There is no city called Casablanca in Morocco.
There is a city called the White House. This is the translation of the Arabic name “Ed-Dar Al-Bayda.” The word “dar” means “house,” and the word “bayda” means “white.” The name “Casablanca” came into all languages from Spanish. “Casa” in Spanish also means “house,” and “blanca” still means “white.” The Portuguese were the first to give the city its name when they conquered the Berber town of Anfa in the 15th century.
It would be foolish to think that the city was named after its white houses. It’s actually the opposite. Once upon a time, the Portuguese gave the initial impetus, and since then, houses in Casablanca have been built only in white to emphasize the city’s name.
Half of its history, Morocco was under the rule of external governments: sometimes Arabs, sometimes Portuguese, and sometimes Spain and France. Although the capitals of the colonies were always Rabat or Tetuan, Casablanca remained the country’s economic center and a major port.
Therefore, capital flowed here, just like in Rabat. Lavish construction was carried out here. Casablanca became one of the most European cities in Morocco. From above, it resembles Paris: the influence of France is clearly visible in these long straight streets converging in round intersections.
The architecture itself was also inherited by Casablanca from the French. The city is full of quite impressive buildings in the Baroque style. Even the modern tram passing by, made by the French company Alstrom, makes you think: are we not in Europe?
Morocco remains, de facto, a French resort. The majority of tourists who come here are from France. All conditions have been created in the country for the French. Over a third of Moroccans speak French fluently, and in major cities like Casablanca, all road signs are translated into French.
At first glance, the central district of Casablanca cannot be distinguished from a suburb of Paris.
Very affluent Moroccans live here. Apartments in these buildings are the most expensive in the city, and their residents even dress like prosperous Europeans, wearing coats and scarves.
If desired, one can find a corner for themselves in Casablanca, live in a European manner, and be carefree.
But still, we are not in Europe. We are in Africa. And gradually, Casablanca makes this evident. As you travel through the city, Mauritanian houses with domed arches begin to emerge. They represent something in between, a transition between Europe and Africa.
The beautiful building of the Central Post Office is another transitional example of architecture. It still retains Art Nouveau elements, but with a strong Mauritanian influence.
But a little deeper into the city, decaying apartment buildings start to rise from colonial mansions, all still painted white. In the African context, they are called “skyscrapers.”
The large square in the center of Casablanca becomes the final outpost of Europe.
Beyond the square, the medina begins—the historic quarters of the old city. The Casablanca medina is surrounded by fortress walls, and entry can be gained through large gates with an eastern arch, through which one can glimpse real life as if through a portal.
We take in the last breath of civilization, and dive into the medina.
At 11 in the evening, we catch a taxi with the task of crossing the entire city to reach the hotel. The taxi driver doesn’t speak English at all. It’s a good sign: it means he won’t try to rip us off. The bad news is that it’s impossible to explain anything to him.
“Buddy, how much will this ride cost? Money, money!”
“Ah-ah-ah, money? Flous!”
In response, the taxi driver just nods his head and repeats, “flous.” What is “flous”? Is it free or something?
“No, no. Flous.”
“No. Money. Okay?” I repeat clearly that I’m not going to pay.
“Thank you, dear! I love Morocco!”
Three affluent Russians exit the taxi at night without paying a single dirham to the poor Moroccan taxi driver. What a welcoming country! However, for some reason, the driver’s expression changes, and he drives away.
The story has been bothering me for a week, and I finally decide to search for the translation of the word “flous.” It turns out it doesn’t mean “free.” “Flous” actually means “small change” or “coins.”
This pleasant-looking barber asked for a little money, and three wealthy Russians rode through the entire city and rudely disappeared into the sunset.
Medina is appealing at first sight. Finally, a genuine Moroccan in traditional attire is sitting on the bench, rather than a fashionable French person in a coat.
Finally, the frozen moments of life in the old city are entering the frame on their own.
The mosque stands right in the middle of the bazaar and towers above all the houses in the neighborhood with its square minaret. According to Arab etiquette, a house cannot be taller than a mosque, so the roofs are made slightly lower than the lightning rod on the minaret.
From the rooftop of a café in the market, you can see the upscale urban neighborhoods, against which someone’s cheap bungalows are blooming.
Almost the entire medina is occupied by the market. The market itself is unremarkable: they sell all sorts of junk that we have in abundance. Top-notch Arab clothing, copper teapots, umbrellas, spices, food — it’s a completely dull bazaar.
But if you raise your head up:
This is typical Arab life. The bazaar in Eastern countries is integrated right into the city. Every shop, every stall you find here, will be located on the ground floor of a residential building. The owners of the shops live on the second and third floors.
Every morning, they wake up in their flimsy beds, wash themselves, perform the pre-dawn prayer, and descend to the lower floors. They roll up clattering shutters, set up tables and chairs, hang up pants and jackets, and kick-start a new day of trading.
Above their stalls, hung from the windows of their homes, hangs freshly laundered laundry.
By noon, when the scorching heat begins, the merchants temporarily close their shutters and halt trading to attend the midday prayer. Afterward, they take a break and reopen their shops when the heat subsides.
However, Morocco is not a highly religious country, and Casablanca is a very greedy city. Prayer can be done in a stall, and shops may not even close. The main thing is to hurry while there are no tourist buyers ready to purchase souvenir junk around the clock.
Among the bazaar are hotels that represent typical caravanserais, some of the finest in the East. More often than not, hotels are the most well-maintained buildings in the medina. Their walls are painted with white paint, and neat signs make them vibrant with bright blue or red colors, displaying information in two languages.
In Arabic, a hotel is called “funduq.”
Only a few houses in the medina have been well-preserved along with their European-style balconies and window shutters.
Street signs in the medina are a work of art. Arabic inscriptions of any content appear as examples of calligraphy.
In Morocco, there is still a lot of vintage charm. It’s not uncommon to see a 1950s Renault driving down the street, similar to how you can encounter an old Volga on the roads of Russia. Old French cars are highly popular in the less affluent colony.
The medina of Casablanca ends as quickly as it began — closer to the fortress wall, groomed tourist streets begin.
Beyond the wall, impoverished neighborhoods sprout, overshadowed by a giant minaret.
At night, Casablanca teems with vibrant life. The central streets spill over with the Moroccan riffraff. Hashish or marijuana is offered on every corner. The city gleams as best it can and flickers with primitive neon lights.
On the corner of the outpost square, long queues gather. One queue stretches for a hundred meters. People are waiting for a bus to take them home to the residential outskirts of the city. Another queue forms for food distribution to the poor.
A crowd of people gathers around the square, buzzing and filling the entire street. Inside a tight circle, circus acts are being performed. It seems to me that the circus performer is in cahoots with pickpockets who have likely already snatched a couple of wallets.
I say to Kurakin:
“Sasha, this is a wild city. Sure, go to your bars, but watch out so they don’t slip some Dimedrol into your beer.”
Kurakin appears at three o’clock in the morning and tells:
“You were right, the city is absolutely wild! It’s really dangerous here at night, better not to walk around.”
“Where were you, what did you see? Did you go to a bar?”
“I did. So, I’m walking down the street and I realize the whole city has transformed. You don’t see anything during the day, but at night these neon signs light up and it turns out there are so many bars! Then I noticed that people had disappeared somewhere and I was walking down the street alone. It was unsettling.”
“Yes, we also noticed that by the evening everyone disperses. Normal locals don’t walk at night, they are afraid."
“Anyway, I did go into a bar. But before that, a drunk Arab, who was fighting with a black guy, fell out of the bar. And for a long time, I didn’t want to go anywhere, but I finally pushed myself and went in. I sat down, ordered a beer. The girl behind the bar suggested which beer to take with gestures.”
“And which one did you take, Guinness?”
“Baltika nine, yeah. Some local draft beer. But the funniest thing is that the bartender sat down next to me right away. Although I didn’t think that a prostitute comes with the beer.”
“Wow, how was your first night with a Moroccan woman?”
“No-no, screw that. I was so embarrassed, unaccustomed. In general, she sat there for about five minutes. I don’t know French, she doesn’t know English. Well, we got acquainted, I tell her: Sasha. She tells me: Naomi. She sat for a while and then left. And I decided to go home and not drink anymore, just in case.”
“I see. Was the beer at least tasty?”
“It was alright. But the city is really... how did you say?”
Morocco has a relatively high Gini index, which measures income inequality. The level of societal stratification in this African country is only 2% lower than in Russia.
Therefore, in Casablanca, following the wealthy French houses, you can also find their own dilapidated Khrushchev-era buildings that are located on the outskirts of the city.
The Gini index is tricky. It shows the difference in incomes: how much wealthier individuals have more money than the poor. The coefficient does not indicate the extent of wealth or the depth of poverty. However, if a country has a high Gini coefficient, one can confidently say that if expensive business centers are located on one side of the road...
then on the other side, there should be bungalows.
I wonder if the Gini index takes into account the wealth of priests, imams, and brahmins who build gigantic houses of worship amidst and at the expense of striking poverty?
In Casablanca stands the Hassan II Mosque, the fifth largest mosque in terms of area, and it has the tallest minaret in the world.
I have already mentioned that it is not customary for Muslims to build houses taller than mosques. But I never thought that dividing the height of the minaret by the height of a house could yield a Gini coefficient.
The Hassan II Mosque is the only mosque in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims.
At the entrance to other mosques, there is a guard who asks every white person: “Muslim?” It’s easy to answer “yes” as they are unlikely to verify knowledge of the Shahada. However, in our time, any cultured person should know the Shahada.
The mosque is enormous. I didn’t mention the Gini coefficient in vain — it was built not two hundred years ago, but in 1993.
Up close, the building looks completely plastic. Not everyone will notice the newly constructed structure, but there is a subtle sense of imitation that can be felt.
This is due to the vast empty square in front of the mosque. Prayer houses have always emerged as centers of urban life until they started being built for showmanship purposes.
In the distance from the mosque stands a lighthouse.
During World War II, Casablanca became one of the escape points for Europeans to the New World from the advancing Third Reich.
Migrants were transported here: first to the Algerian city of Oran, then by train across Morocco to Casablanca. Here, migrants could find refuge or obtain an exit visa and escape to America. The 1942 film “Casablanca” tells the story of the city during those years.
There was no minaret during those years. Perhaps the last thing the emigrants saw on the departing ship was this lighthouse.
The lighthouse can only be reached by taxi, but there are too many tourists near the mosque, and the taxi drivers overcharge. The lighthouse itself is surrounded by shady areas where slums begin right after expensive restaurants with black SUVs.
The sea is restless. Dirty waves from the polluted ocean crash against the luxurious housing.
Piles of garbage flow like streams into the abyss. There is no trace of Europe left, and the presence of impoverished Africa begins to be felt, resembling what is shown in sensationalized reports about Somalia.
The coastline is the most dreadful part of African cities. The ocean in Africa is a bottomless garbage bin into which dirt can be dumped like in a toilet.
In the past, Casablanca tried to develop its beaches and create its own little Miami. It didn’t work out: people didn’t need the beach. The shore was littered with garbage, and the road to the viewpoint deteriorated to the point of resembling the ruins of ancient Athens.
That’s how the majority of Morocco and a predominantly large part of Africa live.
We are concluding our journey through Casablanca, but we are not heading towards the New World; instead, we are moving further into the country to Marrakech. And the last thing that remains on the horizon is not an ancient lighthouse, but a newly built mosque.