Viligante, city style: Moroccan Bronson in Casablanca

I’ve been getting my novel-reading needs met at the Institut Français de Casablanca, which is an incredible resource considering the price of books relative to the cost of living here.

Dérive à Casablanca by Abderrahim Wafdi (“Adrift in Casablanca”) was, frankly, kind of a dud, but it’s worth talking about one key character in the book: the city of Casablanca.

Jalal is a Moroccan who’s just returned from years of living in Paris, and he’s rediscovering his city with a mix of nostalgia and frustration stemming from his difficulty finding a job. As he’s unemployed, he finds the time to channel an apparently deep thirst for justice and revenge. A traditional yet modern Moroccan gal, embodied in Jalal’s short-term girlfriend Kenza, turns up dead. The police can’t be bothered with an apparent swimming accident, so Jalal confronts prostitutes, pimps, drugdealers, a shady Saudi, and Algerian Islamic extremists to get the bottom of things:

-Are you crazy? It’s extremely risky to go there. The area is infested with drugdealers armed to the teeth! If they suspect you’re there to spy on them, you’re dead!
-Those kinds of risks don’t scare me. What does scare me is seeing Traboulssi get away with what he did.

**-Tu perds la boule! C’est extrêment risqué d’aller là-bas. La région est infestée de trafiquant armés jusqu’aux dents. S’ils te soupconnent d’être venu les espionner, ta vie ne vaudra pas un clou!
-Les risques de ce genre ne me font pas peur. Ce qui me fait peur par contre c’est de voir Traboulssi échapper à la justice.

OK, so I’m just setting the tone here. The cover doesn’t give much information so here’s a visual for you:

The book actually reminds me a lot of Death Wish, the only Charles Bronson movie I can say I’ve ever seen. A city overrun by thieves, murders, rapists, sadists, and generally unsavory characters with no regard for regular folks. A vigilante with a love for justice, and revenge. Impossibly gorgeous women, martyred for the sake of our hero’s character depth. The world is a cold dark place, and its worst qualities are embodied in The City.

These themes came up often in the US in the 1970s and 1980s, when a lot of American cities were hitting a low point due to white flight and disinvestment, deindustrialization, and racial tension. See also: Taxi Driver. The Casablanca version of this, in Dérive à Casablanca, zooms in on the rapid urbanisation of Morocco and other developing countries as the source of its problems.

-Kenza was the victim of the kind of debauchery that has taken over this city, continued Hamid without listening. Casablanca, like all other third world cities, suffers from its own immeasurable and anarchic growth. Every day, a human tide floods the already overpopulated beltway neighborhoods. Country people, chased by drought and famine, come by the millions to swell the hordes of the ragged and barefoot. They stake their claim in vermin-infested shantytowns, only to become quickly disillusioned. Having left their countryside without water or electricity, those troglodytes are hit with the realization that they’ve traded poverty for misery. Nothing but a fool’s bargain. Destiny has once again played a nasty trick on them.

**–Kenza a été victime de la débauche qui s’est emparée de cette ville, poursuivit Hamid sans même l’écouter. Casablanca, comme toutes les métropoles du tiers monde, souffre de sa croissance démesuré et anarchique. Chaque jour, des marées humaines se déversent sur les quartiers piphériques déja surpeuplés. Des paysans par milliers, chassés par la sécheresse et la famine, viennent grossir les hordes de loqueteux et de va-nu-pieds. Installés dans des bidonvilles de fortune grouillant de vermine, ils ont vite fait de déchanter. En quittant leur campaigne sans eau ni électricités, ces troglodytes réalisent avec stupeur qu’ils ont troqué la pauvreté contre la misère. Un vrai marché de dupes. Le destin leur a encore joué un sale tour.

I wish I could inject some cold hard facts into the conversation about crime in Casa, but statistics are hard to come by. My point is not that there isn’t any crime, or prostitution, or misery in Casablanca. Certainly there are quality novels who examine the phenomenon of bidonvilles in Casablanca (Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen by Mahi Binebine, for instance).

Stories such as Wafdi’s, or Death Wish for that matter, lean on the premise that cities are dark, dangerous, and especially hopeless places that can only be understood or confronted by vigilante caricatures. Their portrayal of The City is more in the service of annoying macho fantasies than of understanding urban problems.



Filed under bidonvilles, book review, Casablanca, Moroccan fiction, Urban Morocco, urbanisation

4 responses to “Viligante, city style: Moroccan Bronson in Casablanca

  1. Natalie

    Just curious, what year was this novel published?

  2. Karl

    Wow, I wasn’t expecting to see Bronson on your blog… Anyhow, how does Jalal confront the “criminal types”? In the Death Wish series, Bronson’s character uses firearms of various sorts. Is it the same in Wafdi’s book?

    • Kathleen

      With his bare fists, Karl, with his bare fists. Sometime halfway through the book he’s like, oh, and it’s a good thing I’m an amateur boxer! POW!

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