Casa clichés

I’m happy to be back in Casablanca after a few weeks of celebrating Christmas and New Year’s in France. While I was away I caught up on some reading:

People’s stories rarely begin in Casablanca: it is an end or waypoint of narrative, not its origin. When questioned, those who are “just Casablancans” usually relate stories of how their families came to the city from elsewhere. If we think of the experience of Casablanca according to older divisions of urban and rural, we will see it as a nonplace, a passageway. But this city is more than a transitional space between urban and the rural, the local and the foreign. Indeed, its emerging brand of urbanity might point to new combinations of identity and society. Casablanca might then be seen as a vision of what Morocco might become, even though the contours of this possibility remain inchoate.

From Susan Ossman’s Picturing Casablanca: Portraits of Power in a Modern City (1994)

What is this “emerging brand of urbanity?” It’s hard to summarize, and Ossman’s book is more a patchwork of anthropological observations than a coherent picture of Casablanca.

In Women of Fez, the city itself is not just a place, but a cultural and historical frame of reference. In fact Ossman talks about how the name “Fez” can be used as a descriptor when talking about Casablanca. It serves as a codeword for refinement, tradition, and political power. Ah, those Fassis.

Casablanca is a name loaded with meaning, too, but often in the negative sense. Clichés abound about the city’s consumerism and enormous wealth gap, and it’s not considered a center for “culture” in the way a lot of Moroccans conceive of Moroccan culture. Or foreigners, for that matter. Bogart-Bergman movie notwithstanding, Casablanca doesn’t spark the imagination or evoke the essence of the Maghreb the way other cities do.


Filed under book review, Casablanca, ethnography, Urban Morocco, urbanisation

2 responses to “Casa clichés

  1. mariam

    I ran through this post a few days ago and ranked it as a five stars piece. I liked the choice of the book and I felt there was some truth in the idea that Casablanca resists neat and final descriptions. But just voting for it seemed not to respond to the persistence of some of the thoughts in my mind. I have never reflected on Casablanca as my new/temporary locale. I usually dismiss the city as chaotic place, an amalgam of different cultures, as a transitory station, a place of many peoples and of no one at the same time. I came from a small city in the north, populated by a more or less homogeneous population who find some pleasure in thinking of themselves as Moroccans that are different from Dakhiliya people (the interior population). Northern people tend to think of themselves as having better manners and I do not except myself from this provincial perceptions, but my stay in Casablanca allowed me to perceive our insularity. My first year in Casablanca was tough. I had to understand that I did not need to smile to the shopkeeper and ask how he was doing before I shop. I needed to learn that I had to dot my speech with some French words to announce that I am educated. Coming from a Spanish colonial zone, my French was always a source of anxiety. I understood that the criteria for social respect in this city are the brand of the car you drive and the brand of the clothes you put on. I can still remember my feeling of void when I went to the central city areas like Maarif. I still can not overcome the faked mannerisms of both shoppers and shop keepers. But this is not all to it. This a heterogeneous city which accommodates people from different regions. Like many big urban places, people have no time and no readiness to smile with the countless number of people they will meet along the day.
    What makes a city one’s city is not the place but the connections one makes in the place. Through time I discovered new popular areas where one can find a lot of enjoyment observing popular ways of trading and socializing. I have developed connections with friends who introduced me to hidden Casawi places where one can touch “authentic” human practices. What I have in mind are the popular shopping areas where traders and their assistants work, negotiate, yell, celebrate, pray and eat; and where shoppers pass their time, stroll, make plans, make dates and shop. They are buzzing places with a lot of human activity. I still yearn to live in a place without putting on masks of language, clothes and gadgets. But I am enjoying the vivacity of the cross- regional encounters in Casablanca shopping areas, like Lqri3a, Souk Larba3 and the produce open market. This is a meeting spot, where people are still building new standards of culture and social evaluation. People come here for material development and what comes as a top priority is to see themselves ranked in making constant comparisons with other people. Also, there is still a low level of trust between US. I have just realised that I am also a newcomer and I am included in all I said!

    • Kathleen

      Wonderful reply, Mariam! Please write a guest post sometime… It’s so hard not to see the “masks” that people put on when we’re in a new place. People might be more or less “fake” depending on the cultural context–distant, or less willing to connect with you in the day to day, but when the formulas for interaction are even slightly different the gulf seems greater.
      Take me to Lqri3a and Souk Larba3!!!

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