International Writers Magazine: North Africa
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.
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
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.
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.
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 couldnt 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.
Gill - Jan 2008
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