Casablanca’s Forgotten Colonial Heritage

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Just as the muezzin began the call to prayer, a man lurched into the middle of the boulevard, swayed like a palm in the wind, then tottered diagonally at speed to the pavement and collapsed at the feet of another man sitting outside with a café noir. He pretended not to notice.

Casablanca is not Morocco,” said the novelist, Paul Bowles, in 1966, “it is a foreign enclave, an alien nail piercing Morocco’s flank”. It is different, for sure, from the rest of Morocco, but it is as much Morocco as Marrakesh, and as interesting in its way. It is just not the Morocco the tourists expect.

There is an ancient Medina, but it is not much to look at and the tourists hurry away disappointed and urge others not to go. They miss the point, though. Casa is not about souks and snake charmers, carpet shops and donkey trains: it is about the ville nouvelle.

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The French meant the new town to be a shop window for the Second Empire. General d’Amade let slip the scale of their ambition in 1928 when he wrote that, “by the end of the century, French North Africa will be the United States of today, with Casablanca stepping into the shoes of New York”. Of course, that was not quite how it worked out.

Planners and architects, frustrated by the conservatism of the authorities in France, flocked to Casablanca where they were free to do more or less what they liked. They schemed grand boulevards, lined with palm trees, connecting to monumental squares. They imported Art Nouveau and Art Deco and blended in classical Moroccan touches to create a Néo-Mauresque style of their own.

Jean Vidal’s short film, Salut Casa, shows what Casablanca had become by 1952: a beautiful, bustling city with spotless streets and gleaming white facades, and honking cars, dozens of bicycles and the occasional camel, and pavement cafes, grand arcades and luxury shops.

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The streets are not spotless anymore; the facades no longer gleam.

Boulevard de la Gare was the grandest of the grand boulevards in colonial times, stretching proudly from Casa Voyageurs station to the old Medina with upmarket shops beneath its porticos and marble-floored arcades leading through to adjacent boulevards. The luxury shops are long gone from what is now called Boulevard Mohammad V.

At the station end of the street, the rusting shutters look as if they were rattled down decades ago; the signs are from a bygone age. One shop has been gutted behind the grille and filled up with 10, 15, goodness-knows-how-many years of Coke cans, cigarette packets, fast food containers and rubble, all coated with a thick layer of grime. Ruined men lounge in doorways and rummage in bins. Kids kick a scuffed football between the walls of an alley.

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But to fixate on how much the ville nouvelle has declined is to see the glass half-empty. The point is how much has survived.

Casa Voyageurs’ clock tower can still be seen way down the boulevard, just as the planners intended in 1923. It is always half past two, twenty to six or a little before quarter to ten, depending which clock face you check. The monumental buildings which the camera panned across in Salut Casa are by and large still standing.

Restaurant Petit Poucet is much as it was under the French Protectorate, with the original bar which Albert Camus, Antoine Saint-Exupéry and Édith Piaf have all leant against.  At the end of the block is the Maroc Soir and Le Matin newspaper offices. A few letters have dropped off the facade, so Le Matin is now just  e Ma  n, but it is a nice example of Casablancan Néo-Mauresque, as is the Central Market across the road with its keyhole-shaped arch and green zillij tiles.

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Avenue Hassan II still has dazzling white Art Deco buildings, the town hall, the law courts and the Main Post Office from 1918 with its columns and arches and a frontage of zillij tiles in emerald green, royal blue and gold

You could lose a day wandering the streets in the scalene triangle between the Medina, Parc de la League Arabe (the French called it Parc Lyautey) and the Central Market, remembering to look up to see curving balconies, zillij tiles, ornate brise-soleil, entrance gates worked into the shape of peacocks and bouquets of flowers, ghost signs from the days of the Protectorate, and the huge stone crown topping La Princière salon de thé.

There is a hint of a renaissance in downtown Casa. The Art Deco Cinéma Rialto and half a dozen period hotels have been beautifully restored inside and out. The new tramway has thinned out the cars whose exhausts had been filthying the grand old buildings since colonial times.

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But there is a tension between those who want to preserve the heritage and those who have to pay for its upkeep. The old Hotel Lincoln is emblematic.

It was the first landmark building on Boulevard de la Gare, a masterpiece of Néo-Mauresque. But it lost its lustre after the French left in 1956 and the owner has, reportedly, wanted to tear it down for decades so that he can build an office block. Campaigners persuaded the authorities to list it as a historic monument, and since then it has been left to rot.

The roof caved in a long time ago; one floor collapsed in 1989 and killed two people, another section fell down in 2004, killing a homeless guy who was sheltering inside, another in 2009, and yet another in 2015. Only the crumbling walls of the central section survive…for now.

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Casa’s future is hard to predict. It could become an African Valencia with its Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades rejuvenated, or it could be another Coventry: a city which once had buildings worth seeing.

© Richard Senior 2016

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015