Learning, and teaching, the “Patrimoine” of Casablanca

I’ve hinted before at the tension that surrounds narratives of Casablanca history. During a tour I took recently through Casamémoire, a French man who’s lived here for years and wrote a book on the history of the medina, concluded his lectures with: “Je suis désolé pour nos amis marocains, mais Casablanca est essentiellement une ville européenne.” (“Sorry for our Moroccan friends, but Casablanca is essentially a European city.”)

That’s actually a much subtler claim than it sounds, but it points at the politics lurking behind every conversation about the “patrimoine” of modern Casablanca. Who created it? Who does it belong to? Who even cares?

Casamémoire is the only association that advocates for historic preservation in Casablanca. This year they’re organizing the third annual Journées du Patrimoine de Casablanca, in partnership with a few other sponsors like the city and Institut Francais. For three days the association will offer tours of historic sites in the centreville, the medina, and Habbous.

Hundreds of people are expected to take advantage of these free tours, which are guided entirely by volunteers. Regular tours are given by volunteer expects in architecture and urban planning—not your average architecture amateur or Casaphile. The Journées du Patrimoine offers us amateurs a chance to take a crash course in Casablanca history and share our newfound expertise with other curious people.

The tours don’t focus purely on architecture, but rather “patrimoine” in a broader sense. Now here’s a word that carries a lot of weight in French. Its English translation, “heritage,” just doesn’t measure up. Patrimoine is synonymous with “culture,” and implies an extremely high value for local and national identity. It simultaneously represents and defines the shared cultural heritage of a community, which is why it turns out to be a slippery term.

I’ve been attending training sessions to be a guide, and I’ve been pleased to find that although there are a good number of French expatriates interested in the architectural heritage of the city, the vast majority of trainees are Moroccan. Some people who have been living in Casablanca remarked that they had never before explored these neighborhoods, and found themselves discovering parts of the city as tourists.

For my part it was refreshing to be part of a group of mostly Moroccan visitors. If you’ve seen some of the millions of tourists coming through Morocco, it’s easy to forget that many Moroccans themselves travel, explore the country, and are passionate about Moroccan culture and history.

After our tour of the medina, I walked back to my neighborhood with two other students who were also training to be guides. We walked through the centreville, which is rich with Art Deco architecture, and chatted while pointing out the details on buildings that the women admitted they had never really noticed before. They saw in the Casamémoire training a chance to learn and meet interesting people, though they’d never before had a particular interest in architecture or urban planning.

Thanks in large part to a retired English teacher-turned-guide named Abdou, the visits took place in an atmosphere of discovery, fun, and connection with students, professionals, retirees, working class people and upper class people. It was Abdou’s idea, for instance, to all have tea at the end of each tour, introduce ourselves, and…sing songs. (Yes, our group gelled that well.)

To be continued… La Journée du Patrimoine will be held April 14th, 15th, and 16th. For those of you living in Casablanca, on Saturday and Sunday you should be able to show up at a number of sites and get tours. I’ll update when I have the complete list. I will be at the Marché Central.



Filed under architecture, Casablanca, colonialism, Moroccan History, Uncategorized, Urban Morocco

2 responses to “Learning, and teaching, the “Patrimoine” of Casablanca

  1. Zak

    How I see it is that we are front of two types of civil society that is interested in the heritage of Cacablanca:
    1- Some kind of elitist associations like ‘Casamémoire’ whih is, apparently, propped up Europeans in addition that it gets a considerable financial and technical support from the state. Such kind of associations do not want the average public to know the patrimony and the cultural heritage of Casablanca, instead they want to monopolize culture for themselves and their European friends. For ‘Casamémoire’, for istance, I’m wondering why there is no Arabic translation of their website so that the association can be opened to more people, including those who don’t speak French. And why for example there is not even one single book in Arabic about Casablanca or architecture in general, although there are hundreds of them.
    2. Some kind of associations based in popular neighborhoods with poor financial and technical support from the state and usually backed up by the people of the neighborhood. Such associations are also interested in the cultural heritage of Casablanca, especially the history of popular neighborhood which are the cradle of Casablanca’s culture. I’m wondering if the guy who wrote the book about Casablanca and said that he’s sorry for —France’s— Moroccan friends, if he knows something about the prison of “Ghbila”, “Derb Moulay Cherif”, the shantytown of “Karian Centrale”, “The Stadium of Ba Muhammed”, the history of places like “Sbata”, “Sidi Othmane”, “Oulad hadou” “Hay Mohammadi”. the history of resistance of colonization in “Derb Sultan”, “the strike of the Kumira”, the cinemas of “Madania”, “Othmania, “Elbayda”, “Ennojoum, “Elkawakib” .. these are all nostaligic places for Casawis .. full of memories and the smell of history .. There are dozens of books that have been written about such places and a number of associations interested in them. Such associations do not even have a website unfortunately.

    • Kathleen

      Hey Zak, I don’t agree with your #1. It’s simplistic to say that the association is European and elite and therefore not legitimate. How can you say that the association doesn’t want the average member of the public to know the cultural heritage of the city, when a major part of its mission is to offer people that education? I could take more seriously your comments if you had been on one of their tours. My experience with the association so far has shown me that this “only Europeans do architecture in Casa” thing isn’t accurate.

      The French guy in question was not the only tour guide, and his comments about the Europeanness of the city were disputed by other guides, who made a point to challenge that cliche. From Casamemoire’s website:

      L’histoire de Casablanca remonte à loin, probablement à la préhistoire. Au fil des siècles, elle a subi de nombreuses influences : romaines, phéniciennes, arabes et berbères puis européennes voire américaines.

      As far as the language goes, yes the bulk of the association’s materials are in French. They say they’re working on a translation of materials, and I’ll concede that they should offer everything in arabic out of principle. They claim that it’s been difficult to do technical translations. Tours for the Journees du Patrimoine, will be offered in arabic and several other languages.

      As for your #2, I leave it to you to teach me about those “dozens of” associations because I’ve never heard of any of them.

      Come to the Journees du Patrimoine de Casablanca! Don’t reject the association’s work out of hand because you consider it to be “European.” Cultural work spans a wide spectrum, ranging from institutionally recognized “high culture,” to resistance art and culture, and lots in between. If you think that Casa architecture appreciation is European-dominated, then by all means get involved and talk back to the guide when they show their European bias (if they have one). For the most part the tours I went on were fun and interactive, filled with people who have their own experience of a place and would add their two cents.

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