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The International Writers Magazine: North Africa

Casablanca
Joe Gill

I had only just arrived in Casablanca (Casa to locals) and decided to get straight into the heart of it. I wandered through the teeming medina, where you can buy anything from sweet dates to leather goods to MP3s of the latest Maroc hits - then out into the city and into a giant slum area. I have to admit I was a bit nervous. I just kept walking like I knew where I was going and eventually found myself near the sea.

I was looking for Rick's bar - you know, the place run by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 Hollywood classic. It exists - not as in the film, but as a facsimile opened 60 years later to please all those dumb tourists like me who want to go to Rick's place and ask the pianist to play that song 'again'.
I tried to explain this to an Aussie couple I met in a restaurant until I realised that they had never seen the film, so I went through a mini synopsis. It felt surreal, like running through the Gospels for someone who had never heard of Jesus.

'There's this guy whose mother's a virgin and his dad is God. He's kind of confused, a reluctant hero type, then a woman comes along and a few motley characters, like Kelly's Heroes without the gold or Panzas. Despite his fears, he gets involved in the resistance against the fascist occupiers. Anyway, in the end he doesn't get the girl but he redeems himself through a big sacrifice.'

There are actually a lot of bars in Casa, but are mostly the typical male-only places with no lighting and a clientelle exclusively of older men. The city has a splendid run-down grandeur, you can almost smell the French colonial heydey in the dirty streets. Right now in January it is on the cool, cloudy side. The sun was out yesterday but promptly vanished again. Casa is without a doubt cool in the other sense, worldly, cosmopolitan, with the unexpected just around the corner – in the medina my senses were almost overwhelmed with fantastic blasts of Maroc music of one kind or another, and the enticing aroma of freshly cooked seafood.

Although this is not the romantic, ye olde medina you get in Fez, I have to say it felt more real. This is a living, breathing medina in the heart of a sprawling north African metropolis. The faces of people are not too easy to read. A certain amount of wariness, and then there is the money look that I am getting used to - the one that sees you as a walking cash machine. The offers to show you around, the 'hey my friend, what you want?' introduction that you know comes with a bill attached. I adopt my own inscrutable mask, giving as little eye contact as possible while trying to grab the occasional photo without drawing too much attention. It's nearly dark and the muezzin has just started his somewhat alarming call to prayer - which sounds to me more like a crazed football chant. So its back to the hotel I guess.

None of the hotels I have stayed in - we are talking two star at best - have heating, so you never really warm up. I have not been truly warm in days. The same goes for the endless cafes and ice cream parlours. They only sell coffee, tea and pastries, but there are three on every short block. With street side seating, it is a chance to watch the world go by fuelled with sugary mint tea or cafe noir. Rick's will have to wait.

On my second day in Casa I call Meki, the cab driver who picked me up at the train station on my arrival the day before. He spoke good English and said he would give me a tour of the city for a price we agreed in advanced. This is a sore point as a lot of the hustlers who pray on tourists say vague things like "I give you a good price" and then when you press them they come up with some outlandish figure which seems to be designed so that you bargain down to something still outrageous. Unless you lop 90% off the price, you end up paying way over the odds. With that particular headache out of the way and the fact that he seemed like a genuine person, I asked him to take me on the tour. He turns up in a bashed up Mercedes with a friend to drive us. Meki learned his English when he was in the military, he says. He was trained by the Americans as a Radar technician. That was 15 years before and now he drives a cab and teaches English.

We drove south along the Boulevard Sidi Mohammed ben Abdellah, to the magnificent, shiny new Hassan II Mosque. The mosque was finished in 2003 at a cost of $1 billion, raised from public subscription. Meki explains that everyone received a kind of certificate for their donation. You can see where the money went - the construction is awe inspiring in scale and craftsmanship, with a perfect location on a promontary extending into the Atlantic. Beyond the mosque along the coast road are exclusive beach clubs, sea front properties and restaurants. He points to a number of palatial million dollar properties along the sea front, adding matter of factly that the gap between rich and poor in Morocco is very large. But life under the young King is getting better, he says, with more being spent on housing, education and reforms in favour of women's rights.

Along the Boulevard de la Corniche we pass one of Casablanca's many McDonalds. "The American embassy," says Meki, there are many in Morocco." He adds by way of explanation: "We don't have a complex with the Americans, we have a complex with Mr George Bush." Meki adds an unmistakable emphasis on the US president's name, leaving no doubt about his feelings. The war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and support for Israel may have something to do with this. We stop at the picturesque outcrop where Moroccans come to seek blessings at the mausoleum of a marabout (holy man). on the beach tourists ride horses along the sand.

Next we pass through the green and leafy exclusive neighbourhood of 'Ain Diab back from the seafront. We pass a race track where a number of handsome Arab horses, still sweating from a race, are led by stable hands back to the stables nearby. With its palm trees, neat lawns and whitewashed walls, I am reminded of the better off neighbourhoods of Caracas, where I used to live. When I say this to Meki he replies: "Venezuela? I like Hugo Chavez, he told Bush to go to hell."

We return to the centre of town, Place Mohammed V and the Palace of Justice, with its fountain and army of pidgeons, something like London's Trafalgar Square. Meki says you can tell the king is in town because of the extra police on the streets. We finish up in a cafe. Every public establishment in Morocco has a portrait of the king. I ask Meki whether it is compulsory. He smiles. "No one forces you, but everyone knows you must have one," he says. Just like England was in the 1950s I suggest. With a little probing I discover Meki is about my age and like me is not married - still waiting to meet his princess from Europe. He lives with his parents, which is normal in Morocco before marriage. Meki, as a good Muslim in a country without a welfare state, gives alms to the needy wherever we go, even as he admonishes those like a boy who approached me on the beach.  We say goodbye after coffee.

That night I finally went to Rick's Cafe. I did not stay long. The decor was in keeping with the film, but in truth some things are better left to the imagination. And if Bogey had tasted the caipirinho I was served, he would at the very least have sent the barman scurrying back to his mixer with a carcastic wisecrack, delivered through the smoke of his cigarette. At the end of the bar there was a 'Reserved' sign by an empty barstool. I couldn’t help but think it was being kept for its legendary owner.

The city of Hollywood myth lives now in the seedy bars with dim lighting that are common around the central market, where older men pass the time with the good time girls who are the only Moroccan women to frequent those places. And the beating pulse of the modern city lives in the Medina, with its raucous markets transcending ancient and modern. Casa, as Rick once almost said, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

joegill00@hotmail.com
©
Joe Gill - Jan 2008

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