“The guidebooks love to tell you that the movie, perhaps the most famous film ever made, was shot entirely in Hollywood. I found it strange that it should have attracted such a cult following, famous for being famous. As the first scenes came and went, I couldn’t help but notice that the Casablanca depicted on-screen had very little to do with the city in which I was sitting. Indeed, I wondered if the two had ever been true reflections of each other. In the film, wartime Casablanca was a mysterious haven in which refugees heading for America would become stranded. Although the story line may have been founded on a fragment of truth, the city dreamt up on Warner Brothers’ back lot was a suffocating blend of Arab styles, whereas Casablanca of the time was European from top to toe.”
I can relate this quote from Tahir Shah’s “The Caliph’s House” to at least one emotion I felt while wandering around the city of Casablanca. Before arriving, my main exposure to the city came from this award-winning film. My high school prom was even themed Casablanca. I had my fedora ready and was prepared to task Sam to play it again. When I arrived, as Shah describes above, Casablanca is slightly different than the movie suggests. And Rick’s Cafe even closed at the early hour of 12pm on a Saturday night.
The city has a look that it used to be a more glamorous city and that it is trying to recapture some of that sparkle. For example, as I was doing Lonely Planet’s walking tour, I noticed they are in the process of tearing up a major road to install a tram system. In addition, in the 1990’s, the Hassan II Mosque was built on the water’s front. This mosque, one of the King’s projects costing about half a billion dollars, is a controversial subject considering the high unemployment rates in Morocco and the other uses for such a large sum of money. That said, the mosque looked like it cost about that with its 210 meter tall minaret, its courtyard made to handle crowds of 80,000, its centrally heated floor, a different glass floor, and its retractable roof. There was a line somewhere and I think Hassan II may have crossed it.
Staying at the Hotel Central in Casablanca’s Old Medina, the owner of the Hotel recommended we try a nearby restaurant called Sqala for dinner. We did just that, were not dissappointed, and it later reappeared in Shah’s book.
“[Zohra, Shah’s assistant,] suggested an excellent restaurant called Sqala, set in a former Portuguese fortress on the cusp of the medina. Moroccan food tends to be as inferior in restaurants as it is superior in the home. To achieve the subtle flavors takes an astonishing amount of care and time. The ambiance is important as the food itself, as is the attention lavished on a guest. As you gorge yourself on the delicacies, with your hosts whispering flattery, it’s very hard not to give in to delusion.
“The meal reintroduced me to the sensory marvels of real Moroccan cuisine. We ordered a selection of dishes. There was chicken tagine flavored with tumeric, honey, and apricots; a pair of sea bream marinated in a saffron sauce and served on a bed of couscous. After that came bistiya, a vast platter of sweet pastry, beneath which lay wafer-thin layers of pigeons, almonds, and egg.
“Zohra said the family was the center of Moroccan life, and that food was at the center of the family.”
A couple other highlights of my short time in Casablanca were both athletically driven. In the afternoon, the Casablanca futbol team won its league (or something along those lines based on the explanation I was given in broken english), and those dressed in green and white flew their flags, crammed into buses unclear to where, and made lots of noise. Then the following morning, on our way to the Hassan II Mosque, Adam and I walked along a part of a half marathon route. We pretended that we were disappointed that we didn’t know it was occurring as if we would have participated otherwise.
Although Casablanca was not the cultural center of Morocco, it did have some impressive sights and offered some delicious tastes for my first day in the country.