CASABLANCA, Morocco—The owner of Rick’s Café in Casablanca teared up as she remembered election night when Donald Trump thundered to victory, turning her election night party into a wake as Moroccan revelers expressed dismay that the candidate who’d touted a Muslim ban won America’s highest post.
“They are worried about what it means for them,” said American Kathy Kriger, 70, a former diplomat turned café proprietess in the Moroccan commercial capital. “There was disgust at what Trump had said and open hostility, but since he’s been elected, I think people are in shock and they are afraid to speak openly about what it means. They are trying to hold back and be pragmatic in terms of not doing anything overtly to offend people.”
A spry grandmother with salt and pepper hair and pentagonal-shaped reading glasses, sporting Moroccan beads over a traditional embroidered blouse, Kriger looks the part of expat who lost her heart to Morocco and found a way to stay.
Her dismay over Trump’s election victory was reflected in multiple interviews with Moroccan officials, artists, and opinion makers, who fear a Trump victory may mean the country’s multilingual, internationalist class will find it harder to visit the U.S.—and may face rising militancy and unrest at home for cooperating with a White House seen as anti-Islam. Trump’s recent comments likening the truck attack in Germany as an attack on Christendom haven’t helped.
Moroccan officials knew what they were getting with a would-be Clinton administration. President Bill Clinton called on King Mohammed VI in Morocco, and Hillary Clinton visited as secretary of State. She spent time in the country after her husband’s bruising terms of office touring Morocco’s ancient forts, mountains, and deserts. She also infamously was tarred during the election campaign by leaked emails regarding the Moroccan monarchy’s contributions to the Clinton Foundation and a recent lavish conference held there.
Under the Bush and Obama administrations, cooperation especially on counterterrorism was strengthened, though Moroccan officials gripe the U.S. had been slow to recognize the spread of al Qaeda in North Africa. Now Morocco is seen as leading in both targeting terrorists and re-educating the population as part of the deradicalization fight, employing the country’s famous center of Islamic learning (founded by a woman), the University of Karawiyyin, to train, or re-train, a new generation of modern-minded Muslim clergy.
Morocco is also seen as one of the few Arab countries that survived the Arab Spring relatively unscathed, implementing constitutional reforms in response to demonstrations that empowered elected officials, established the equality of the sexes, making the public feel heard.
Moroccan officials said they prefer the new Trump administration’s forceful language about Iran to the deal-making of the Obama administration. The Sunni constitutional monarchy sees Tehran engaging in power-grabbing adventurism on behalf of Shiite peoples from Syria, to Iraq to Yemen.
But they would have been more comfortable with the Americans they already know—Hillary and Bill Clinton, and what they saw as Hillary Clinton’s more precise language referring to Islamic militancy rather than Trump and his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s equating extremism with the entire Muslim faith.
Flynn infamously tweeted the phrase “Fear of Muslims is rational,” with a link to a video that listed decades of high profile terror attacks, pointing out that the attackers in each one were Muslim. In his book The Field of Fight, Flynn mixes descriptions of Islam with more radical, militant strains, making them sound synonymous.
That’s the kind of sentiment that drove Rick’s owner Kriger to open the restaurant based on the classic World War II-era film Casablanca. She went on record with sentiments that high-profile Moroccans only felt comfortable expressing privately.
It was just after the attacks of 9/11 on New York and Washington. She instinctively feared a backlash against the Islamic wold—a painting of the whole region as “enemy” and “other.”
“I thought it would be an ideal time to establish a Rick’s Cafe because I thought it could do something for both sides—show that it wasn’t what paranoid people thought this part of the world was like,” she said, something that “would entice people to visit Morocco and be proud to know there was something here started by an American.”
For Moroccans and other Arab visitors, “I wanted to give people hope that this wasn’t what America was like,” she said.
She hoped her restaurant would be a beacon of American hospitality among Moroccans angered by what she feared would be the outsized U.S. response to being attacked. She says she was proven right when U.S. troops invaded Iraq—an action largely seen as unjustified following what many in the Arab world considered the more understandable invasion of Afghanistan, where the Taliban were sheltering al Qaeda.
Kriger had first arrived in Morocco in 1998 for a four-year posting as a commercial emissary working out of the U.S. Consulate in the bustling business-focused Casablanca. She couldn’t bear to leave after her diplomatic posting ended—partly because she’d fallen for the warmth of the Moroccan people and their complex tapestry of Arab, French, and Berber culture, and partly because the Oregon-born diehard Democrat couldn’t bear to work for the incoming Bush administration.
She rounded up funding from American friends, and with the help of local Moroccan officials she’d befriended in her diplomatic post, she refurbished a run-down 1930s Art Deco mansion in Casablanca’s old city just a stone’s throw from the seashore.
Studying the 1942 film Casablanca frame by frame, she and an American designer friend brought the imaginary gin joint alive, a labor of love she describes in her 2012 book Rick’s Café, Bringing the Film Legend to Life in Casablanca.
There are arches atop columns framing an inner courtyard where Moroccan piano player Isam plays the part of movie piano player and Humphrey Bogart sidekick Sam. (The line attributed to Bogart is “play it again, Sam,” but he actually says “Play it, Sam.”)
Isam is often joined by a jazz band, the music live-streamed nightly on Facebook. A dark wood bar lines one wall, and tables are tucked in every available space.
The original film was, in part, a component in a drive to help the government convince an isolationist U.S. public to care about the mayhem unfolding across Europe and the flight of persecuted groups ahead of the relentless Nazi war machine.
“They conceived the idea to do Casablanca shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing,” Kriger said, describing why Warner Brothers bought the screenplay “Everyone comes to Rick’s.”
“The idea was they would show this love story but the backdrop of what was happening in Europe via French Morocco, explaining it in human terms to an audience,” Kriger said, sketching out the plot over Moroccan mint tea, with the film playing on a loop in the background in the casino area of her establishment. She plays the film so a younger generation of Moroccans can watch, and learn.
“It showed the Jews fleeing, and freedom fighters battling the Nazis,” and made the war real via the characters in a painful love triangle: spurned lover-turned-bar-owner Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart; rebel agent Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman; and her cuckolded husband, freedom fighter Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.
The echoes of a distant war play out in a plot to find purloined blank travel papers—the kind resistance agents can use to traverse Nazi territory with ease to help them sabotage the German war effort. Bergman and her freedom fighter husband need the papers, but the Nazis in Casablanca are also hunting the missing documents.
Everyone goes to Rick’s to look for them, because as previously mentioned, everyone comes to Rick’s. That’s how the Ingrid Bergman character runs into Rick (Bogart), the man she stood up in Paris months earlier, never mentioning to him that she was already married to someone else.
Moroccan youth had never seen or heard of the film, Krieger said, but the moment she opened her doors, the foreign tourists poured in. She learned the hard way that her gin joint could never close, after reading travelers’ angry blogs saying things like “I flew all the way from Australia and Rick’s was closed.” Now the restaurant stays open seven days a week, with live jazz most nights.
Kriger spends each night perched at a stool tucked at the far corner of the bar, surveying her all-Moroccan staff of fez-hatted waiters swooping among the tables. She occasionally strolls through the two floors packed with patrons – now a 50/50 mix of foreigners and locals.
For Kriger, a Christian at home in a Muslim country who feels both safe and loved by her all-Moroccan staff, the U.S. reaction to the Islamic world is baffling.
“Just like after 9/11, they thought of all Muslims as the same,” Kriger said. “A lot of Americans who don't absorb the details of news are going to see all Muslim countries as the same.”
She thinks her business will survive any future anti-Islamic statements or even policies of the incoming administration.
“People know my feelings. They know I’m not responsible for Trump.”
But she said her friends who travel to the U.S. frequently are now worried they’ll either be denied future visas, or attacked during their visit because they are Muslim.
“They are worried about the reaction in the U.S. - how are they going to be treated - because they know hate crimes have gone up against Muslims.”
On a recent evening, after circulating through the tables, she had her first run-in with a Trump voter.
An American businessman has stopped by Kriger’s corner perch to compliment her chef on the stick-to-your-ribs lamb couscous and the crisp gin martini.
She asked where he was from and he replied, Washington, D.C.
Unfamiliar with Trump voters in her own social circle of expat Americans, Moroccans, and Hillary-voting friends back home via Facebook, she made an assumption that proved wrong.
“Oh… how is it in Washington… with everything that’s going on?”
The patron did not appreciate her query.
“He went into a real rant against President Obama and said, ‘It can’t be any worse than the last 8 years. Obama’s worse than Jimmy Carter. Trump is going to be good for business, period.’”
“And I said ‘end of conversation,’” she recounts, shutting him down and signaling in no uncertain terms that he should leave.
It’s left her shaken that she is back to square one, trying to explain to her friends in the Arab world that Americans don’t hate them—and treating incoming American patrons with care.
“I opened Rick’s as a neutral zone where people would leave all their troubles outside—no vitriol or debates. Instead, shared aspirations,” Kriger said. “Kind of schmaltzy, but where people could feel safe and not subjected to insults.
“Am I going to limit my conversation? No, but I’ll be more like Rick,” Kriger said.
“He’s got a heart of gold but he’s a tough guy and he’s had to make some choices.”
She says that may mean showing Trump supporters the door.