Casablanca, the Miami of Morocco
Why we'll always have Casablanca
By Cindy Lou Dale
The international jet-set claim to have uncovered a few Moroccan cities, waxing lyrically about the ‘real’ thing they've discovered in the narrow streets and complex passageways of medinas.
Yet none of them mention Casablanca, except as a transit point, dismissing it entirely, quickly moving onto Fes, Rabat or Marrakech, which is one of the many things that makes Casablanca appealing – the total lack of tourists.
Some 3,000 years ago, Casablanca began life as a Berber community. Through the centuries it’s been governed by Roman, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, British and French regimes but gained independence in 1956.
Now it’s Morocco’s largest city and the country's main port which explains a
few of its rough and industrialized zones. Yet it’s also one of Morocco’s most multicultural cities, with upmarket boutiques, fast-food chains and arguably some of the best nightclubs in the country.
Casablanca has long been outshone by the legendary alternatives of Tangier, the primitive ways of Fez and the exotic world of Marrakesh. A century ago, when the French ruled, they set about revamping the Portuguese-built seaport, converting it into a Parisian-styled showcase, demonstrating their colonial influence – an art-deco pleasure dome of European culture.
Now, other than the gorgeous sweeping curved balconies of its art-deco buildings, Casablanca is totally modern.
This is where money is being made, where young Moroccans come to seek their fortunes and where business and the creative industries prosper.
Despite its shaded arcades, chic shops, and lavish palm-lined avenues, art-deco Casablanca has not forgotten its roots. You don’t need to look to hard to find carts laden with seasonal vegetables and fruit, children playing with marbles, street goats grazing on scraps of tattered newspaper and old women sitting in doorways fanning themselves in the afternoon heat.
Industry of old still holds sway with door-to-door knife sharpeners, tailors in crumbling windowless shops, water-sellers and street stalls brewing tea infused with fragrant mint. This is what makes Casablanca appealing.
Flea markets, souks and antique shops overflow with loot left by the French. Like the treasure trove of the ‘Soco de Moina’ flea market where you’ll find grand pianos, mahogany sideboards, cast-iron safes, immense crystal chandeliers, champagne flutes, silver ice buckets from the 20s, gramophones, two-piece telephones, tinplate toys, accordions; and because Casablanca’s developers shun architectural salvage, you’ll have your pick of wide porcelain washbasins and 30s roll-top baths.
During WW2, Casablanca was a large staging area for American aircraft and is where, at the 1943 Casablanca Conference, Churchill and Roosevelt discussed the war’s progress.
Just weeks after US troops saw their first WW2 action in, of all places, Casablanca, the now-classic Hollywood love story, Casablanca, premiered in New York City.
War-time Casablanca was in the news across the world and to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Allied invasion of North Africa, Hollywood hastened the release of the motion picture.
Initially a box-office slow burner, Casablanca went on to win three Academy Awards. Gradually its reputation grew which, together with its pervasive theme tune and memorable lines of its lead characters, gained it a timeless status, remaining forever linked to that moment in history.
Movie buffs around the world will know that 2018 is Casablanca’s 75th anniversary and the best place to view it is on the widescreen of the restored art-deco gem, ABC Cinema, which again glitters with cinemas goers.
The story-line of Casablanca is iconic: it’s a romance featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, star-crossed lovers (reputedly, both on and off screen). Set in WW2, it focuses on an American expatriate who must choose between his love for a woman and helping her and her husband, a Czech Resistance leader, escape from the French-controlled city of Casablanca to continue his fight against the Nazis.
It puts each of its characters in a disparaging position, living under a dictatorial system which compels them to choose how they will react when faced with unthinkable evil. It charmed audiences during the darkest days of World War II, and its message is still relevant today.
After the movie, take in a drink at Rick’s Café, the legendary ‘Gin Joint’ of Casablanca’s cinematic fame. It may be as clichéd as they come, but this tribute bar and restaurant, run by a former American diplomat, is both endearing and atmospheric. American crooners dominate the soundtrack when pianist Issam takes a break.
Putting aside black and white thoughts of Bogart and Bergman, you cannot dispel Casablanca’s magic which draws you into its cosmopolitan art galleries, designer stores, cutting-edge nightlife and restaurants like Basmane, where statuesque belly-dancers pick up the pace.
You can spend time and money in the giant Morocco Mall, which is the largest in Africa, or better yet, visit the old medina and the souks which are a colourful and noisy explosion of skirts, laughter and baskets, of vibrant bolts of cloth and cards of bright, shiny buttons - your senses are crushed under the weight of it all.
Here buying and selling is not so much an economic exchange as an essential social transaction. This is where the past stays present.
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