See Morocco’s largest city through the eyes of a novelist who moved there and discovered sights overlooked even by locals
WORDS: TAHIR SHAH
PHOTOGRAPHS: PHILIP LEE HARVEY
His hands clutching the stem of a dried palm frond, his thoughts far away, Mohammed sweeps the central path at Casablanca’s old Christian cemetery. On either side lies a sea of crumbling tombs. In some, there are rosaries, crucifixes, porcelain wreaths and weathered photos of moustached gentlemen posing with their wives. Mohammed swishes the broom rhythmically back and forth, dust clouds billowing in the searing heat of late afternoon. His clothing drenched in sweat, he pauses to wipe a hand down over his gnarled face. “If you want to know about Casablanca,” he says in a voice hoarse from a life-long love affair with Marquise cigarettes, “you have to understand this cemetery. It’s here that the city’s founders sleep side by side. Listen hard,” he mumbles, “and you’ll hear them whispering their tales.”
Encircled by a towering whitewashed wall, the cemetery is open to the public, although most locals don’t even realise it’s there. Fabulously grand, it’s a time-capsule monument to the colonial families who built modern Casablanca from scratch a century ago.
The commercial heart of Morocco, the city is on few travellers’ itineraries – reason in itself to explore. The butt of many Moroccan jokes, it’s often lampooned for being chaotic, crowded, far too bling, and not very old. After all, more than a few of the kingdom’s cities were founded over a thousand years ago.
But Casablanca has a sublime and unsurpassable allure – a magic that lurks in the details. Spend time rooting it out, and you get a sense that Caza (as it’s pronounced by locals) was created as cutting edge beyond belief. From 1912 until independence in 1956, Morocco was swallowed up in the French colonial mission to gain control of North Africa. The kingdom was regarded by the French as a protectorate, and placed under the authority of a seasoned officer and administrator – Marshal Lyautey. Basing himself in Casablanca, Lyautey personally oversaw the city’s construction. He wanted an expression of French culture that was grand and modern, yet set beside the kingdom’s medina and diehard traditions that he so adored.