Category Archives: urban life

Casa, first impressions


A few professors at the Ben Msik campus where I’ve been taking classes this year organized a program for a group of visiting American students and their professors. I had the honor of teaching their first seminar: a two hour crash course on Casablanca.

Having to cram for the Casablanca seminar right as I came home from a trip to France, and less than a month before I take off for Chicago, gave me a powerful jolt of excitement for this city, not to mention the rare feeling of having accomplished one of the goals I’d set for this year: to learn about Casablanca. There’s nothing like teaching to confirm what you’ve learned or to expose what you don’t know.

To start, I asked students to give their first impressions of the city along four basic themes—the people, the buildings, the streets, and transportation. They’d been in the city for two days, long enough to have been to a range of places, namely the medina, Maarif, Habbous, and Ben Msik.

The students’ comments focused overwhelmingly on what is possibly the most defining characteristic of Casablanca: contradiction. Students observed that modern buildings sit side by side with old buildings, that some formerly beautiful buildings lay in ruins, that wealth and poverty coexist. Many saw “ordered chaos,” some reported “a lot of traffic, but no accidents.” (If only that were true…)

Another striking sight: “pets” in the streets :-(. This one points to a minor cultural difference that comes up every time my foreign friends or I walk past a stray cat and squeal, “awwww!” Which is to say, every day.

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Filed under Casablanca, cultural shock, Moroccan-American Studies, urban life

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

Downtown Casa by night


Je me suis inspirée d’une vidéo du photographe québécois Dominic Boudreault, qui montre des images de villes nord-américaines, et j’ai voulu partager cette photo.

C’est une pose de 8 secondes prise par mon amie Jeannette. Le dernier soir de sa visite au Maroc, on s’est pris un verre en haut de la tour de l’Hotel Kenzi (une des tours du Twin Center). Du matin au soir, on peut commander un café, un verre, ou un repas hors prix histoire de profiter de la vue panoramique de la ville. (La bannière de Petit à Petit vient d’une photo que j’avais prise du haut de la tour Kenzi.) On trouve exactement la même combine en haut de la tour John Hancock à Chicago.

Il faut dire que si je m’intéresse aux différentes conceptions de l’urbanité autour du monde, je suis au fond une nord-américaine urbaine qui s’attache aux gratte-ciels et qui se retrouve émue face aux perspectives dramatiques des centrevilles verticaux.

I was inspired by the work of Quebecois motion photographer Dominic Boudreault‘s timelapse video of North American city skylines to post this picture.

It’s an 8-second exposure taken by a dear friend, Jeannette. On the last night of her visit to Morocco we had a drink at the top of the Kenzi Tower hotel (one of the towers of the Twin Center). Day or night, one can order extremely overpriced coffee, drinks, or even meals for the privilege of enjoying a panoramic view of the city. Exactly like the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock in Chicago. (The banner of Petit à Petit is from a picture I took from the Kenzi Tower restaurant.)

Although I love to explore different conceptions of “the city,” I am at heart a North-American urbanite with an emotional attachment to skyscrapers and the dramatic views of those dense, high-reaching skylines.

The video in question features amazing views of Montreal, Chicago, Toronto, and Québec.

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Filed under American culture, architecture, Canada, Casablanca, Chicago, urban life

Grand Taxi


This is the curbed version of the vehicle known as a “grand taxi.” It’ll take you (and up to 5 other passengers, plus the driver) where you need to go, if you know the hand signals to flash to the driver as he rolls past you on his route.

I most often take the grand taxi from Ben Msik, where my campus is located, to the centreville. The end of the line is Bab Marrakesh, the main entrance to the old medina. For reasons that are murky to me, the signal for Bab Marrakesh is pointing vigorously to the left with the right hand. More of a windshielf wiper motion than a back and forth, “look at this guy” gesture.

Actually, I grab that taxi at a taxi stand across the street from campus, and only need to tell the attendant, “Medina.”

I always make the gesture anyway as the taxis pull up, because I’m the kind of gaouria who likes to feel the rush of knowing the codes.

Look at me! I’m streetsmart!

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Filed under Casablanca, Transportation, Uncategorized, urban life

No dumping


This section of the sidewalk on my street serves as an open-air trash bin. This despite a spray-painted message that clearly forbids dumping. But when there’s no bin nearby, this nice little sidewalk-less spot must seem like a logical place to leave trash for the garbage truck or trash-guy who comes around with his broom and bin-on-wheels.

Actually, I took this picture for the Chinese characters on the cardboard, a common sight here since Chinese manufacturers import tons and tons of low-cost merchandise. I know I know, this doesn’t make Morocco any different from most places in the world in these days.

Just so we’re clear, by the way, it occurs to me that some may interpret this post as simply sending the message that “streets in Morocco are dirty!” and implying that “Moroccans are dirty!” This is a cultural projection, and a topic worth a few doctorates in Anthropology. I’m interested less in casting judgment here than showing an example of how the built environment shapes behavior (look! no sidewalk! anything goes!) and how Chinese manufacturing has made its way not only to shops in Morocco, but also to the streets.

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Filed under day in the life, pictures, urban life

When to intervene?


Jane Jacobs famously claimed that the “eyes on the street” of a populous and mixed-used neighborhood could prevent crime.

Today I was walking in my neighborhood when I saw, down the street, a hip-looking young couple who were having some kind of an argument. I was no more than ten feet away when the guy slapped the girl. In broad daylight, in front of several strangers.

I bring this up not so much as a Moroccan issue, but as a conundrum that comes up a lot when you live in close quarters with millions of people: when do you interfere? What are the codes of the street if no one enforces them?

Last weekend I was walking near the beach with a friend when we witnessed a similar scene: an angry young guy lashed out at the girl he was with before apparently challenging another guy to a fight. At one point he tore off his shirt, then picked up a rock, and generally postured in front of the other guy and dozens of passers-by. A cop was directing traffic across the street and at no point came over to address the situation. About ten other people gathered around closely, holding both guys back.

I wondered aloud to my friend, also a gaouria, “What do you do in this situation?”

I wonder what my role might be, and not just as a foreigner who’s often confused as to how to act in public. Though I am, in fact, often confused as to how to act in public.

To do nothing is to assume no responsibility and on some level to accept that the street is some kind of Wild West. But to scold complete strangers feels presumptuous, and can even feel—or actually be—dangerous.

In Chicago the way I act, what I can “get away with” saying, is dictated by demographics: my race, gender, age, and class. Sure, there’s a point at which doing nothing is unacceptable. If I see violence of any kind I will act, even if it is with a furtive 911-Emergency call which starts with: “No, I don’t want to give my name and address.” The way I’ve grown up, I’m torn between a strong need to know that sometimes people can “do the right thing” and a very real fear of the consequences—of an intervention or, as it’s pejoratively called, snitching.

So what did I do? Last weekend at the beach I watched while others stepped in. I gladly stepped back because there were plenty of people around, because I wasn’t home. To be honest it didn’t even cross my mind to intervene because it didn’t feel like it was my place, and the risks of jumping in appeared to far outweigh the possible benefit of diffusing a tense situation.

Today, though, I was walking in my own neighborhood, and in a moderately busy residential street I was the closest to the action. So what did I do? I glared. And uttered an indignant, “Oh!” (to the tune of, “hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”) Then I glared some more when the guy yelled at me to “dégage!” I kept walking, and twenty seconds later they were gone.

My heart was pounding.

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Filed under urban life, Urban Morocco