I spent a few hours yesterday testing to see if it’s possible to hang out, undisturbed, in a public park. To be fair, I picked what must be the quietest, cleanest, dare I say most posh park I’ve seen. The space is tightly controlled, with signs everywhere reminding people not to litter and, I’ve heard, guards to lay down the law if anyone gets in too-close contact with the lawn. There isn’t much grass around here in the first place, owing at least in part to the dry climate.
This particular park is in Palmier, and surrounded by high-end apartment buildings. It’s also across the street from the Institut Francais, where I took out a few books yesterday afternoon.
I find an unoccupied bench and get busy. First up: Histoire de Casablanca (des origines à 1914) by André Adam.
Early on, one guy sits at the other end of my bench and, since this is my first solo park-sitting expedition, I’m on my guard. I’m planning my exit strategy as I try to figure out whether he intends to hit on me or just mind his own business. Naturally I avoid all eye contact, for two main reasons.
One, men need almost no encouragement to approach women in public. Which is another way to say that I don’t want to attract more attention to myself than I have to because once “that guy” thinks you could be the least bit interested in him (and who wouldn’t be, amirite?) it’s hard to get rid of him.
Two, I come from a culture where personal space is fundamental. You just don’t talk to strangers. If you do have a positive interaction with someone out in public, it’s something to write home about.
Which brings me to strange man #2. So-called only because we’re strangers, but since I now know his name let’s call him Abderrahim. He looks to be about 70 years old, and says “bonjour” as he sits down on my bench. He wants to know when the book I’m reading was published. (1967, and it shows, which is why he asked.)
For a few minutes we go through the awkward stranger song-and-dance: Abderrahim tries to spark conversation by asking me questions, I nod politely and try to read. When he mentions that he collects old books, pictures, and documents related to Moroccan colonial history, though, I actually close my book.
Turns out that Abderrahim, a very nice guy, is an architecture enthusiast and big into historic preservation in Casablanca and elsewhere in Morocco. I’ve met some people through Casamémoire who lobby for historic preservation, something that the government has neglected almost completely despite the fact that Casablanca is architecturally very rich. The thing is, though, that according to a Moroccan architect I met at the US-Arab Cities Forum, those who do lobby for preserving the architectural heritage of Casablanca tend to be European, not Moroccan.
Not so for my new friend Abderrahim, who I’ll be calling so that I can take a look at some old books on city planning in Morocco. For once, I asked a strange man for his phone number and not the other way around.
After Abderrahim leaves and I reflect on how cool it is to talk about architecture and city planning in a posh public park with a stranger, all subsequent interactions are less tense. I chat with a woman on a walk with a pair of twins in a stroller. A mother, father, and baby sit for a few moments until the baby starts to cry. We exchange salaam wa aleikums, then mind our own business.