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.