover Casablanca. You might be surprised what you find.