Casa, first impressions

A few professors at the Ben Msik campus where I’ve been taking classes this year organized a program for a group of visiting American students and their professors. I had the honor of teaching their first seminar: a two hour crash course on Casablanca.

Having to cram for the Casablanca seminar right as I came home from a trip to France, and less than a month before I take off for Chicago, gave me a powerful jolt of excitement for this city, not to mention the rare feeling of having accomplished one of the goals I’d set for this year: to learn about Casablanca. There’s nothing like teaching to confirm what you’ve learned or to expose what you don’t know.

To start, I asked students to give their first impressions of the city along four basic themes—the people, the buildings, the streets, and transportation. They’d been in the city for two days, long enough to have been to a range of places, namely the medina, Maarif, Habbous, and Ben Msik.

The students’ comments focused overwhelmingly on what is possibly the most defining characteristic of Casablanca: contradiction. Students observed that modern buildings sit side by side with old buildings, that some formerly beautiful buildings lay in ruins, that wealth and poverty coexist. Many saw “ordered chaos,” some reported “a lot of traffic, but no accidents.” (If only that were true…)

Another striking sight: “pets” in the streets :-(. This one points to a minor cultural difference that comes up every time my foreign friends or I walk past a stray cat and squeal, “awwww!” Which is to say, every day.


Filed under Casablanca, cultural shock, Moroccan-American Studies, urban life

Sometimes, the souq comes to you

On a recent afternoon, I heard the call of “Batata! Bsla!” (Potato! Onion!) from the street and went to my balcony to attempt to capture a scene that I will miss next year: a truck, loaded with a ton of one or two kinds of fruits or vegetables, parks in front of my building, always the same intersection. One or two guys yell out the name of what they’re selling, and the price. Always in rials*, always in a rhythmic, sing-songy voice. If you’re out of the item in question, or can’t resist a bargain, you run downstairs and buy a few kilos. It’s easier to bring home ten kilos of potatoes when you’re in front of your house.

It’s not so much that I need ten kilos of anything (except maybe oranges to make fresh-squeezed juice…hm…), I just love the experience. I always have to explain to the truck guys that I just can’t buy ten kilos of onions, because they will go bad before my roommate and I can finish them off.

*A rial is a unit of dirhams–twenty, to be exact.

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Filed under day in the life, pictures, shopping

Bluegrass, Moroccan-Style

Last week a few American friends and I attended a bluegrass concert at the Centre Culturel Sidi Belyout. A Moroccan bluegrass band had been touring Morocco with a couple of musicians from the states with thick but very charming southern American accents. This kind of event is put on for free by various American associations and the State Department in an effort to promote appreciation of American culture. (insert obvious and misinformed joke about the US’s lack of true culture, har har)

As much as I loved reminiscing about Fourth of July barbeques and basking in nostalgia with my American friends, here is what really blew my mind: a bluegrass take on a hugely popular Andalusian song. The lyrics–the refrain at least, which a friend taught me and which has been playing in loop in my head ever since–basically ask, “Why worry? God will take care of me.” This was a great choice for the finale. The audience, mostly Moroccans, sang along. The combination of American folk music and Moroccan (Andalusian) folk music was breathtakingly beautiful.

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Filed under American culture, cultural understanding, Moroccan music, Moroccan-American Studies, Uncategorized

Way better than Zara (bien mieux que Zara)

Spotted at “lbal” (the flea market) in Kenitra, a city just an hour north of Rabat.
Au marché aux puces à Kénitra, à une heure au nord de Rabat.

Go Bulls! (circa 1996, when I cared). Meanwhile, in the bags department…go Turkey?
Allez les Bulls (même si on est plus en 1996). Sinon dans les sacs, allez la Turquie ?

I won’t go on and on about how cheap this flea market is compared to my favorite second-hand spots in Chicago and Madison because that would fall under a term I found myself explaining to a friend today: “tacky.”

I suppose what was most exciting about this market was not so much the cheapness of it but the familiarity of the bargain clothes shopping experience I didn’t even know I missed so much.

Bien entendu, ça serait de mauvais goût de me vanter des prix ici par rapport à mes magasins « deuxième main » préférés à Chicago et à Madison, alors passons.

Je pense que ce qui m’a le plus emballé c’est plutôt d’avoir retrouvé l’expérience très familière du second-hand shopping. Je ne m’amuserais même pas à traduire cette expression, car c’est justement une expérience que j’associe à mon mode de vie américain. Qu’est-ce que ça me manquait !

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Casa Negra

I once asked a friend what the movie CasaNegra (2008) was about. “It’s about what life’s really like in Casablanca,” he said, darkly.

A few other friends told me they hadn’t seen it: “I heard it’s very vulgar so I’ve stayed away.”

Mostly, I hear rave reviews because, honestly? This. Movie. Is. Epic.

The idea behind the film is that for the working class and those living in the city’s underbelly, Casablanca is so hopeless, so dark, and so literally and morally polluted that it should be called Casanegra

The movie is set mostly in the centreville, which is incidentally right around where I live. This used to be the commercial center of town, and it’s filled with very cool and beautiful architecture dating back to early to mid-twentieth century. In fact much of the movie is shot in and around the Assayag, an architecturally innovative building dating back to 1929 where the offices of Casamémoire are now located.

Check out the beautiful opening shots. Very Noir, heh.

Casanegra tells the story of a couple of friends, Casaoui guys trying to make it as small-time crooks. The characters are tragic, spinning their wheels and basically powerless to improve their situation. One of the main characters, Adil, dreams of immigrating to Sweden. The other, Karim, admires an upper-class woman from afar. Each character has something they cling to for their sanity. An evil gangster for instance, the kind of guy who threatens to drill holes into people’s knees, loves his little dog above anything.

One by one the characters fall apart as they realize that their dreams are unattainable and the bits of hope they cling to, fragile. At the end of the preview, the evil gangster, who’s just lost a ton of money and crashed his car, cries out the name of his dog: Nicooooooooo!

Despite the tragic and dark take on life in Casablanca, the movie is hilarious and redeeming.

Casanegra presents a bleak portrait of Casablanca, but the frustration of the characters and their hatred for the city are folded into what is basically an homage. Casablanca is harsh, but it’s home. It’s ugly, but beautiful. It’s urban grit–dangerous and tragic yet glamorous, even epic.

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Filed under architecture, Casablanca, Moroccan fiction, Uncategorized, urban life, Urban Morocco

Downtown Casa by night

Je me suis inspirée d’une vidéo du photographe québécois Dominic Boudreault, qui montre des images de villes nord-américaines, et j’ai voulu partager cette photo.

C’est une pose de 8 secondes prise par mon amie Jeannette. Le dernier soir de sa visite au Maroc, on s’est pris un verre en haut de la tour de l’Hotel Kenzi (une des tours du Twin Center). Du matin au soir, on peut commander un café, un verre, ou un repas hors prix histoire de profiter de la vue panoramique de la ville. (La bannière de Petit à Petit vient d’une photo que j’avais prise du haut de la tour Kenzi.) On trouve exactement la même combine en haut de la tour John Hancock à Chicago.

Il faut dire que si je m’intéresse aux différentes conceptions de l’urbanité autour du monde, je suis au fond une nord-américaine urbaine qui s’attache aux gratte-ciels et qui se retrouve émue face aux perspectives dramatiques des centrevilles verticaux.

I was inspired by the work of Quebecois motion photographer Dominic Boudreault‘s timelapse video of North American city skylines to post this picture.

It’s an 8-second exposure taken by a dear friend, Jeannette. On the last night of her visit to Morocco we had a drink at the top of the Kenzi Tower hotel (one of the towers of the Twin Center). Day or night, one can order extremely overpriced coffee, drinks, or even meals for the privilege of enjoying a panoramic view of the city. Exactly like the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock in Chicago. (The banner of Petit à Petit is from a picture I took from the Kenzi Tower restaurant.)

Although I love to explore different conceptions of “the city,” I am at heart a North-American urbanite with an emotional attachment to skyscrapers and the dramatic views of those dense, high-reaching skylines.

The video in question features amazing views of Montreal, Chicago, Toronto, and Québec.

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Filed under American culture, architecture, Canada, Casablanca, Chicago, urban life

Grand Taxi

This is the curbed version of the vehicle known as a “grand taxi.” It’ll take you (and up to 5 other passengers, plus the driver) where you need to go, if you know the hand signals to flash to the driver as he rolls past you on his route.

I most often take the grand taxi from Ben Msik, where my campus is located, to the centreville. The end of the line is Bab Marrakesh, the main entrance to the old medina. For reasons that are murky to me, the signal for Bab Marrakesh is pointing vigorously to the left with the right hand. More of a windshielf wiper motion than a back and forth, “look at this guy” gesture.

Actually, I grab that taxi at a taxi stand across the street from campus, and only need to tell the attendant, “Medina.”

I always make the gesture anyway as the taxis pull up, because I’m the kind of gaouria who likes to feel the rush of knowing the codes.

Look at me! I’m streetsmart!

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Shady sidewalk

Quartier Gautier

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Patrimoine! (follow-up)

A couple of weekends ago I took part in the Journées du Patrimoine de Casablanca and I’m due for an update on that.

First, some numbers:
150 volunteers helped to organize and carry out free architectural/historical tours of 15 Casablanca landmarks. Over a couple of days, 10,000 visitors took part in the tours, including 2,500 schoolchildren from all over the city. Tours were available in a few languages, most readily in French and Arabic.

The stated purpose of this event is to raise awareness among Casaouis about the city’s architectural heritage. The goal was to target people who live in the city, those who are most affected and who might, down the road, contribute to the cause of historic preservation. We were asked not to distribute too many flyers to tourists, who aren’t likely to become advocates.

In reality, it was observed by volunteers at various sites that many participants were tourists, or temporary residents. Foreigners, in other words. In an earlier post about the tours a friend and I debated back and forth in the comments about the supposed “Europeanness” of Casamémoire, which might account for a lack of interest among Moroccans.

The Moroccans who did go on our tours, ironically, would often comment on the fact that “Moroccans aren’t interested” in architecture, or in the built environment generally.

Yet, most volunteers were Moroccan and, significantly, did not appear to all belong to the Casa elite.

At the marché central, where I was giving tours with a handful of other volunteers, passers-by would ask to see our flyers. Many were curious, but having come to the market to do their shopping, were all business. Some hadn’t heard about the event, despite the association’s media outreach. A few people stopped by for a moment to chat with volunteers about the event and the association’s work, even if they didn’t take part in the tours. Many commented on how sad it is to see the ruins of the Hotel Lincoln, a registered architectural landmark across the street from the market.

On a more personal level, I got to become a low-level “expert” on the marché, spend a weekend with interesting people, and make friends with a few vendors in the market who saw me and the other volunteers come by every few minutes.

Coming up next: a virtual tour of the marché central.

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Filed under architecture, Casablanca

Proud as a…


Filed under architecture, Casablanca