A city of a thousand faces


Casablanca “claims to have been a sprawling metropolis before it was even designated a city.” It “does not have the assets of an imperial city, but contains the best of a global city.”

Understanding and explaining this ‘craziness’ within the white city is what 20 researchers who took part in the work of the Moroccan Centre for Social Sciences at the University of Ain Chok, set out to do. Sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, geographers, architects and political scientists — both Moroccan and foreign — sought to feel the pulse of the sprawling city, meet its inhabitants, and explore its streets. Led by political scientist Mohamed Tozy and anthropologist and director of the Jacques Berque Centre Michel Peraldi, the researchers attempted to explain the rapid growth of the city and describe its urban features, how many and paradoxical they may be.

Because this is a city that is never quite what you expect it to be, nor does it ever adhere to its assigned role. Mohamed Tozy and Michel Peraldi write: “If one thinks that the city was born out of a colonial desire to create something free from the constraints faced by an Arab city and the power of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, especially the one from Fez, one would be mistaken. Casablanca is the exact opposite: a city whose development is planned, organised, and governed. What is, by contrast, less governed are the people within it. They exist outside of traditional tribal structures and define the rules of polite society, both within the old urban worlds and outside of it.” Today, the authors note, Casablanca is growing from its centre and through the middle classes. And its growth has been enormous — from rural areas almost up to the heart of the city. Casablanca is the melting pot of Morocco, the gateway to the West, and a testing ground for opinions.

In Casablanca, People and City Scenes, 20 people give their take on the people and places that make the city. A great number of facets coexist within their stories. What is striking to the reader is its absence of academic prose. Each researcher has forged his or her own style. Some are more descriptive, others more analytical. And then there are others still who just say what happened.

Fadma Ait Mous, for example, simply accompanies the character she has chosen as the object of her study. In essence, her Portrait of a Casablancan Housewife spans one day, between the home and the market, and shows the reader all the tricks used by a mother of modest means to save a few cents. Mostafa Aboumalek gathers and reveals the city’s perception its singletons, while Fanny Debarre follows two young divorced women and analyses how they act, both at work and in their neighborhood.

Marie-Pierre Anglade, meets with street vendors and describes, from their point-of-view, the social boundaries within the city. Habiba Essahel and Montserrat Emperador Badimon reflect on the many facets of the profession of a scribe, and explain that Sidi Omar “does not work only with illiterates. It is not enough to know how to write or to have enough of an intellectual background to know how to write a note, one must acquire an experience or know-how which has built up over the years. One must not only have a high level or fluency in Arabic, what is of greater importance is to have gained experience which can only be acquired on the ground, by confronting real and concrete situations.”

Mohamed Tozy and Mahfoud Souaid portray the intriguing character Taleb. A respected individual in the rural world, he is reduced to make a living through the business of death and the sales of amulets. Jamal Khalil nostalgically regrets the disappearance of checkers, “a low stakes game,” which never failed to be accessible and never inspires the ambitious. Yasmine Berrian and Leila Bouasria accompany three Iben (fermented milk) vendors from the edge of the town and the countryside, and describe the evolution of the interpenetration between the two worlds.

Abderrahmane Rachik talks about the miserable daily routines of the “nighttime builders on the Lahraouiyine side.” Mohamed Wazif gives us an insight into the life of a porter, portrayed as a “precariousness.” Meriam Cheikh describes the endless days of female roommates who not only share rooms and meals, but also the uncertainty of the future. Mohamed Oubenal recounts a similar tale of a young executive in auditing, shedding light on the economic side of the sprawling city.

Through the footsteps of a kariyanates child, who emigrated to Italy before being deported to Morocco, Fulvia Antonelli reveals the political face of informal urban settlements; ghettos in the “anonymous and sterile style of Parisian suburbs, but without the services that go with it”: “We think in terms of eradication, not in terms of rehabilitation of informal settlements,” she writes. “Firstly, it is a question of dismantling the social relationships and internal self-organisation that, in fact, ‘organises’ the apparent chaos within this type of environment.”

Some portraits are more hopeful, such as the talented artist Ahmed Bendell who was discovered when he was a car watcher, or the life of Sidi Bernoussi’s son, Hassan Darsi, who left for Belgium to study fine arts and made it as an artist. There is also the likes of the merchant from Ouneine, in the High Atlas, whose business dealings brought him as far as Shanghai.

Casablanca is also the set of key locations, such as the Wlad Ziane bus station, where Jamila Bargach and Yousef Hamouimid portray all the harshness of violence. Anouk Cohen, meanwhile, sees “the laboratory of a Casablancan intellectual elite” in the very old Café de la Presse, but regretfully the writer she interviewed, Driss El Khouri, is later referred to as Driss Khouli. One of the most beautiful texts of this book is by far Café de France, a character! by Abdelmajid Arrif. The ethnologist demonstrates a real talent for writing, describing the cafe that never closes as “a true Casablancan melting-pot where people meet, fates are mixed, time distorts, and the city-dwellers are inspired.”

We would have appreciated a more rigorous editing of the book, which features typos, often cumbersome translations, and footnotes difficult even for a Moroccan reader. But Casablanca, People and City Scenes is, through the images of this city, a book that opens a multitude of tracks. Far from a summary of the city in twenty parts, it invites the reader to explore it further.

Written by Kenza Sefrioui and published with the courtesy of Babelmed, partner of Mashallah News. Translated from French by Shane Farrell.

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