Here’s looking at you, kid

On Sunday afternoon, flying in to Casablanca, I could see small farms and fields spreading out around the airport. My hotel was on the coast — a 45 minute drive — and after checking in I walked down to the beach. Despite the weather there were people waiting for sunset: sitting in rented plastic chairs or standing about expectantly. We watched the light fade and then, as if film credits were rolling, everyone turned and started walking towards the Anfa Place Mall, just across the boardwalk.

Action! The mall takes its name from the 12th century Berber settlement (Anfa) that — after a few hundred years of piracy, the Portugese and the Spanish — became Casablanca. It was the most crowded place I visited in the town. Unruly checkout lines snaked out behind registers in the Carrefour by the entrace. The Marks & Spencer, a Monsoon, a GO Sports and all the usual international retail suspects were arrayed on floor one. And on floor two a fast-food cornucopia filled with families eating KFC, McDonalds, Dominos and strange burgers from “Taco Time.” Two giant plush polar bears presided over a floor-to-ceiling Christmas display in the mall’s main atrium, surrounded by oversized gift boxes and ornaments.

The next morning a taxi took me along the corniche past the El Hank lighthouse and the giant Hassan II Mosque, past the “Rick’s Cafe” that was opened by an ex-diplomat as a tribute to the movie Casablanca, and then to the el-Hamra mosque where I started my walk through the Medina. The Medina is the old pre-French area of the city that seems to date back, at least in parts, to the 15th century. The el-Hamra mosque, on its periphery, was built in the late 18th century and has been rebuilt and renovated several times since then. On a Monday morning it was quiet, with a lone man smoking on a bench outside.

In fact, the whole Medina was quiet and empty-feeling, with a scattering of men cleaning or making deliveries, working the shops, or drinking tea on chairs outside small cafes, and absolutely no tourists in sight. I stopped by a tiled water fountain and a man approached to ask where I was from. When I told him he shouted “New York Yankee!” and pointed at his baseball hat. And then, without any real conviction or enthusiasm: “Are you looking for things to buy?” “La, la, shukran,” I said, “just going to meet some friends.” He patted me on the shoulder and turned away, saying, “Take a picture, my friend, take a picture.”

Having crossed through the Medina I turned up the Boulevard Félix Houphouët-Boigny, one of the main boulevards in Casablanca, with large palm trees and many shops, and walked the few blocks to Mohammed V Square, which has on one side the giant and imposing CasArts. Also known as the Grand Theatre of Casablanca, CasArts was designed by Casablanca-born French architect Christian de Portzamparc, winner of the 1994 Pritzker Prize. It is reportedly the biggest theatre in Africa, although it seemed still in-progress, with its large, empty plaza bordered by chain-link fencing. On the other side of the square are more traditional government buildings, a hotel and a large mosque.

Just past Mohammed V Square is the Arab League Park, with palm-lined promenades and lawns and playgrounds and flowerbeds. I walked along the promenades and then out into the Gauthier neighborhood, filled with art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. I ate lunch there at Holy Brunch restaurant, which had a neon sign on the wall saying “smells like brunch spirit.”

For the next two days it rained, but I was inside for meetings anyway and didn’t mind looking out at the drifting clouds and the rain coming down in fierce torrents and light showers. On Tuesday afternoon I was at a large table facing the windows that looked onto the sea and around 5 PM the sun came out briefly and a wide rainbow appeared, running straight down from clouds into the water. When I saw it I almost shouted out, “A rainbow!” but I caught myself and instead looked around the room to try to catch someone’s eye so I could share this. Everyone was occupied, so I said nothing. The rainbow widened and brightened, more colors appeared, and then it faded away and was gone. A Maggie Smith poem came to mind:

Poem Beginning with a Retweet

If you drive past horses and don’t say horses
you’re a psychopath.
If you see an airplane
but don’t point it out. A rainbow,
a cardinal, a butterfly. If you don’t
whisper-shout albino squirrel! Deer!
Red fox!
If you hear a woodpecker
and don’t shush everyone around you
into silence. If you find an unbroken
sand dollar in a tide pool. If you see
a dorsal fin breaking the water.
If you see the moon and don’t say
oh my god look at the moon. If you smell
smoke and don’t search for fire.
If you feel yourself receding, receding,
and don’t tell anyone until you’re gone.

I felt that I had made a mistake in not pointing out that flash of beauty.   And . . . is that part of receding, receding?  OK you psychopaths: next time I’m going full rainbow.

I wanted to see what the Casa nightlife was like, so on Monday evening I walked out along the corniche past Anfa Place mall and movie theatre, because the concierge told me I would find cafes and bars there and a lively scene. Maybe the scene starts late? Or in summer? There was no one at 9 PM, and the only bars I saw had a strong strip-club vibe.

On Wednesday, my last morning, I planned to visit the Habous district, which is the “new Medina” that developed in the early 20th century when Morocco was occupied by the French. But once again it was raining, so I worked in my room and then took a car back to the airport. Just past the immigration counter, as I went to catch the plane to Lisbon, I mean Barcelona, there was this:

Salam, Casa!

Links to Resources:

Christian de Portzamparc’s webpage on CasArts:

Habous District:

Hassan II Mosque (you can book tours in English):

Le Cabestan (swank restaurant on the water):

Makhama du Pacha (former royal palace):

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