Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Search of Casablanca

Casablanca the imaginary

When you think of Casablanca, what do you think of? Chances are, the film Casablanca is one of the first things that comes to mind. Piano bars and flapper women smoking on long cigarettes being courted by ex-pat men draped in linen suits topped with fedoras smoking on cigars, sipping dark liquor seeking refuge from the
dusty chaos of the Moroccan souk outside the door. On several occasions I have embarked on a quest in search of this timeless “Casablanca”. What I have found, however, is it is just as fleeting as the beat poet’s search for the American dream back in the 50’s.
Casablanca the reality

It only takes a simple google search to find that most travelers who find themselves in Casa share this sense of disillusionment. They come in search for the Oriental mystique encapsulated by its namesake film that was actually shot in Hollywood, California. They come looking for that Western cosmopolitan “oasis” in a country that can feel as intense and relentless as the desert sun.  They think that its reputation as a developed city wedged between the European influence dating back to the days of the French protectorate and embodied by its aging art deco architecture and its strategic position along the coast of ancient North African/Arab routes that it will be a perfect compromise.  Like most of Morocco, Casablanca is a city of contradictions.

Within the Rabat ex-pat community, Casablanca is seen as a city filled with all of the unattainable Western goods that we crave.  Most of us see the city as a place where we go to experience “big city life” with all of its perks: specialty grocery stores, countless bars and options for nightlife, international cuisine, Starbucks coffee, and shopping centers filled with Anglophone Moroccans and European-Western fashion. Last weekend, we went there with the purpose of purchasing clothing to replace those from a bag that got lost in the black hole of international transit. While we ultimately left feeling successful with our trip, it occurred to me that it could be useful to future prospective travelers to write a bit about our experiences as two young American (vegetarian) ex-pats visiting the city. Though the city can feel very overwhelming, your best tool into enjoying yourself and taking in all that Casa has to offer is by coming in knowing what you are actually getting yourself into versus what you expect to find.

One of the first things to know about Casablanca is the taxi drivers.  They are surly, temperamental, and see Western tourists as having wads of money to burn in their pockets. They know that you are at their mercy and unless you prove otherwise, they will try to rip you off. It is very common in Casa to notice that cab drivers will not use their meter. Often they will try to determine a fixed price with you before leaving. You can assume that if they’re doing this, then they are making a pretty serious profit. If you get in the taxi and notice that the counter is not on, be firm and make sure to ask him politely to turn it on for you.  Do not be discouraged if the driver does not know where you are going. There is a chance he (for whatever reason) does not want to take you there. Do not fear. Someone will. If you are trying to get to a particular place (ie: restaurant, bar, club), it is never a bad idea to come prepared. Have the cross street written down as well as the actual address. If there is a landmark nearby, try mentioning that (the neighborhood where it is located is also important, as many boulevards stretch far across the city). Tipping is never necessary.

Second, the ancient city/medina is not worth your time and has a reputation for being dangerous and overpriced. The goods you will find are generally shipped in from (best case) the main artisan cities, such as Fez and Marrakech, and (worst case) if you’re not careful you may be buying a ‘made in China’ Moroccan trinket. If this is the experience you are looking for, I would highly suggest you check out one of the two cities I mentioned previously. If you are tight on time, the Rabat medina will certainly help you get your fix and is a mere hour train ride away.

Alcohol is something else to keep in mind. Don’t let the European vibe fool you – it still takes a bit of cunning to procure alcohol to consume in the privacy of your own home, or in our case, hostel room. Most major grocery stores have what is called a cave d’alcool (alcohol cave), which is usually located in the back corner of the store. The cave usually closes about an hour prior to actual store closing. Fridays can be particularly difficult, as it is the Muslim holy day and most major grocery stores will close their cave around mid-day to approximately 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. In general, I try to assume that 8 pm is usually the cut off point. Acima is a major grocery store that has several locations throughout the city. If you hop in a cab and say “Acima”, chances are there will be no problems.

As mentioned previously, the type of shopping I typically take part in in Casablanca is of a specialty nature. As a vegan/vegetarian, I was thrilled to learn that an organic grocery store has opened up two locations in the city.  The store is called La Vie Claire and it is located at 64, Boulevard Aïn Taujdat and closes at 7 pm.

Every time I go to Casablanca I stay at a hostel named Hotel Central. Not only is it the cheapest bet in town, but the owner is very friendly and a polyglot. He speaks English very well and at the sight of your passport will most likely bellow “OBAMA!” several times for dramatic effect. The rooms are simple and clean and the downstairs lounge area has lovely Moroccan tile work and serves a standard Moroccan breakfast of traditional breads and coffee that is included in your price for the room. The hostel is located within walking distance from the Casa Port train station, making it especially ideal for travelers.

Last weekend, we were craving Asian food and had dinner at a wonderful Asian fusian restaurant called Asia Garden (go figure). Not only did we find a seat on a Saturday night, but the service was very attentive, the décor was coherent (again, difficult to always find), and there was a drink menu. From dinner, we walked over a few blocks to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a famous Casaoui bar inspired from the film Pulp Fiction. As we turned down the street where the bar was located, we witnessed a small street scuffle that ended up involving all nearby shopkeepers and stoop dwellers. From our perspective, a group of Casa girls were getting into a taxi and saying goodbye to their male counterparts after spending a night out together. It was clear that the guys were tying to coax the women to stay out. In a juvenile display of aggression, one of the men lurched forward and lightly struck and disrespected the woman trying to get into the front seat of the cab. It was clear that he had obviously done something to upset this woman, and walked away coolly from the taxi with his cronies in tow. However, the girl who was attacked sprang from the taxi, tore off her down jacket, and began chasing down and screaming at her assailant. As the guy was trying to get away, we saw a storeowner run from his store, plant his feet against the pavement, crossed his arms against his chest, and blocked the running man like a New England Patriot’s linebacker. The man was soon engulfed by the mob forming in the street and we were able to safely watch from a distance as justice was served. We stood from a distance to watch the drama unfold near a bookcase filled with bootlegged DVDs. The owner, noticing our position next to his bookshelf, approached us hoping we were interested in purchasing some. We politely declined and continued on our way. Is Casablanca a dangerous city? Of course. Do Casaouis (people from Casablanca) take care of their own? Absolutely yes.

Upon arriving at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, we couldn’t help but giggle at realizing that we had found exactly what we were looking for: a classic 50’s diner scene, equipped with black and white tile, pounded sheet metal on the bar, artistic tile mosaics on the wall depicting famous scenes from the film, and a menu including a “Royale with Cheese” and “Mia’s $5 shake”. Of course, there were some inconsistencies: a European fashion channel playing the Spring 2013 haute couture fashion lines of famous designers and a band of Sub-Saharan Africans covering American hits like REM’s “Losing my Religion”.  It was everything we were hoping for.

After a few drinks, we decided to make our way back to be closer to our hostel and search for a nightcap. After a few strikeouts: Rick’s Café, a lovely homage to the film Casablanca, unfortunately stops serving at 12:30. 

Rick's Café 
We then tried a few hotel bars with no luck, and then stumbled into destiny: a huge blinking vertical sign spelling out “NIGHTCLUB” attached to the side of the Best Western Hotel. Equal parts intrigued and apprehensive, we approached the red carpet leading down into the club. I asked the doorman in my best naïve tourist impersonation if the nightclub was safe for women.  He assured us that it was very pleasant and with that we descended down the stairs. The drinks were overpriced but the entertainment was something out of the bar scene from the movie “Airplane!”. Old men in suits filled the paid tables surrounding the center dance floor and stained glass lamps with red bulbs provided the added ambiance. Part of the entertainment was an all-women dance troupe doing choreographed dances; each dance deserving a costume change into another set of scantily-clad leotards to fit the theme of the tune. Some songs were sensual Arab hits while others were classic dance songs from the United States and Europe. We felt like we hit the jackpot. Below is a video from the night:

The following day we went to Morocco Mall. Tourists should see no real reason to spend any time here unless they are in desperate need of some new Western fashion or crave the IMAX movie experience. Thursdays they show an American film at the IMAX in English. Getting to the Morocco Mall is a situation where foreigners will have a hard time not being ripped off by taxis. From the Casa Port train station, if you had the meter on, a taxi trip to Morocco Mall should cost you less than 40 dirhams one way. However, most taxi drivers will try to convince foreigners that due to many reasons (traffic, distance, etc.) that the trip is worth 60 or 70 dirhams. Try to pay around 50 dirhams. On the way to the mall, after the immense construction of the new port area, you will come across the awe-inspiring Hassan II mosque, set out over the Atlantic surf, which was built to be the most ambitious structure in all of Morocco. If you pass by at night, be sure not to miss the laser-powered floodlight atop the minaret pointing towards Mecca. The mosque is definitely worth a visit. Continuing on in the taxicab, you will pass along the “Corniche” boardwalk area along the coast, lined with chic clubs, restaurants, and cafés. The final sight to see before the mall is the mysterious Island of Sidi Abderrahman, a spiritual island haven just off the coast home to the famous Sidi Abderrahman marabout (spirit house) and several fortunetellers. Legend has it that Sidi Abderrahman had the power to walk on water, and therefore was able to travel into worlds only accessible to him.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

So there you have it, some tips for navigating and appreciating the “real” Casablanca. I hope this information serves you well. If there is something you are looking to be answered that I didn’t cover, please leave a message at the bottom and I will see if I can help point you in the right direction.