FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Casablanca Gets A Rewrite As A Modern, Cosmopolitan City

Feb 1, 2012
2012 / February 2012

Casablanca is more than just a place. It is a timeless jewel of popular culture. It is a compendium of memorable quotes. It is romance. It is Bogie and Bergman. It is the pinnacle of Hollywood’s golden age, enshrined for all time in glorious black and white.

Few place names conjure such strong emotional responses. For 70 years, for most Americans, the actual North African port has been completely overshadowed by its celluloid incarnation.

Casablanca traffic © Dario Bajurin I Dreamstime.com

Casablanca traffic © Dario Bajurin I Dreamstime.com

But beyond the cinematic fable lies Morocco’s largest city, where 3.5 million Casablancans lead their lives in gritty color. The streets throng with traffic and noise. Container ships exchange cargo at the region’s busiest harbor. The world’s fifth-largest shopping mall recently opened, proclaiming the city’s ambitions for the future.

If you arrive expecting to be immersed in an exotic, ancient culture, you’ll probably be disappointed. The celebrated Moroccan poet and novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun has described modern Casablanca as a great wooden trunk sitting beside the sea adorned with seagull droppings.

On first impression, the city reeks of faded glory. Many of its fine colonial buildings have fallen into decay, their intricate details worn to indistinction by the Atlantic wind and blooms of mildew. Urban sprawl fans out from the coast. The neighborhoods — some wealthy, most afflicted to varying degrees with poverty — are threaded with roads that regularly snarl to a standstill.

The fortunes of the city have ebbed and flowed throughout history, often determined by forces beyond the horizon. Among the earliest settlers were the Phoenicians, who established a trading port in the shadow of the Anfa Hills around 2,600 years ago.

In time, the modest city of Anfa became the capital of a Berber state. The Portuguese swept in during the 16th century. Their habit of whitewashing their stone fortifications gave rise to a new name, Casa Branca (Casa Blanca in Spanish, White House in English, Dar al Baida in Arabic).

When the Portuguese departed, the settlement slumped, and by 1830 it was a neglected, windswept fishing village of 600 inhabitants. Then the Europeans returned, looking for a trading center from which to export wool and wheat from Morocco’s hinterland. French influence prevailed, and its legacy persists.

At the turn of the 20th century, Morocco’s French military governor, Gen. Hubert Lyautey, decided to make Casablanca the colony’s primary commercial center. To that end, he commissioned the construction of a major port.

Amid the frenzy of development, the nearby old medina and its tangle of alleyways was preserved, but virtually everything outside its walls was leveled to make way for a French-style layout of tree-lined boulevards and civic squares.

Casablanca became an architectural melting pot. Fashionable styles — Art Nouveau, Parisian Art Deco and Neo-Classical — were imported from Europe and combined with the local Moorish traditions to create a unique blend dubbed Mauresque. It was this sophisticated style that inspired the exotic sets of the famous film.

By the 1930s, Casablanca had become a model cosmopolitan city. Through Western eyes, that era was the city’s peak. But as with the movie, a key ingredient was missing — local people. Almost half the population was European.

That changed radically after Morocco’s independence in 1956. Casablanca expanded rapidly as Moroccans flocked in from rural areas. The infrastructure groaned under their weight. Shanty towns sprang up.

Over the past half-century, Casablanca has cemented its preeminent role in Morocco’s economy but with increasing social inequality, entrenched corruption and the neglect of the basic infrastructure.

In 2003, the city was hit by a wave of suicide bombings which killed 45 people. It was Casablanca’s 9/11. Although the attacks were linked to Al Qaeda, analysts noted that all of the bombers were drawn from the shanty towns and had been motivated as much by poverty as by radical Islam.

It may have been a defining moment in Casablanca’s history. In 2007, the government announced a $1 billion plan to demolish the shanty towns and replace them with affordable housing for the estimated 500,000 inhabitants.

Meanwhile, the city’s growing economy has expanded into new sectors. Casablanca is the regional headquarters for numerous high-profile companies including Proctor and Gamble, Coca- Cola, Microsoft, Dell and Oracle.

A cutting-edge 125-hectare industrial zone has been established close to the international airport, with an emphasis on the aerospace sector. MATIS, a local company specializing in aircraft wiring, is part-owned by Boeing, while Canadian manufacturer Bombardier has announced a $200 million aircraft parts factory which will employ 850 local workers.

Ambitions for a metro system to relieve the chronic traffic congestion have yet to be realized, but work is currently underway on a new 49-stop tram line, scheduled to open this year. Work is also continuing on a major seafront development, the Casablanca Marina, a multibillion-dollar residential, leisure and commercial complex between the port and the iconic Hassan II Mosque.

Casablanca traffic © Dario Bajurin I Dreamstime.com

Hassan II Mosque © Richard Sharrocks I Dreamstime.com

Most significantly, December 2011 saw the opening of North Africa’s first destination mall, the Morocco Mall, which was launched with a glitzy concert by Jennifer Lopez. This sprawling oceanfront complex, which includes its own indoor aquarium, claims to be Africa’s largest shopping center and expects to receive 14 million visitors each year.

As the new Casablanca emerges, the old one can still be found within the walls of the medina. Here you can lose yourself in the labyrinth of shaded alleyways, haggle for bargains and soak up the atmosphere.

Even within this seemingly timeless quarter, Casablanca feels slightly at odds with the rest of Morocco. Men and women mingle freely. People are prepared to express their political views. It was in this city that the most vocal demonstrations took place during the Arab Spring, resulting in the recent national elections that brought a moderate Islamist party to power.

Throughout the past seven decades, Casablanca has been blessed and cursed by its association with the classic movie. Hollywood myth masked African reality. Perhaps that will change as this huge, shambolic, dynamic city continues to carve its own distinct identity.

Here’s looking at you, Casablanca.


Owner, Rick’s Café

I am a former U.S. diplomat; I opened Rick’s, becoming Madame Rick, in 2004. My story will be told in the forthcoming book Rick’s Cafe: Bringing the Screen Legend to Life in Casablanca.

Casablanca is the economic capital of Morocco, and even before the Arab Spring the city was establishing itself as a regional hub for international companies. There is even more potential as Morocco has remained stable and undergone internal reforms with a new constitution and a recent election.

Morocco managed to maintain growth during the downturn. However, the tourism sector suffered; travelers have avoided the region because of political upheavals elsewhere. Banks tend to be very conservative with new-to-market foreign investors and have traditionally preferred to work with large, local groups.

Foreign investors should be prepared to conduct business in French and not rely on a local partner or manager for translation. They should also spend the time on the ground necessary to build their business. There is a culture of corruption in business in Morocco. A foreigner has more of a chance of avoiding big-scale corruption by being clear from the outset that bribes will not be paid. The Party of Justice and Development, the moderate Islamist party that won the recent election, has made fighting corruption its No. 1 priority.

Being involved in creating Rick’s Café has shown more starkly the worsening problems of Casablanca since I arrived in 1998. I was full of optimism when I launched my project in 2001, but I experienced difficulties from every quarter: financial, bureaucratic, licensing and construction. My strongest lament is that the architectural history of the central Art Deco district has been ignored by local authorities, who have even allowed some buildings to be demolished.

I hope that real estate development tax exemptions will be replaced by exemptions for owners or investors who wish to preserve old structures. Restoration projects should benefit from low-cost, long-term loans to finance the difference in cost between new construction and preservation. I would like Old Casablanca to merit at least as much attention as New Casablanca. I also hope the new tramway will solve Casablanca’s impossible traffic problems.

First on anyone’s list would be the Hassan II Mosque, taking time to tour the beautiful interior. The center of town with the Art Deco buildings, including the Marche Central (where we get our daily fresh vegetables, fruit and shellfish) is my favorite area. The Ancienne Medina has some notable structures including an old Spanish church; the residence of Marshall Lyautey, the protectorate-era French representative; and Rick’s Café. The old medina will undergo rehabilitation thanks to an initiative funded by King Mohammed VI.

Things to Do in Casablanca

There is no contest when it comes to choosing Casablanca’s premier landmark. You can’t miss it — and you wouldn’t want to. More than 10,000 craftsmen labored for the better part of a decade to create the Hassan II Mosque, the spectacular $750 million edifice that has dominated the waterfront since opening in 1993. The faithful are called to prayer from the world’s tallest minaret, which tops out at 689 feet. In its shadow, 105,000 people can worship simultaneously — 25,000 inside and 80,000 outside (though the distinction between inside and outside blurs when the mosque’s roof is retracted). Part of the prayer hall is built over the ocean, with a glass floor to allow worshippers to see the water lapping beneath them. At night, green laser beams shine in the direction of Mecca. This is one of only two mosques in Morocco open to non-Muslims. All visitors are expected to dress respectfully, with legs and shoulders covered.

From the mosque, the broad Boulevard Moulay Youssef leads to another spectacular building, the Cathédrale Sacré-Coeur, built in 1930 by the French. Unconsecrated after Moroccan independence, this Neo-Gothic former church is now primarily used as a cultural center. The hangar-like whitewashed interior is breathtaking, with colored light flooding in through stained-glass windows.

Besides Islam and Christianity, the other Abrahamic religion is also represented in Casablanca. The Jewish Museum, which opened in 1997, occupies a villa in the suburb of Oasis. The collection includes artifacts and photographs revealing the 2,000-year history of Morocco’s Jewish community, as well as full-size replicas of a synagogue and a silver workshop.

The heart of Casablanca is Place Mohamed V, a busy square of leafy gardens and cooling fountains fringed by impressive colonialera administrative buildings, including the Palais de Justice and the Prefecture. The popular plaza around the main fountain is a great place to rub shoulders with ordinary Casablancans while feeding, or dodging, the pigeons. It’s also a good place to get a temporary henna tattoo.

The Ancienne Medina is neither the oldest nor biggest old town in Morocco, but it’s worth exploring to get a feel for local life up close and personal.

The New Medina is a slightly sanitized version of the original, built by the French in the 1930s. Located southeast of the city center, close to the Royal Palace (which is closed to the public), it provides the immersive North African experience with less hassle.

The Corniche, in the upmarket seafront suburb of Ain Diab, is a great place to enjoy the sun and sea. At sunset, find a vantage in one of the numerous beach clubs (which have names like Tahiti and Miami Plage).

Casablanca Info to Go

Most international flights arrive at Mohammed V International Airport (CMN), located 18 miles southeast of downtown. There is an hourly train service to the city and a shuttle bus operated by CTM. For more information, visit www.visitcasablanca.ma.

Casablanca: Just the Facts

Time Zone: GMT + 0
Phone Code: 212 Morocco, 522 Casablanca
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. visitors must have a passport valid for three months beyond intended stay. No visa is required for a stay of up to three months.
Currency: Moroccan dirham
Official Language: Arabic. French is widely spoken.
Key Industries: Import/export, phosphate, fisheries, manufacturing, aerospace, banking

Where to Stay in Casablanca

Hotel & Spa Le Doge A restored slice of Casablanca’s glamorous 1930s Art Deco heritage, this exclusive 16-room boutique hotel is part of the Relais & Châteaux portfolio. 9 Rue de Doctor Veyre, tel 212 5 22 46 7800 $$$$

Hyatt Regency Casablanca This oasis of genteel calm overlooking the chaotic maze of the old medina offers a great central location. Place des Nations Unies, tel 212 5 22 43 1234 $$$$

Moroccan House Hotel This 10-story, 46-room hotel is designed like a traditional Moroccan house, centered on an airy courtyard. Rooms feature local décor and fourposter beds. 3 Rue Mohamed SMIHA, Côte Av. des FAR, Centre Ville, tel 212 5 22 54 3566 $$

Restaurants in Casablanca

La Bavaroise This fine-dining restaurant close to Place des Nations Unies serves an international cuisine with a French bias; try the fresh seafood. 133 Rue Allal Ben Abdallah, tel 212 5 22 31 1760 $$$

Rick’s Café “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” This beautifully realized venue is the closest you’ll get to stepping into the famous movie. 248 Blvd. Sour Jdid, Place du Jardin Public, Ancienne Medina, tel 212 5 22 27 4207 $$$

La Sqala Far from squalid, this trendy café within the walls of the old medina is a great place to sample Moroccan specialties. Blvd. des Almohades, tel 212 5 22 26 0960 $$$


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