Through the decrepit interiors of the Marche Central in Casablanca, a Gypsy quartet meander in sneakers and dirty jeans, a forgotten violinist, a stumbling fiddle player, and a singer performing what feels like the last dance of time, as the sun disappears behind the crumbling white walls.
A dancer follows, stepping deftly in a drug-induced haze, smiling at the smattering of tourists perched at tables covered in washed-out cloths. So few in number, they seem to have disembarked at the wrong port. They wait patiently for passage home, sipping on mint tea and snacking on crevettes.
Most visitors in reality stop long enough to catch a connecting flight, leaving Morocco’s largest city to its mysterious inhabitants who reminisce about its glorious past, forever immortalized on the silver screen in the legendary 1942 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, which takes its name.
But if they stayed longer, they might catch a glimpse of the dark romance and the grit that lies beneath.
Consider the beachfront at the fabled Corniche, where crumbling hotels serve tea to guests sitting in Arab dress, and excitable children wander by the new McDonald’s and a multiplex. Vast waves crash over abandoned basketball courts beachside that belonged to better years.
But the Corniche might not stay as rundown as it is today for long. All along the waterfront, real estate development projects abound, touting luxury residential spaces and commercial complexes that are set to transform the center of Moroccan commerce which is home to an estimated 4.5 million people, into a city fitted with contemporary living spaces that might be found in Miami or Toronto.
Already local malls offer Western shops like Marks & Spencer and H&M, and giant food stores like Carrefour. Their visibility is currently limited as they are tucked along the side of a busy freeway that leads from the city’s jewel in the crown, the Hassan II mosque.
As the world’s seventh-largest mosque, boasting the world’s tallest minaret, for the moment it leaves no doubt in one’s mind that for now this is still Morocco and the Arab world, new developments or not.
Behind Casablanca’s market, with its cluttered antique stands and relics stuffed into dark spaces from a bygone era, when Casablanca was a French Colonial wonder designed by architects with a grandiose vision, men smoke in now-dirty cafés that line a majestic boulevard that smacks of more elegant times.
Palm trees stand tall between decadent Art Deco facades and ramshackle side alleys that lead to forgotten treasures, like the Rialto cinema with a handpainted mural of flapper girls from the 1920s on the wall. “Hot Dog” reads the sign over the grilled bars that cover a darkened restaurant nearby.
Casablanca feels like living film noir in action. Its forgotten beauty can be glimpsed between the darkness of the increasingly murky streets, filled with seedy characters.
Battered taxis stand empty outside of a shuttered café whose marble facades conjure up images of swish events that once took place inside for the town’s elite.
The elegance contrasts with the dark layers on the ground: the grimy front of a hairdressers, a toothless carpenter polishing fine French furniture placed proudly out on the street near a once-popular Hamam that is now being bulldozed into the ground. Rumble, concrete, mess.
A Casablanca shanty town is a microcosm of change occurring here, winding up a hill where goats sit on broken boxes outside of makeshift homes made of corrugated metal. A street corner has been sectioned off and used as a drying line for clothes from the children who kick footballs across the dusty street.
Through the center of the shanty town, known as Bidonville, which lies a stone’s throw from the beach, posters advertise a planned luxury residence complete with swimming pools that could not be further removed from the slum-like conditions that the residents live in now. Children perch on the pavement outside of a tiny school and donkeys cart supplies to the local market where women offer vegetables sold from boxes on the dusty sidewalk.
Young men stand silently in doorways, and disappear down dusty alleys, as a cow walks slowly up the street, mid-traffic, oblivious to the chaos all around. But the shanty town is diminishing.
Nearby, half-built designer houses that look like Venice transplants are guarded by locals sitting on the curb, warding against infiltrators with their cigarettes.
For real lovers of grit, there may be no better destination than the local racing tracks. The long-term resident and author Tahir-Shah (The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca) considers Stade Velodrome the grittiest place in the city if not on Earth.
Men as wrinkled as prunes sit betting beneath the race tracks as dogs run for their masters. Afterwards they like to retreat to the legendary restaurant Chez Paul in the Villa Zevaco, said by locals to have been the home of Edith Piaf.
At a party one night in an abandoned mansion, a lost French hitchhiker, a filmmaker who had camped on the roofs of Casablanca for a month making a film about the city, giving children cameras to serve as voyeurs into the secret interiors of their homes, and a Moroccan girl high on drugs, partied on with music blaring across the now dark building site. An insurance salesman high on hash looked out over the corrugated rooftops. “Soon this will all be gone,” he said.