Category Archives: Urban Morocco

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

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

Boulevard Mers Sultan

On Boulevard Mers Sultan, looking towards the Rond Point Mers Sultan. The Hassan II mosque is off in the distance…

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Filed under Casablanca, day in the life, pictures, Urban Morocco

Rush hour on Zerktouni

**update April 8th with new picture**

I live right near Boulevard Zerktouni, one of the main thoroughfares in the city center which draws a half-circle around the old medina. Funny story: this road used to be known as the Boulevard Maréchal Foch, which nicely illustrates the fact that Casa was originally planned by the military. Poor Maréchal Foch was split in two to make the Boulevard de la Résistance and the Boulevard Zerktouni, after a leader of the resistance movement leading up to Morocco’s independence from France in 1956.

The middle two lanes of Zerktouni tunnel under the Boulevard Hassan II, another main major road in the centreville that branches out from the medina.

This picture of the beginning of the tunnel, taken around 5PM, seems to amplify the rush hour traffic…

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Filed under Casablanca, colonialism, pictures, Transportation, Urban Morocco

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.


Filed under urban life, Urban Morocco


This apartment building caught my eye during a walk with a couple of classmates last week. We were in the quartier populaire (working class neighborhood) of Hay Sadri, not far from Ben Msik where we study. Most apartment buildings are painted either white or some light, warm color like yellow or orange.

Remarked my friend Zainab: “Individualism!”

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Filed under architecture, Casablanca, day in the life, Uncategorized, Urban Morocco

The “Trabway”

Traffic in downtown Casa has been particularly congested in the last few months due to tramway construction. Drivers found some boulevards suddenly reduced from four lanes to two, and the historic Boulevard Mohammed V is almost completely blocked. Here’s what it looks like these days:

I think Casa is still in the “grumbly” phase of this major infrastructure project, because I’ve rarely seen much enthusiasm from Casaouis about the new Tramway, scheduled to be finished on 11/11/2011. One friend told me that the project is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “trabway.” “Trab” means dirt, which is all that we see so far of the tramway project.

A rep from Casa Tramway says that the company did a lot of outreach, both to take into account the public’s input and to let them know about the project once it was underway–where to park, how to drive around the blocked streets, etc–but having never heard of any of this from anyone else I’m skeptical about the efficacy of their outreach… (although a very cute animated tram popped up today on their website to give tips on avoiding roads under construction)

It’s hard to imagine how a city will look like, and feel, and function, once a project like this is completed, but here in Morocco Casablanca will not the guinea pig. Rabat, just an hour away, is very close to offering tram service to the public. Right now the system is up and running, but only on a testing basis. What a tease…

In my very unscientific poll of taxi drivers in Rabat, I’ve found that there are some mixed, but generally positive, feelings about the tramway. The construction and newly narrowed boulevards have caused some traffic headaches, I’m sure, but at least the project has taken shape. And compared to the mess that is downtown Casa right now, boy does Rabat look sleak and sexy. Check out the “zellige” (mosaic) motif on the trams.


Filed under Casablanca, Morocco, Rabat region, Transportation development, urban development, Urban Morocco