Tahar Ben Jelloun Reflects on Casablanca

Casablanca—insomniac, immense, overcrowded, and alive—is full of young people who are no longer afraid. Daniel Clements / Gallery Stock

If it were a book, it would be badly written but for a few sublime pages of surrealistic poetry. It would be a manuscript that an Arab aristocrat let fall into the hands of illiterate bandits. A manuscript from The Thousand and One Nights, updated by modern times.

If it were a film, it would be in black and white, its night scenes denouncing the schemes and trickery of the day. It certainly would not be the 1942 Casablanca of Michael Curtiz, filmed in a studio in which the city’s name reverberates like the back of a hand to the face of fate.

It would be an American B movie in which Burt Lancaster spins his Colt into its holster and Richard Widmark is a fugitive hiding in overcrowded city buses. He would be surprised by the people around him, who take the bus because they have no other choice. Buses in which the crowding screams of poverty and deprivation. Or it would be Bab el Hadid (The Iron Gate), Youssef Chahine’s splendid 1958 film about Cairo’s poor, about the weaving of life, love, and death on the stage of the city’s vast central train station. The real Casa is a film noir in which all the angles are exaggerated and the dialogue is slaps and warning shots, a film in which no one is spared.

If it were an animal it would be a foundered horse—strong, proud, and cruel. A free-spirited horse charging down broad avenues, no one able to stop it.

If it were an object it would be a great wooden trunk sitting by the sea, adorned with the droppings of gulls.

Casablanca is the sepulchral city of 3 million people, the largest in the Maghreb, crude, rank, polluted, restless, wild, crossed at intervals by a wind of poetry smelling of diesel, tobacco, and beer. It is alive, so alive that it can leave no one alone or allow anyone to sleep in peace. Buildings rise next to old slums bordering a medina in which poverty conceals itself in order to preserve its dignity. (You have to live, get paid, and move on, even if it means that a few people get hurt.)

Casablanca is young people who are no longer afraid. Since their first demonstration on Feb. 20, 2011, they have not stopped questioning, protesting, demanding radical reforms. They have courage, imagination, a disdain for dogma; they pose a challenge by the mere fact of being part of a complex human landscape in which anger is expressed in radical rap, a poetry of despair. It is odd that the movement includes not only secular young people on the far left but also radical Islamists. A paradox.

Justice is ill. How is the country doing? Badly—corruption is everywhere, in Casa as elsewhere.

A funny image: Casa is Morocco’s lungs. We say that because the country’s economy is concentrated in and around the city. But those lungs are eaten away by nicotine, corruption, shapeless rumblings, and the ill wind of sad days when nothing works. The stock exchange and speculation. Football and money. The coast and lots of money. The Corniche and its clubs. The Corniche and its hotels. Traffic jams, a deafening horn concert. And in the distance the Great Mosque, a monument on the water built with the money of all Moroccans, rich and poor, the willing and the recalcitrant. A minaret rises 200 meters into the sky, lulled by the sea, hidden in the mist.

The art-deco Casa of the 1930s is gone, gone with the colonial architecture, the secluded houses, the artists who struggled against the steadily encroaching mediocrity. Casa is bigger than Paris proper, immense, overcrowded but alive, stifling, turning its back on the sea. The sea: you have to go look for it, see it, draw it.

Fish is expensive because of the Japanese and the Spaniards. What remains is the sardine, the cheapest fish, the healthiest. Casa and its port, famous for its trade with the Mediterranean. It is a one-eyed world that smells of fried food, a world noisy and dusty. A world of cargo and men, cranes and cats. A lost dog and a blind man in the wrong city.

Casa at night. I see it now. The city gets little sleep. An insomniac city, forgetting itself, casting hallucinatory shadows that stagger through the streets until the sun comes up, fading with the first rays of light, leaving the avenues to tired buses and little red taxis that blare the call to prayer or the latest rap, chanted in Arabic dialect and in anger.

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a francophone Moroccan novelist and poet. His latest work is A Palace in the Old Village. Translated from the original French by Steven B. Kennedy.