Category Archives: Moroccan fiction

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

What’s this holiday about anyway?

For the past few days there have been Moroccan flags everywhere, because yesterday was a national holiday in Morocco, the 35th anniversary of the Green March.

Let me first say that southern Morocco, also known as the Western Sahara, is contested territory, and talking about the issue with Moroccans can be tricky business. Morocco claims the area as its own and has been in conflict with Algeria, Mauritania, and independent factions like the Polisario over its sovereignty. Meanwhile, the United Nations doesn’t recognize the Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

The Green March of November 6th, 1975, helps shed some light on the emotional significance of the Sahara problem. Here are the basic details, which I pieced together by just asking a few people, “So, what’s this holiday about anyway?”

Thirty-five years ago most of Morocco had been decolonized but Spain still controlled what makes up the now-contested area. On November 6th, 350 thousand people peacefully demonstrated in the south and marched into the Sahara, Moroccan flag in one hand, Koran in the other. Some people marched from Rabat all the way to Dakhla, 1700 km away. The Spanish then, peacefully, surrendered control of the Sahara to the Moroccans.

Most people I surveyed agreed on and stressed a few things: a) the march was peaceful; b) the march led to the reclaiming of the Sahara by Morocco; c) the marchers (and the King) were righteous.

In fact King Hassan II in all of this is both invisible in the narrative according to which 350,000 spontaneously marched 1700 km, and aaaall over it. One person clarified that the king had forced the issue of the Sahara with the Spanish because he could tell, based on a few failed coups d’état, that he needed to galvanize support. And though most Moroccans at the time were probably supportive of a plan to oust its colonizers, the reign of Hassan II is not known as a time of freedom for Moroccans.

I also read a novel a few months ago that described a practice by the Makhzen, or royal forces, of rounding up people for parades during the reign of Hassan II:

It’s worth noting that the Makhzen had earned themselves a terrible reputation in the area. The caïds, the super-caïds, the khelifas and their acolytes never visited the villages except to round up the population for “serbice.”

Serbice,” an arabized form of the french word “service,” always took place in Marrakesh, along the road between the airport and the Red City [Marrakesh]. Every time an emir, the leader of some little kingdom or the president of some banana republic visited the city, the Makhzen got busy moving the masses of the area, presumably to give the visitor an unforgettable welcome party.

Le Bonheur des Moineaux de Mohamed Nedali (2008)
(my translation, from French)

Yeah I know. Fiction. Grain of salt.

The thing is, I’m an outsider who’s not emotionally invested in Moroccan patriotism, so I’m naturally skeptical.

Learning about the glorious events of another country’s history, though, has forced me to think about some of the historical “facts” I learned in elementary school:

“Yeah, everyone thought the earth was flat, but Columbus was all, no guys, and I can prove it! So he sailed the open sea and found, ya know, America!” Et cetera.

Almost every day is a struggle to wriggle out of my own preconceived notions, to stretch my mind, and at the same time to approach things with a healthy amount of skepticism. Being open to the world and willing to challenge your worldview doesn’t mean uncritically swallowing another, but it does involve taking a look at the some of the bullshit we all absorb over the course of our education.

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Filed under cultural understanding, Moroccan fiction, Moroccan History, Moroccan traditions, Morocco

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

Une semaine chez les français

Apologies for not posting these past few days. I heard about a week and a half ago that classes would be pushed back another week, so I jumped on the chance to go visit my family in France.

Being in France was not as bizarre an experience as I thought it might be after a month in Casablanca. I did get the chance to take some distance from my first few weeks in Morocco and reflect. And last night, I got to “come home” to Casa, to my apartment and wonderful roommate, and to a life which now seems much clearer than it did on September 30th when I first touched down.

* * *

Although I was born in France and have deep cultural ties there, it’s not exactly home for me. In the street no one would suspect that I didn’t grow up in France, but that only makes it weirder when I occasionally stutter or have to ask sometimes very stupid questions.

Visiting Morocco is a completely different experience. First of all, I can in no way pass for Moroccan. This isn’t so much a question of physical appearance, since my light skin could very possibly make me a Berber, or a Moroccan from the Rif region. As soon as I open my mouth, though, there’s no doubt that I’m a gaouria, a foreigner. So if I know any derija at all, if I’m starting to know my way around Casa, I get a gold star.

Of course this also reveals a cultural difference between France and Morocco…

While carpooling to Nantes from Paris, my sister and I shared a car with two Nantais and a woman from Rabat who remarked that “making friends in Morocco is easy.” (C’est facile de se faire des amis au Maroc) In France, people have a tendency to approach others more cautiously, as opposed to “letting it all hang out.” Affirmation is harder to come by in France, where even the American “think positive!” approach is often perceived to be naive or even dishonest.

I’ve spent my whole life navigating cultural differences between my French and American sides. It took me awhile even to understand that there were important cultural differences. Over the summer I read a book recommended by a close friend, a french woman who lived in Chicago–happily–for four years. The name of the book is Understanding Europeans. Don’t laugh! It’s illuminating.

Along those lines…I picked up a book in France that I’d heard a lot about in Morocco: Une année chez les Français (A Year Among the French) by Fouad Laroui, who’s Moroccan. The book has been well-received and even nominated for the prestigious Goncourt literary award. The only other Moroccan to have received this award is the famed Tahar Ben Jelloun (or “TBJ” for short so you know he’s a “grosse légume”, a big deal).

Une année chez les Français is a classic fish-out-of-the-water story that focuses on a painfully shy and bookish ten year old Moroccan kid, Mehdi, who gets a scholarship to study in the illustrious Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca. Mehdi, who really just wants to spend his days reading, has to grapple with the clash of culture, language, and socio-economic class while also overcoming his own very intense shyness. This all sounds dramatic but the book is actually hilarious, especially if you happen to have experienced the French educational system abroad.

Like Understanding Europeans, the title of Une année chez les Français seems to wink at an old-fashioned anthropological study, historically presented from an Old European point of view.


Filed under American culture, cultural diplomacy, cultural shock, cultural understanding, Moroccan fiction, Travel

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was not as disappointing as Secret Son, which I read last week.

Hope and Other Dangerous PursuitsThe first chapter of Hope has thirty people crammed into a lifeboat, waiting in tense silence to reach the southern shore of Spain. The boat is designed for eight people to sit comfortably, presumably while they await rescue from an accident or other disaster. The vessel is a last resort. But here it strains under the weight of thirty people who have planned the trip for months, or years. The protagonists of this story have gambled all the money they could borrow for a mere chance at the privilege of being an illegal immigrant in Europe.

As its title hints, the story is set up such that it will have the most depressing effect. Only a couple of characters avoid deportation, or death.

Faten is the most idealistic of the characters, though not in her ambitions for a new life in Europe. She wants to stay in Morocco. The reason she ends up in a boat bound for Spain? Her best friend’s father, a corrupt bureaucrat who wishes for his daughter to go to NYU, feels threatened by Faten’s influence on his girl. On many levels, his daughter has begun to reject her father’s faith in “the West.” She starts to wear the hijab, and expresses the ambition of becoming a teacher in Morocco. The father, Amrani, curiously has the same name as a similar character in Secret Son, a middle-class sell-out who fiercely defends the status quo. Amrani pulls some strings to have Faten expelled from school.

Faten had flunked her exams the first time because she refuses to cheat. Amrani condescendingly tells his daughter that she must not have been prepared. Neither were those who cheated, she retorts. The breaking point for Amrani, who regularly accepts bribes and doles out favors for friends in the department where he works, is finding out that his daughter helped Faten cheat on an exam. Amrani is happy to punish Faten, sparing his daughter.

A friend of mine who grew up in Morocco complained that not only did her classmates cheat and plagiarize, but that the professors seemed to accept this tacitly by not making an issue of it. I remember her resignedly piecing together an assignment at the last minute from passages she picked up online. Once again, there is no way to win. If everyone is pushed into breaking the rules simply because it is so easy, they also become vulnerable. Once the rules have become irrelevant, whether or not people are held to account depends on the whim of people in, and protective of, power.

There are plenty of characters to choose from in this story, but Faten stuck out at me because her story feels so clichéd. My complaint with Lalami is that her characters hint at so much depth, but the way she writes about them falls flat. We meet Faten for the first time, through the eyes of another character sitting near her in the lifeboat, as an aloof and self-righteously pious hijabi. We know only that she doesn’t want to be in that boat.

From Amrani’s point of view, Faten is an arrogant zealot who refuses to shake his hand. She holds a bizarre power over his daughter. This power is never explained. Is she a simple follower? Does she actually have a nuanced understanding of the kind of Islam she thinks Morocco needs?

The last chapter on Faten is as unsatisfying as it is shocking. The young student, member of the university Islamic group, has become… a prostitute. She caters to men who are either indifferent to her as a person or make a fetish of her culture and religion. We seem to meet her when her transition is complete. She has already learned not to “think too much” and we are treated to a description of her daily routine.

For all Lalami’s slams on American and European tourists who love “exotic” Morocco but seem to hold its people in contempt, the author doesn’t offer much in terms of character depth. I find that I can appreciate this book as I write about it and think about the implications of what she writes, but the writing itself is banal. It seems to coast on the real and raw tragedies it describes, without adding much. I’m a bigger appreciator of the topical, rather than the literary, so I constantly wonder about the but what is she trying to say with this?

At the same time, Lalami gives no pretense of offering us more than a good story. It gives us broad strokes, which works for a novel that wants to describe how the movements of individuals make up a larger Movement. Lalami’s work reads like it was written by a sociologist who, overwhelmed by the complexity of an issue, wanted to simply present us with the stories of people.

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Filed under Immigration, Moroccan fiction, Morocco