Dar Elkehla! [Black Casa]
These are some of the interjections you commonly hear from first time visitors of the giant city and occasionally even from those who have spent their lifetime in it, revealing a mixture of resentment and awe vis-à-vis the bustling life and heavy traffic that flows endlessly through the streets of Casablanca. With a population exceeding 3.5 million, Casablanca represents the economic heart of Morocco hosting the largest number of businesses and multinational companies. It is also the seat of the busiest airport and, until recently, the biggest port in the country. Located on the Atlantic coast between Rabat and Al-Jadida, Casablanca (or simply Casa) has grown rapidly from a small town in the early 1900s to a sprawling megacity in the last three decades.
Yet, for those who have developed a taste for its sophisticated rhythm, Casa is unmatched by any of the traditional cities such as Marrakech, Fés or Rabat. It is a city of contrasts where the biggest Mosque in the country stands only few miles away from a line of first-rate night clubs, discos and restaurants. Veiled girls are seen walking side by side with their friends wearing miniskirts. Tall high-rises overlook shanty towns. Chaotic you might say. Well, think about it. Casa does not have a fixed traditional identity. Fés and Marrakech were the capitals of successive dynasties from the seventh century until 1912. Casa belongs to the modern time. In 1907 General D’amande overcame the resistant tribes of Chaouia and Dukala and by brutal military means initiated French colonial presence in the city. In the following five decades Casa grew fast into a brand new city with broad lighted and paved streets, modern buildings and a thriving town center hosting the commercial activities that continue to operate even today. In the backdrop only a couple of miles away spread the shanty towns of the natives. Dispossessed and disenfranchised peasants from the surrounding areas had arrived since the 1930s in large numbers in the hope of finding livelihood opportunities in the new metropolis. They had no choice but settle in the bidonvilles which lacked the basic utilities.
The American journalist, Marvine Howe who spent the years 1950-1954 in Morocco thoroughly documented in her first book, One Woma’s Morocco (1956), recalls how little attention the bidonvilles were receiving from the French colonial administration:
Most of the guests of the Protectorate were kept far too occupied visiting more interesting aspects of the French work in Morocco to become particularly concerned with bidonvilles.
Perhaps the most effective side of the Protectorate’s new industry of public relations was the hospitable reception given to visiting dignitaries and journalists. Any number of foreign newsmen merely had to suggest that they intended making a Moroccan survey, and the finest hotels, receptions, de luxe transportation, guides, and information would be put at their disposal. The information Department even supplied its own list of nationalists so that foreigners could hear the Moroccan point of view. After such a warm welcome, most visitors went away from Morocco genuinely impressed with the French Work and quite willing to repay their amiable hosts with praise.
The dwellers of the bidonvilles lived in squalid conditions. The repressive policies of the colonial establishment were further cause for discontent among them and led to occasional uprisings. The French notorious reaction was more repression and bloodshed. Following the exile of Sultan Mohamed V in 1953 and the rise of violent protests throughout the country, French colonial authorities undertook a systematic crackdown on the nationalist movement, particularly in Casablanca’s famous shanty town, Carrières centrales.
In America the word ‘Casablanca’ evokes a very different type of memory, more nostalgic, perhaps even exotic — a vestige of the past or a gripping tale of romantic dreams beset by the grim political realities of World War II crafted by Hollywood magicians .
How has Casablanca turned into the daunting city today? Miles and miles of both shining and shabby buildings: factories, residences, government and private offices where driving becomes a hectic mundane exercise that requires both courage and patience. Driving downtown to the railway station at Casa-Port or Casa-Voyageurs to catch the train or pick up a friend or relative entails a lot of sacrifice. Finding a parking spot in particular areas of the city center is even more difficult. Yet this ordeal is nothing compared with the toils which tens of thousands of residents have to endure everyday as they try to catch a bus or take Petit-Taxi to work or back home, especially during rush hours.
And yet, there are people I know (friends, colleagues, students) who acknowledge the pressures of life in Casablanca, but still believe they could not live anywhere else. I recall how a colleague from the University of El Jadida several years ago sneered at my comment that I found the city of El Jadida (some 60 miles away to the south) more attractive to live in. I could understand why my thought was considered a bit naive. Casablanca has the best medical infrastructure, the best schools, the most important entertainment industry. It also has a wider variety of restaurants, supermarkets, shopping centers, beach resorts.
– “What about noise, heavy traffic, pollution, crowdedness?”
– “Come on! these are minor inconveniences — sort of necessary evil; you can’t have it both ways!”
I have lived in Casa for more than ten years now. I have learnt to adapt to its taxing ambience and enjoy the advantages which it offers. Like all metropolitan cities, Casa is a welcoming city. Whether you are from north or south, ‘Arab’ or Amazigh, educated or not, Moroccan or foreigner– there is always some room for you.
The shanty towns have persisted despite the lodging programs launched by successive governments. Some bidonvilles have been relocated to the outskirts, some have been successfully eradicated. Still there are parts of Casablanca that continue to belong to the colonial times. Carwillas (sort of stagecoaches) are still seen in the poorer parts of Casa used as carriage for citizens who cannot afford to pay the fare of a bus or a taxi. In the meantime, Cadillacs, Jaguars, Mercedeses and all the car brands that circulate in Europe and US continue to flood the streets of Casablanca. The chaotic weekly public markets still attract numerous buyers who find the prices of goods in the supermarket obscenely expensive.
A new mark of the rifts between Casa’s wealthy and impoverished classes is the majestic Morocco Mall built in the Ain Diab area overlooking the Atlantic. The official website of the Mall has this important statement to make to its customers:
This project of Titanic proportions that required a Dh 2 billion investment, [24 millions USD] hopes to revolutionize the modern commercial landscape in Morocco, thanks to the concentration of countless labels operating in all types of activities.
Thanks to its privileged position, its diverse and varied offers and its exceptional attractions, Morocco Mall is set to welcome 14 million visitors per year.
I have seen the mall. I have seen malls elsewhere too. This is really a place that fills you with a sense of confusion and wonder. If you have seen the shanty towns and driven through the crowded streets of the medina, this is a space that ushers in a new stage of Morocco’s modernity. It sharpens the contrasts and contradictions that already exist and adds a new layer to the complex urban identity of Casablanca.