16 April 2011

Casablanca

Before Americans come to Morocco, there are a few things they may already know about it: “The Marrakech Express” song, they may think it’s Monaco, or they may have heard of Casablanca. The city made famous by a movie about a love story in Vichy France. They have these images of low lounge tables in smoky rooms with Uncle-Tom-like piano men creating the soundtrack behind the stilted 40’s dialogue and overly dramatic close-ups.

Moroccans, however, have very different stereotypes about Casablanca. They usually call it Casa, pronounced more like “Caza” or Dar Bida (white house) in Arabic. They know it to be a busy places filled with a lot of rich people and a lot of poor people. Most Moroccans from the countryside that I’ve talked to say that they hate the place because it’s filled with busy people and high buildings and that no one knows their neighbors. Moroccans from all over Morocco also have this stereotype about the shantytowns in Casa overflowing with “bad boys” who like to cause trouble, light things on fire, and who are so poor that they’ve turned to terrorism.

Learning about Casa, for my part, has taken my whole 3 years in Morocco. My first experience there was a train “changement” on my way from Marrakech in the south to Oujda in the East to visit my best volunteer friend. It’s a 12-hour trip. After the four-hour train from Marrakech in the July heat, I got of the train at Casa Voyegeurs for a five hour layover to wait for the overnight train to Oujda… In the first 20 minutes, I ventured outside the train station, and 5 minutes later, I hurried back. In Marrakech, there are no buildings higher than the mosques, and when I stepped out in the Casa streets with mostly 20- or higher story buildings, I felt claustrophobic. The smog-laced weight of the ocean air was even more suffocating, and cab drivers in little red taxis beat any crazy driving record I had seen in other Moroccan cities.

After that, I wasn’t keen on going back to Casa anytime soon, but in November, my Moroccan Couchsurfer friend invited me to come down for couple of nights. Since she had come to stay at my place twice on her way up into the High Atlas Mountains, I thought it would be nice to see where she came from. I had a good time over all, being welcomed into her 6-person family’s two-bedroom apartment warmly as their first Arabic-speaking foreign Couchsurfer, going out in Ain Diab – a line of clubs along the beach – and getting an understanding of the layout of the city.

My impression changed slightly then, learning for the first time the dichotomy between city Moroccans and countryside Moroccans. Since most of the people I met spoke excellent English, I learned that there were a lot more educated, working, computer-using, quote unquote normal people in Morocco.

I also was able to articulate exactly why I couldn’t feel comfortable in the city. The architecture was what was so oppressive to me that first time, not the rest of the atmosphere. In my letter home, I called it a “50’s art deco nightmare.” It wasn’t the art deco itself that was depressing, but the decay, and the sickly grey color all the previously white houses had. The ocean hair had corroded all the concrete buildings, eating away at what could have been their former majesty, and leaving a city on the verge of crumbling. But still, there was a life, a pulse, that any city of 6 million people will have, that kept me interested in discovering what the attraction was to this place.

To be continued…

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