Casablanca … as time goes by

by Tim Dawe

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“There’s nothing worth seeing in Casablanca,” he told my wife and me.

Er, play that again?

It seems a harsh judgement from an official of the Casablanca Tourist Office – so hard to find it must be a state secret – and bordering on professional incompetence. For this Westerner brought up on a rich diet of Hollywood myth-making, it’s almost scandalous. A little more on this later.

My wife and I are on an enforced stopover in Casablanca. Our flight to Bamako is on Royal Air Moroc Airlines which has a monopoly on the route, and there is not a thing we can do about it – except kick back and spend the next four days exploring Casablanca, that is, if we can find something worth seeing.

We are fairly familiar with this part of Casa (adopting the local lingo) having stayed at this hotel at the beginning of our 13-day tour of Morocco. But now our fellow tourists have departed for home and Youssef, our superb tour guide with his odd Liverpudlian English, and our lifeline, has gone. We are on our own.

We’re at Hotel Idou Anfa, very well appointed yet with a homely atmosphere, named for both its street address and the affluent beachside suburb. Before the Arab conquest Anfa was all of Casablanca, when it was a Berber tribal state, and long before it acquired its French flavour and odd-sounding name. From its top floor Salon Bar Panoramique our hotel boasts extraordinary views to the Atlantic, the grand mosque, and the jam-packed city spread out like a giant grey carpet before it. But four days lolling around the Piscine Volubilis pool? No thanks.

We step out into Bd. D’Anfa with a slightly scary, tingly feel that evaporates quickly on this sunny morning. Things differ when one routinely walks city blocks; they become familiar, especially when taking the same route (often under repair) to favourite places or just to point B. An immediate favourite is the French patisserie over the busy road (turn left then left again). It supplies us with morning coffees, wonderful pastries and baguettes for lunches. A large extended family operates it 16 hours every day. They are Lebanese Christians who have been in Casa since the sixties; from one French-flavoured Arabic country to another, without being fully accepted in either. Brief exchanges bordering on conversations are made in their heavily accented English and my excruciating French.

Less familiar, yet readily acknowledged, are employees from the expansive fruitier, the tiny convenience store and the motor cycle shop that does most of it repairs on the footpath. Street loungers and even passer-bys are recognisable after a while.

We have no grand plan, no list of “must-dos”, no demands of Casablanca, just a need to explore and absorb. Some places are familiar: Hassan II Mosque, Place des Nations Unies and its nearby posh hotels and global-brand boutiques, and memorably, Ric’s Bar off Bd. Moulay Youssef in the hotel and consulate district – one of many, I suspect, catering to misguided nostalgic tourists.

Other places are unfamiliar: the medina, Quartier Habous, Parc de la Arabe and Villa des Arts.

It’s the first week of Ramadan yet this poses no restrictions on us. Already we have adopted the slower pace of these road workers here toiling all day under a fierce sun without any food or water. Many shops are open but restaurants are closed during the day.

This doesn’t worry us as we take our lunch on the run and eat breakfast at the hotel. This allows us to develop more than a nodding acquaintance with the internationally experienced hotel manager, who hails from Rabat but revels in the name Michael.

Enforced stays usually bring longer exchanges with the locals, including little linguistic gems like this. Michael agreed to continue our discussion soon: “after breakfast”. It left us perplexed because it was 4:30pm. What he meant was after he had broken his fast – about 7pm. How easily we forget that breakfast is more than a morning meal; it is the meal that breaks our sleeping fast.

We decide to visit Hassan II Mosque, this time in late afternoon and by taxi as it’s too far to walk. It is grand and not just in name. A gift to the nation (and himself) by the King on his 60th birthday, the colossal mosque with imposing 210-metre minaret took five years to complete at a cost of $1 billion. And Morocco has a per capita GNP of US$4,700.

It’s the sort of mosque you build when you say: “Hang the expense. I want my mosque to have the highest minaret in the world.” It’s actually a lovely building and well proportioned – but grand. It can accommodate 25,000 worshippers inside and up to 80,000 in the esplanades outside. I am uncertain whether one-upmanship was intended but the main prayer hall can contain Notre Dame or St Peter’s Cathedrals. It goes without saying it’s interiors of marble and wood carving, tiling and mouldings are astonishing. And the pride of Morocco for its local craftsmanship.

I want to take photos in floodlight and to witness the laser light shoot out from the top of the minaret towards Mecca. So we spend some time walking the corniche, enjoying the warm sea breeze and the setting sun in communion with locals with little else to do but enjoy life.

Feeling at peace with the world we decide to walk back. “We’ll go past the Medina to Rue FAR and catch a taxi from there,” I hear a voice not unlike mine say. Casablanca is a big city – no-one knows how big, but at least five million people, possibly nine. It’s also a port. It’s never a good idea to walk in dark places in a big city, especially near a port. But we do and we are glad we do.

It’s not long before we walk along narrow winding streets lined with port-workers cottages. It is break-fasting time and every house is ablaze with lights. There is noisy jollity inside as feasts are prepared and consumed and noisy kids play in the street and around the houses. We start our long walk filled with peace and end it at outside the Medina walls with joy. Casa is still a big city and, like others, can be gritty in places with the potential for danger. We decide to go inside the Medina tomorrow.

Casablanca’s Medina is no Fez. Compared with “experiencing” Fez, one of my most memorable, Casa seems small, open and modern. And that is because it is. This brings us to the reason why there is “nothing worth seeing in Casablanca”. Casa may be a large modern metropolis – the largest in Morocco – and an industrial and financial centre but for many Moroccans, it’s just not Moroccan. It is not a Royal City like Meknes, Fez, Marrakech or the capital Rabat. A few decades before the French declared it a protectorate in 1912, it was a fishing village for 600 people. All this development? All foreign, all imported. So with a 1920s “manufactured” medina, wide boulevards with French names and art deco buildings it is little wonder that some Moroccans say Casablanca is, well, not interesting.

I reflect on the time spent here. There is something about an enforced stay or confinement that slowly draws in the world around you. It can be a strange yet pleasant feeling. I remember this feeling of time in limbo from journeys in Australia. It goes like this. You step out of a place with others or with familiarity such as a vehicle, a building, a tent, and wander off alone into the vastness of the landscape with its impossibly wide and distant horizon. It’s too much for a lone human to take in. Gradually the world becomes the one-square metre around you. Time means nothing. You refocus and re-scale in a sandy universe of scurrying insects, spiky vegetation, lizard tracks, cigarette butts or other human debris, and even grains of sand, now clearly defined – part of the landscape. This is the echo I hear as my increasingly familiar Casablanca world draws in.

We continue our stay developing daily routines and rhythms. It is less a long wait and more a holiday in itself. Hotel staff become like work colleagues, shopkeepers like neighbours and regulars, working and living within a few blocks, like acquaintances. We dine at Ryad Zitoun on wonderful tagines. We walk regularly through or have lunch in Parc de la Arabe, just a few blocks away. In a frenetic inner city it is a blissful respite, cool, green and large. And often for us alone.

We walk to Cathédrale de Sacré Coeur. Now that is worth seeing: a large white cathedral in a Muslim country. Built by the French in 1930 in neo Gothic design, it has Art Deco styling with a nod towards Morocco’s square minarets. It’s de-consecrated so no longer a church – and it shows, at least on the outside that needs a good scrub. The interior is inspiring and still looks fresh. We stumble upon an exhibition of paintings and buy some very good sketches of Fez. The whole thing catches me by surprise, a delightful find.

Another French building enterprise is the Quartier Habous, also known as the Nouvelle Medina, created to solve a housing crisis with the French idealised version of a medina. The result is a little strange – like toy-town – and somewhat bland. Rather than the messy vitality of shouting spice sellers, the neat building complex accommodates professional offices for accountants and designers. We find an olive wholesaler and spend some time with factory supervisor Mahmoud and learn a little of the production process. I have never seen such variety of olives, but then I don’t live in Morocco.

The days ebb and flow and we don’t resist its gentle force. It hasn’t been four days of waiting, fighting the feelings of boredom, frustration and helplessness. It’s been a rejuvenating interlude. Four days: no purpose, no planning, no timing.  For a brief time Casablanca has given me the ethereal feeling of just being.

It is well worth seeing. The time has just gone by.

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