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Notes on the Geography of Morocco: Casablanca

Can we cut through the here's-looking-at-you haze and see Casablanca a bit more accurately? We could hardly do worse than Bogart and Bergman, who never set foot in the place. We could hardly do better, on the other hand, than Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, even if their Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures (2002) pushes our luggage over the weight limit.

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It's just over 200 miles from Tangier, but Autoroutes du Maroc comes to the rescue. It also prepares us for discovering that, as Paul Bowles wrote in 1966, "Casablanca is not Morocco; it is a foreign enclave, an alien nail piercing Morocco's flank."

See Travels: Collected Writings, 1950-1993, 2010, p. 384; also quoted in Cohen and Eleb, p. 275. All unidentified page numbers in this sequence refer to Cohen and Eleb.

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The road bypasses Rabat and passes over the Bouregreg with the cable-stayed Mohammed VI Bridge and its 600-foot pylons. In a tradition that goes back to the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, the architect Hervé Vadon has fused modern design with local tradition.

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The road passes many plastic greenhouses, busy in January with vegetables for Europe.

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OK, you win: tomatoes aren't vegetables. Stickler!

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What catches your eye? Yes, it's the satellite dishes. Think the king is delighted that even slum-dwellers in his country have access to the internet and social media? Umm...

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Here's a snip from a map published in 1942 by the U.S. Army Map Service. It shows the two Casas: the old city or "Ancienne Médina" and the French one engulfing it. The two are separated most prominently by the Place de France. Today it's the Place des Nations Unies. The Boulevard of the 4th regiment of Zouaves has been renamed more than once, and the palms that the French planted along it--three rows, both sides and median--are like the snows of yesteryear.

You've forgotten your history, haven't you? Never mind: it happens to the best of us. Remember: the French occupied Casablanca in 1907, after some workers constructing a harbor on the forbidding coast were attacked and conveniently killed. At least 600 Moroccans died before French rule in the city was consolidated. A protectorate was formally declared five years later.

By the time of this map's publication, the southern corner of the old city had been demolished, save for the wall, which here also marked the limit of the Jewish ghetto or mellah. The wall survived until the 1950s, and the vacant space served for many years as a handy parking lot. Since the 1980s at least, it's been the site of a Hyatt hotel with fine views to either side. Switch rooms mid-stay, and you get two cities for the price of one.

On the side of the old city facing the harbor, you can see the Residence Generale, occupied from 1912 to 1925 by the best-known administrator in the history of the French empire, Hubert Lyautey. It's odd in a way, because Lyautey had no fondness for the old city.

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Here's a partial view of the old city from one of the hotel's windows.

Interested in cultural heritage? Then you have a problem. The arcade was designed in 1939 by Antoine Marchisio, a French architect who headed France's architectural services in Morocco from 1922 until 1947. Until at least the 1930s the old city sprawled in this direction, and the wide street here, the Avenue des F.A.R. or Avenue of the Royal Armed Forces, did not exist until 1952. You'll have to throw out also the massive Hassan II mosque in the distance. It's on the coast and was completed in 1993. Ditto the Marina business district and its highrise cluster, built even more recently on fill that separates the old city from the ocean on which it used to front. That leaves the old city's buildings, most of which did not exist when the French landed.

Now you know why residents of Fez and Marrakech look at Casa the way San Franciscans used to look at Los Angeles. So gauche! So rude!

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And here's the view the other way, over what Wyndham Lewis called "a huge marine outpost of Europe." Lyautey did not share that esthetic neutrality and instead praised this new city as the "pearl of the French Renaissance" (Journey Into Barbary, p. 65).

The building on the right is the former bank of the Compagnie Algérieene (Paris), now Wafasalaf, a subsidiary of Attijariwafa, a Moroccan bank. It was designed chiefly by Henri Prost, who was in charge of French planning in the city from 1914 to 1922. Like most of Prost's work here, the building tries to look as though it belongs in Morocco. Call it neo-Moroccan.

Not so the lovely building in the center. It's the Socifrance Building from 1935, with 60 apartments atop the Café de France. The apartments would for a brief time have had a fine view of the mellah being demolished to expand the Place.

The foot and vehicular traffic is so intense most hours of the day that it's hard to imagine anyone remembering the protests in the 1930s, but here's a bit of a petition from the Jewish community getting the boot. "This project consists of gutting the neighborhood, which has been home to our kin for almost a century, in the aim of widening the main street of the new town, the so-called Place de France.... in our eyes, these booths and temples represent an entire century of toil and labor" (p. 121). Cohen and Eleb report that by 1933 91 buildings in the mellah had been bought and demolished. That left 36 awaiting demolition and 237 remaining to be purchased (p. 122).

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Is the new city more romantic at dawn?

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What about the old city at night? Yes, you say? Joseph Thomson, a model of Victorian exploratorial intrepidity, came by in the 1880s and begs to differ. He writes: "the people are more ugly and dirty, the donkeys worse treated and more mangy, the dogs more numerous and repulsive, and the beggars in greater numbers and decidedly more importunate and loathsome, than in any of the other places we had yet seen" (Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco, 1889, p. 33; quoted by Lewis, p. 66).

You could compile a daisy chain of such insults. Here's a more modest one, coming from the consummately sober Joseph Dalton Hooker, inter alia the director of Kew Gardens. Here he is writing about his trip in 1871: it is "difficult to envisage a less attractive place than Casablanca" (p. 24).

Lyautey approved the condemnation. As he was leaving the city in 1925, he wrote: "The city walls? they're going. They're ugly. ...On the left there's the native Moroccan facade--an Arab fonduk [inn or hotel]--and on the right there's the European facade composed of large, French-style buildings. It's perfect" (p. 113).

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People stuck back in Europe might be gulled by erotic, exotic imagery, but not travelers or residents--at least not those who left written appraisals to amuse and/or annoy us today.

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So, forewarned, we may as well head inside. Bear in mind that the street is new, the wall is new, the gate (the Bab el-Kabir or Big Gate) is new and even the damned clocktower is new. Yes, the French built a clock just like this in 1910. What better symbol of the civilization they intended to bring? The tower was demolished in 1948. Almost 50 years later, gasping for marketable heritage, the government in 1993 built a replica, close to but not on the spot of the original.

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At least the clocktower is handy for getting your bearings as we step inside the old city and thread a path through the Jama souk or congregational-mosque market. Think the park is ancient? Of course not. It's just a little unkempt.

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Now we have the clocktower and the Jama Mosque's minaret. The street has a name--Chakan Arsalane--but it's better to just navigate like a Canadian goose on the wing. We'll try to stay in a straight line. Like every guide who draws breath on this planet, I will here slip in another dose of history, quick, quick. Casablanca got its name (in Arabic, Dar el-Beida) from a sultan, Muhammad bin 'Abdallah, who in 1770 ordered the construction of a walled city on the ruins of Anfa, a earlier town which had been thriving in the 13th to 15th centuries but was in ruins when visited in the early 16th by Leo Africanus (1494-1554?). The sultan thought the city might help resist European penetration of his country, but judging from the fine junk on display here, his efforts failed. By the time of the French arrival in 1907, Dar el-Beida was itself almost a ghost town.

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You want something made in Morocco? Yes, you can get it, but you'll have to ask, and the shopkeeper will probably point you to another shopkeeper, who will retreat to the rear of his shop and fetch a bag actually made in the country.

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Take a look at those buildings. See anything that would be out of place anywhere in Western Europe? What makes the medina feel exotic is the intense street life.

Speaking of which, the street has changed names to Rue El Jadida and is about to switch again to Rue Jamaa Chleuh. Never mind: make like the goose.

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The French did make an effort to help visitors, but most of the signs have vanished. If you can find another, you get a prize.

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A surviving corner of the ghetto.

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This isn't like Jerusalem, where the British moved in and forbade any departures from tradition.

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Here's the Chleuh Mosque, which gives the street here its name. Churches customarily ban commerce, but mosques welcome it. It's a good place to do business, because no good Muslim would cheat another on sacred ground.

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Just around the corner, there's a real baker, a reminder that the old city has its old ways.

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It also has new ones, like this supermarket. The paving is suspiciously perfect, a reminder that as early as 1909 the French began installing sewers and even street signs.

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Supermarket displays are windows on the popular soul, which is why all these damned packaged flakes, crackers, and cookies are so depressing.

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Better: 25 kg sacks of flour. The woman cooks! Do we approve of sunflower oil? I defer to the experts.

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If we bash 400 yards north of the clocktower, we come to the far side of the medina and this fortification, built in the late 18th century as part of Muhammad bin 'Abdallah's program of repelling Europeans. Now of course, having failed in that purpose, it's a charming bit of history.

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The cannon point ineffectually at the artificial harbor begun by the French.

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The gateway through the bastion is now a restaurant.

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It's a 3-minute walk to Resident-General Lyautey's old residence, shown here on a signboard promising its restoration.

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The building peeps over the wall. The minaret belongs to the mosque of Ould el-Hamra, constructed by order of Muhammad bin 'Abdallah.

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Work on the restoration of Lyautey's residence continues.

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It's a two-minute walk from Lyautey's residence to this building, ceded to Germany for a consulate in 1902. Edith Wharton writes that on the eve of World War I Morocco "was honeycombed by German trading interests and secret political intrigue, and the fruit seemed ready to fall when the declaration of war shook the bough" (In Morocco, 1920). Like the rest of Germany's holdings in Africa, the building was forfeited after the war and in 1920 was ceded back to a local official who took possession in the name of the sultan.

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Yes, along with the consulates there's even a European hotel in the medina. It's the Hotel Central, opened as luck would have it in 1912, the year of the Protectorate's proclamation. Elevator? Pardonnez-moi?.

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Lyautey's chief town planner, Henri Prost, recalled in 1917 the urban chaos springing up around the medina. "By early 1914," he wrote, "the small native Moroccan town was drowned amid an extraordinary mix of fonduks and dwellings of all shapes and sizes--basic wooden shacks, villas, and six-story apartment buildings, all scattered several kilometers away from the city walls" (p. 76) How would Prost tame it? The answer was by pushing arterials through the new city.

As for the medina? Prost wanted to demolish it. He didn't manage that. Instead, he moved to Istanbul and went to work on that city.

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"Casablanca," Prost's assistant Laprade wrote, "had shot up out of the ground Far West style. Plots of land changed hands three or four times a day.... Star-shaped subdivisions sprang up everywhere, each owner intent on making his small web of streets the hub of the future city" (p. 72). Every star couldn't be the hub of the city, but every star created at least a local bit of prime real estate, ready for embellishment.

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The INCAMA building, named for an insurance company, opened on such a corner in 1928 to a design by Albert Greslin. Cohen and Eleb write: "Corner buildings with monumental features were to play a dominant role in Casablanca's urban structuring, following on their success in Paris at the turn of the century" (p. 137). This one comes replete with belvedere.

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Even buildings on more conventional blocks often got fancy trim. Here, from 1932, is the Maret Building designed by Hypolyte Delaporte. The style was already out of date.

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A tiled cupola helped the occupants forget that the apartments were small and conventional.

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The doors were nice, however.

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Even the elevator cage had a bit of flair.

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Here's the crowned "Princiére."

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The name may be linked to a locally famous confectioner of the same name.

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Here's one of Prost's arterials. His assistant Laprade wrote, "The task was horrendously difficult. There was no legislation, no land surveys, nor any information on existing constructions.... And Prost achieved the impossible in creating huge arterial roads that are crucial to modern circulation, while barely touching any of the major housing blocks which would have been far too costly to pull down" (pp. 78-9).

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Buildings lucky enough to face main streets front and back were often designed with cross-cutting arcades lined with shops. Here, barely visible, is the Passage du Grand Socco.

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Here's the 1922 El Glaoui building, named for the pasha of Marrakech. See the yellow sign, left-center?

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It marks the entrance to an arcade.

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Here, on the Place de France and partially blocking the El Glaoui Building, is the Excelsior Hotel, completed in 1916 and designed by Hippolyte Delaporte, the architect who a decade later would design the Maret Building. Cohen and Eleb write that he "sought a culture-specific style devoid of pastiche... an ambition to marry Moroccan features with rational architecture" (p. 94).

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Frédéric-Charles Bargone, a novelist who came by in 1932, wrote of "tourists whose favorite pastime was ordering iced drinks at the Excelsior, served by a Parisian maitre d'hotel in full attire while having their shoes polished by a darkie topped by a tarboosh...." Casablanca, he continued, "is fast becoming a New America; in fact, it is more American than Chicago and San Francisco put together" (p. 169; Bargone's novels were written under the pseudonym Claude Farrère).

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The hotel lobby is not as spacious as you might anticipate. And those lights!

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Originally the Splendid, the Rialto movie theater opened in 1930 and seated 1,350 people. An advertisement from the early days: "Rialto's management is sparing nothing to ensure that the most recent and reputed films are shown in its theater at the same time as they are released in Paris, and sometimes even before" (Le Maroc en 38, quoted in Cohen and Eleb, p. 251).

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Around the corner.

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Even garages were stylish then.

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Another example.

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Another wedge building, this one late enough (1934) to have dropped the ornamentation of its earlier siblings. Now a hotel, at its opening it was the Shell Building, designed by the locally very prominent Marius Boyer.

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The Moretti-Milone building from 1935 foreshadowed the highrises coming to Casablanca. Its prominence was accentuated in 1952 with the opening of the Avenue des F.A.R.

For more on this and other buildings, see the helpful website to which Jacqueline Alluchon contributed: http://mutualheritage-casablanca.univ-tours.fr/

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A neighbor popped up in 1950: designed by Alexandre Courtois, it was originally the Banque Nationale du Commerce et de l'Industrie. Buildings like this help explain why Wyndham Lewis spoke of Casablanca as "a city upon the American model" (Journey Into Barbary, p. 73).

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Meanwhile, a set of government buildings had been built. This one, the post office with a telephone exchange upstairs, came first and was completed in 1920 to a design by Adrien Laforgue, another architect on Prost's staff. Lyautey explained that in the government's plans for its administrative buildings "we have kept one of the best features of Arab construction, that is, plain exteriors... It is a point of honor in Arab construction that nothing should be revealed on the outside, save the profile, contours, and facades" (p. 96).

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The main entrance is trimmed with tile.

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The main hall manages to be both austere and opulent.

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Three years after the post office, the law courts were completed in 1923 by Joseph Marrast, another young architect on Prost's staff. Marrast didn't stay long in Morocco, and this is his only completed building. Along with Prost's bank on the Place de France, however, it went a long way toward establishing the neo-Moroccan style.

Along with the city hall behind it, the law courts were part of a stylistically unified group occupying the Place Administrative. Where did the land come from? "This piece of land," Prost wrote in 1917, "which has now been vacated by the army, will be devoted to an administrative square containing all the military and civic organs of the modern city" (p. 95).

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The city hall (now the Wilaya or governorate) came last. Sketched in 1917 by Prost, the final design was by Marius Boyer, who won a competition requiring neo-Moroccan arcades and green tiles. Delayed by the Depression, the building was finished in 1937.

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So was the State Bank of Morocco, designed by Edmond Brion and managing to maintains the severity of its siblings while ratcheting up the opulence proper for a house of money.

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Yes, the French built churches, though the Church of Sacre Coeur, by Paul Tournon, came along slowly. Begun in 1930, it was completed in 1952, only to be wrapped up again more recently. The building is set back from the street. Cohen and Eleb suggest that this was no accident but rather the government's effort "to tone down religion in the city center" (p. 108). Lyautey apparently wanted a single tower, like a mosque, but he was gone by the time work began, and the church wound up with a more conventional pair.

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In 2017 most of the building was wrapped in scaffolding, but enough was visible to see that Tournon wanted a cathedral for the 20th century.

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The material is reinforced concrete, but the geometric netting may echo the Alhambra.

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Google--that's a verb--images of Casablanca and you will get pictures of this big, big mosque, the mosque of Hassan II.

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If size is the measure of beauty, then this building is beautiful.

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Visitors venturing across the plaza are advised to set out with sufficient water to complete the journey in safety.

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Entry for tourists isn't cheap, which is why one might look for an illicit peek. It's a matter of principle.

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Sly snap, but you get a sense of the scale of the place.

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It sits on the water's edge.

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So does this lighthouse, the Phare de El Hank, another production of a member of the Prost team, in this case Albert Laprade. It's about two kilometers down the coast from the mosque. Would it have been better if the French had made no concessions to Moroccan tradition? Was it patronizing for them to adopt such dress? I think not, on both counts.

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Some Europeans during the French period lived in grand villas. Here, on Rue d'Alger near Sacré Coeur, is a house by the prolific Marius Boyer. It's one of a pair known as Les Tourelles and built for two business associates. The buildings have lost some trim, and if they look as though they need some attention, it's because they're abandoned.

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Here's a house in better shape.

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Another survivor, repurposed.

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And another. Think the bars are original? I'm betting not.

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How's this for atmosphere? The sign says that the door opens at nine, but no luck. The plaque above says that the cemetery was "dedicated to the service of the British community in 1864; Enlarged in 1910."

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