I didn’t plan on spending a night in Casablanca, but my bowels had other ideas.
Traveler’s diarrhoea—whatever, it happens; I’ll spare you the sordid details. Let’s just say that dehydration, gurgling cramps and lack of sleep, coupled with the stifling heat and constricted leg room of the 3-hour train ride from Meknes (this ain’t no Eurostar), were sufficient impetus to delay my connecting 7-hour bus ride in favor of a bed and flushing toilet. And so I ended up spending a night and morning in “the least Moroccan” city in Morocco, famous more for old Hollywood than medinas.
Most travelers and guidebooks will advise the eager tourist against anything more than lay-overs in what is arguably Morocco’s most well-known city. It’s too Westernized, they say, not exotic enough—full of all the traffic and shiny buildings and business men of home. It’s not the real Morocco, the cumin-scented crumbling alleyways of your fantasies.
During my lovely 2-day London lay-over, I read a Guardian travel article about Casablanca that my host had thoughtfully set aside for me. The author argued that Casablanca was just as much the real Morocco as anywhere else—and lacked the hassles and over-tourism of many of the country’s more popular destinations. I nibbled my morning toast and read with skepticism—sounded like a writer working a little too hard for an angle, to say something fresh and different.
Well, I’ll be god-damned if he wasn’t right.
Now, don’t get all excited. It’s true that Casablanca is not a beautiful or artistically cultured city; it doesn’t “boast” a lot of sights and its stray-cat- and donkey-less medina feels more like an outdoor strip mall than a relic of ancient urbanity. But Casablanca reveals a different side of Morocco, the struggles and tensions on the other end of the booming economy and rapidly growing tourism. I’m grateful for my extended stop-over in the city; without it, I don’t think I’d have gotten as full a view of the country.
Casablanca’s streets are filled with a different kind of energy—people swarming rhythmically and cross-walk-less across vast boulevards of sleek new cars and gasping palm trees. French business men and snappily dressed black Africans drop coins into the gnarled cupped palms of beggars. Less fortunate immigrants walk slowly along the sidewalks, displaying goods: tissues, random electronics, watches; they have thin arms, impossibly high cheekbones and a kind of dignified desperation. Young girls wear jellabas like bathrobes, carelessly; just as often, they sport bare arms and skinny jeans. The air is thick with honking horns, the streets grimy and littered. Colonial building facades look as though they’ve grown tired of being elegant; beside them, mirrored-glass new construction shoots into the sky arrogantly.
Despite an thriving economy—it grew nearly 6 percent in 2007—around 19 percent of the Moroccan population lives under the poverty line; no where is this more evident than in Casablanca. On the train ride in, we passed through scores of squatter settlements, sagging structures whose tin roofs were anchored with old tires and heavy rocks, sometimes a satellite dish. In direct contrast is the oceanside Hassan II Mosque, a half-billion-dollar monument to opulence and Islam that would have been offensive if it weren’t so damn impressive. Since the 80s, Casablanca has also been the site of political uprisings, brutal repressions and suicide bombings.
You get a sense of this all walking the alternatingly busted-up and newly paved streets of the city—or slowly sipping mint tea at the cafes, what my sore stomach called for. I sat and watched the city, its people, pass; it fascinated me past my exhaustation and illness. In exchange, the city largely ignored me; I was just another poorly dressed, sallowed foreigner, totally uninteresting.
Casablanca’s not the kind of place to top itineraries. It’s not for the tourist who gushes glowingly about the authenticity of the Fez medina, or the simple quiantness of mountain village folk. It’s not for those seeking out some preconceived vision of exotism, doesn’t even try to live up to any stereotypes. It’s not for people looking to “get away” from it all. But if you wanna get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the carpet shops and faux guides, if you’re interested in seeing all of a country poised forever at a crossroads of cultures and continents, if you’re traveling and not vacationing, I’d give it a look. Just be sure to buy some tissue along the way; you’ll need it in the bathrooms.