Hotel Guynemere, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, opened its doors in 1909 and the lobby doesn’t show signs of having been renovated since. The concierge offers me a room twice as expensive as the one I had booked. “We have no cheaper rooms.”
“But in the email you said…”
“That is a very dirty room.” He shows a room that hasn’t been cleaned since the 1910s or so, and where the lights don’t work. And then another, which has been recently renovated. I get the point, he wants to sell me the expensive room which looks like any hotel room in the world, but I want one of the “heritage” rooms — I like to travel back in time. When I threaten not to check in, he eventually relents and shows me another older room.
It oozes charm; it has a high ceiling, which helps to alleviate the tropical heat as the gurgling AC sporadically gives up its battle in the African climate. The restaurant is always empty and I’m not surprised. Breakfast is perfunctorily prepared by the boy who mops floors. The baguette is dry as a duster, the coffee has the flavour of dishwater. I dread to think what he’ll rustle up for dinner so I sneak off to the nearest café for sustenance.
But I don’t mind — in fact, I love the distinctive character of rough and worn-down port towns. The hotel’s façade is elegantly art deco, like much of the surroundings which were constructed during the French occupation that lasted until 1956. While Casablanca is now the country’s biggest city and one of Africa’s main ports, with accompanying slums to accommodate its rapidly growing four-million-plus population, the centre has remained largely, and, thankfully, untouched by such developments — and ranks as one of the most striking art deco districts in the world.
French architects of yore were given free reign here to create a paradisiacal version of France, a palm-dotted neo-Moorish fantasy of endless boulevards lined with charming eateries and hospitable, if grimy, bars. That era’s urban planning became a symbol of African modernisation. But the grumpy novelist Paul Bowles, who in his youth left the US to spend his life in Morocco and in his subsequent writings constantly complained about how everything was better before, wrote, “Casablanca is not Morocco; it is a foreign enclave, an alien nail piercing Morocco’s flank.”
But that’s exactly the beauty of it. Considering that Casablanca handles 75 per cent of Morocco’s foreign trade, it makes perfect sense that it should be something in-between, not quite Moroccan, yet completely integrated — if on its own terms — by retaining a certain easygoing, fun-loving and hedonistically chain-smoking and coffee-drinking Frenchness. Although a foreigner, I’m not treated as a tourist, not hassled, harassed, cheated or overcharged.
There are not many grand buildings, but lots of details everywhere help me fly back in time — like the 1920s signage outside the Petit Poucet. I step into the crowded joint to find myself a seat at the curved bar where Nobel-laureate Albert Camus, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (pilot dude who wrote The Little Prince) and legendary chanteuse Édith Piaf used to hang with a drink at their lips. A frosty Casablanca lager in one hand and a Maghreb cigarette in the other, I’m in great company.
A man who’s having his after-work drink introduces himself in broken English as the president. “Of what?” The Casablanca tourism chamber situated next door, he says, and hands me his business card. His job is impossible, he says. It’s hard to market Casablanca to tourists. “Why’s that?” Because no tourists come here, he says as he drowns his sorrows in drink. “Am I not here?” I ask and he stares back. Before I can pose the complex philosophical question of what came first into existence, the chicken or the egg, a dusky woman whisks him off to a romantic corner table deeper within the bar. I wanted to tell him that I appreciated his attempt to sell Casablanca to me as a tourist-free destination, the kind of place that I fall for. Anyway.
All guidebooks mention that Casablanca has the country’s highest crime-drug-prostitution statistics, so it is logically the one place tourists avoid — they get off at the international airport and, after some quick sightseeing, head to a resort town to look for souvenir shops and snake charmers. Not that there are many prominent sights in Casablanca, except for the recently erected seaside King Hassan II mega mosque, whose claim to fame is the biggest minaret in the world — recognized as such by the Guinness Book of Records. At 200 metres, or three times taller than the Qutab Minar in Delhi, which was the biggest in the ancient world, it’s so tall that one can only view it if one opens one’s eyes extra wide and, even then, I almost faint while looking up at it.
In the absence of other attractions, guided city tours usually include the hotel I am staying in for the Guynemere’s art deco façade. Almost all nearby buildings, such as the near-mint-condition Cinéma Rialto (where Piaf performed) are designed in a way that inevitably takes one back to the 1940s film Casablanca, even though that movie wasn’t shot anywhere near Morocco but in a Warner Brothers studio lot in California. And yet, paradoxically, the film made Casablanca into one of the world’s most famous cities, if only by name.
The city’s name seems to stem from its ancient quarters that start a few steps from my hotel, where all walls are whitewashed — blanca means white and casa house. Apart from a stretch of trinket stalls at the gates, the medina’s people live as if the modern world isn’t a big deal.
Tracing the footsteps of Piaf, I drop in at the Hotel Transatlantique, where she used to stay in those days. Although the cabaret is shut, the dusty-musty, antiques-strewn, faux-oriental lobby bar makes for a curious place to enjoy a glass of wine. The lounge must have been stylish back then, now it could do with a bit of cobweb-clearing.
Since the night is still in its teens, I wander around and stop outside a café named La Comedie. It has large mirror-glass windows out of respect for the faithful, so they won’t have to see the alcoholism going on inside, but the intense music beckons me. I follow the singing and fumes of hashish up a narrow staircase, into a steaming hot jam-packed club where an unassuming combo play Arab evergreens while a mixed crowd of a hundred or so patrons — both men and women but no foreigners — party away, dancing and throwing cash at the vocalist. It’s a very down-to-earth place, no cover charge or other crazy things. Although I’m a tourist, nobody pays undue attention and beer’s cheap. To me its sheer existence and the fact that Moroccan women can have fun in a public place seems a progressive sign in an otherwise rather conservative country.
Walking to my hotel later I feel the magical mood of a mixed-up world — that typical port-city feeling.
Zac O’Yeah is a writer of thrillers, who lives in Bengaluru.
The article appeared in the print edition: We’ll Always Have Casablanca