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Semester at Sea: An Afternoon In The Caliph's House

Dar Khalifa, CasablancaA few weeks ago The Semester at Sea ship came to Casa and I invited the students from Professor Natalie Bakopoulos’ Travel Writing class over.  They had already read The Caliph’s House in class, so they were familiar with the story behind Dar Khalifa.

They’ve posted a recap of the day on their own website, including photos of the students visiting with me. You can read more here.


Q&A on The Caliph's House

2012-07-26 10.48.43I am occasionally interviewed via email or invited to participate in a Q&A for a course that is reading one of my books. I thought I’d share this one with you, which discuses The Caliph’s House:

1. Why did you choose to express your feelings through imagery, rather than express them directly? 

That’s a good question and one I have never been asked before. I wrote The Caliph’s House not long after 9/11, and I had that atrocity in my mind all the way through. It was really important to me to try and show Morocco from the inside out, and in a way that American people especially could receive. I wanted to show the kingdom in ways that were not merely descriptive, but touched the senses, as well as reaching an audience through anecdotes. It was difficult to do, but I am always so happy when people write to me saying that the book changed the way they regarded Morocco — ie as not “just another” Arab country.

2. Did you realise that the Arabic meaning of the characters’ names in the book correlate to their personalities, or is this coincidental?

Read more


Worrying Times in the Shantytown

Shantytown surrounding Dar KhalifaThese are worrying times in the shantytown within which we live. Just as the big nasty apartment building mushroomed up without any warning in the bowels of the bidonville behind us, there’s been almost no official word about what’s going on with regard to breaking down the homes.

I’ve heard it said that the people who bought apartments in the expensive building behind paid the first slice of their cash on nothing more than an artist’s impression. The second tranche is payable now as I understand it, now that the concrete super-structure is complete.

The problem for the developers is that no one that’s paid a big chunk of cold hard cash is going to slide any more their way until they can drive in and have a look at the work done so far. And those people aren’t going to pay a single dirham more until there’s a nice plush road, as there is on the plans.

Meanwhile, the larger problem with many of the shacks is that they lie in the path of the road. I have heard it said, too, that 32 families were paid off last year. But they didn’t move… of course they didn’t, because in Morocco anyone with any cash is immediately cajoled into lending it to extended family and friends.

The first houses to have been knocked down were mostly bashed down with sledge hammers… the work of men from the building site. Needless to say, there are many glum looks and plenty of bad feeling. But, as anyone reading this can I am sure imagine, a handful of impoverished people in a shantytown have little hope when pitched against what is one of the Kingdom’s most powerful building contractors.

Two of our guardians live in the bidonville, and our maid. Thankfully, they live just out of the path of the road and so, hopefully, will be saved a little longer.

I’ve resisted taking pictures while walking through because this is a sensitive time. And the last thing I’d want if my house was being knocked down was people taking snaps of it all.


Boiled Frog

I was recently asked for an interview, ‘What are your thoughts on the way society is changing?’

My response:

We are urbanising at the same time as technologising. It’s happening everywhere at the same time.

Where I am living, in Casablanca, the city grows each day as more and more people come from the countryside and try to live here in the city. Of course, most of them can’t get jobs, and once they have seen the bright lights of the city, they can’t go back to their villages.

The world is changing, but most people aren’t seeing it happen. They’re not programmed to notice the change.

It’s very similar to the BOILED FROG idea:

If a frog is placed in a pot of cold water, water that is heated very slowly, the frog won’t notice the increasing temperature, and it will be boiled alive.

Our society is very similar to the boiled frog. We are going to be ‘boiled alive’ — as the world in which we live changes. We have been developed as a species for the savannah… to react to an instant threat, but not to a gradual one.

The only way to survive is to alter the way we notice change, and the way we react to it.



Top 10 YouTube Videos

As you may have noticed, I’ve been much more active on YouTube in the past couple of months. I thought I’d share with you a list of the videos which have received the most views in the past three months. Some are new videos, and some were uploaded three years ago, when I first joined YouTube.

Do you have ideas for new videos? Please let me know in the comments what you’d like to see. Thanks!

  1. The Story of Timbuctoo
  2. Afghan Gold, Part 1 of 5
  3. Search for King Solomon’s Mines, Part 1 of 4
  4. Pakistani Torture Jail, Part 1 of 8
  5. Tahir Shah on Desi DNA
  6. Dar Khalifa: 5 minute tour of Tahir Shah’s home
  7. Tahir Shah’s Guide to Casablanca
  8. Tahir Shah is Interviewed by Ariane Shah
  9. Tahir Shah on Downtown Casablanca
  10. Tahir Shah on Publishing

Most of these videos have already been updated to include Spanish subtitles.


Morocco's Pirate Realm

Relocate from a cramped East End flat to a haunted mansion, in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown, and you can’t help but slip into the Moroccan Twilight Zone. It’s a world conjured straight from a child’s imagination – a realm of Jinn and exorcists, of dazzling colours, exotic foods, and unending possibility.

During our several years here, we have descended down through the interleaving layers of Moroccan society to its very bedrock. In that time I have become preoccupied with the Morocco that tourists rarely glimpse, the one that lies just beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered by anyone ready to receive it.

            Every day Europe’s budget airlines ferry tourists back and forth, depositing them at the gates of a few key Moroccan cities – Marrakech, Agadir and Fès. Yet, the rest of the kingdom is left largely alone. So, stray a little off the beaten track, and the rewards can be immediate and quite extraordinary. And, as often happens in Morocco, the greatest treasures are where you expect them least of all.

I was reminded of this recently when my daughter, Ariane, came home and begged me to help with her pirate project. She’s obsessed with Johnny Depp, and imagines all pirates to be bumbling caricatures, rather than the ruthless killers of today’s African Horn.

Googling ‘Morocco Pirates’, she began a treasure trail which led right from our own door.

An hour’s drive up the coast from Casablanca is the capital, Rabat. It’s rather staid – orderly traffic, clipped hedges, and droves of diplomats. Across from it, nestled up on the windswept Atlantic shore is the small town of Salé. Most Rabatis like to stick their noses up at their down-at-heel neighbour. They regard it as sordid, squalid, a complete waste of time. I had bought in to the whole Salé-bashing syndrome, and found myself snarling at the mere mention of the name.

But Ariane insisted I’d got it all wrong.

She told a tale of a pirate realm worthy of Jack Sparrow himself, one where Robinson Crusoe had been taken as a slave. For eight centuries, she said, Salé had been a world centre of looting, pillaging, and of white slavery. The frenzied debauchery had reached its height in the 1600s, under the greatest marauder in the Barbary history, the infamous Jan Janszoon.

A Dutch freebooter, and former Christian slave himself, Janszoon made himself overlord of a pirate republic based at Salé. He waylaid many hundreds of ships across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, possibly extending as far as Iceland and the Americas. In true pirate tradition, he sired countless children. His descendents are said to embrace a Who’s Who of celebrity, including the Marquis of Blandford, Humphrey Bogart, and Jackie O.

Intrigued by this curious fragment of international pirate trivia, I bundled Ariane into the car and sped north.

Soon we spied the skyline of Rabat, all proud and stately as a capital city should be. Across the estuary, the syrupy yellow light of late afternoon gave a glow to the ancient walls of what was once the pirate realm – the Republic of Salé.

Even from a distance there was something bleak and piratic about it.

Gnarled volcanic rocks, breakers, wine-dark sea, and walls right out of Treasure Island. Approaching from along the coast, we found ourselves at an immense and ancient burial ground – tens of thousands of graves packed tight together, the head-stones lost in each other’s shadows.

Unable to resist, we strolled slowly between the graves, the chill Atlantic wind ripping in our ears. Ariane said she could imagine the pirates sleeping there, cuddled up with their secrets and their treasure maps.

In the middle of the graveyard a fisherman was crouching with a long slim rod, and an empty paint can filled with fish heads. He was surrounded by cats. When I asked him about pirates he narrowed his eyes, nodded once, and pointed to a low fortress at the edge of the cemetery.

We went over to it.

Crafted from honey-yellow stone, the Sqala, as it’s known in Arabic, was built into the crenellated sea wall, rusted iron cannons still trained on the horizon. A policeman was standing outside. He had a weather-worn face, watery eyes, and a big toothy grin. Ariane asked him about pirates. Before we knew it, we’d been ushered inside.

He led the way through a cool stone passage and out onto a rounded terrace, bathed in blinding yellow light. There was something magical about it, as if it was so real that it was fake, like a Hollywood set. The cannons there were bronze, lizard-green with verdigris, each one bearing a different crest.

‘They were obviously captured by pirates,’ said Ariane knowledgeably. ‘If they weren’t, the crests would all be the same.’

 Staring out to where the water joined the sky, the policeman suddenly recited a poem about unrequited love. He said there was no better place in all the world to compose poetry than right there, and that poetry was his true love.

I asked if he’d ever heard of Jan Janszoon. He cocked his face to the ground beneath his feet.

‘The dungeon,’ he said grimly.

We went down jagged steps, along a vaulted corridor bored out from the stone, lit by shafts of natural light. Home to nests of stray cats, it was damp and smelled of death. The officer showed us a truly miserable cell which looked as though it had been quite recently used. His grin subsiding, he explained that the last prisoner had been forgotten, and had starved to death.

‘Was it the famous corsair, Jan Janszoon?’ I asked.

The policeman shook his head.

‘For him, you must go to the old city,’ he said.

After sweet mint tea, and yet more poetry, we escaped with directions scribbled in Arabic, directions to the home of Jan Janszoon lost in the maze of the old city.

After six years in Morocco, I am no stranger to walled medinas, and have traipsed through dozens of them – often searching for a cryptic address. In that time I’ve learned to be thick-skinned when approached by hustlers laden with tourist wares.

Slipping through the Bab Malka Gate, we prepared ourselves for the usual onslaught of salesmen and mendicants. But it didn’t come. Instead, the silence was so pronounced that we could hear the children playing marbles in the labyrinth of lanes. Without waiting for us to ask, one of them led the way to the great mosque.

Built in the glorious twelfth century Almohad style, its one of the greatest treasures in the kingdom, and one of the least known. The boy said there were seven doors, one for each day of the week.

Twisting and turning our way down the whitewashed lanes, we found a time-capsule of Moroccan life from a century ago. There were vegetables piled high on carts, and chunks of fresh mutton laid out on fragrant beds of mint; tailors busily sewing kaftans, mattress-makers and carpenters, brocade-sellers, and dyers hanging skeins of wool in the sun. And, rather than any tourists or tourist kitsch, there were local people out shopping, bargaining for underpants and melons, pumpkins, wedding robes, and socks.

When Ariane showed the scribbled directions to the marble-playing boy, he led us to a spacious square, the Souq el Gazelle, the Wool Market. It was packed with people buying and selling used clothes and brightly-coloured wool. The boy said it was where slaves had once been sold, having been dragged ashore from captured ships.

Nudging a thumb to the directions, I asked about the home of Jan Janszoon.

The boy beckoned us to follow him.

Winding our way through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, the air pungent with kebab smoke and baking macaroons, we reached the crumbling façade of a building. Once plastered, the dressed stone was exposed, ravaged by the elements. A fig tree had taken hold and was growing out from the side, and the studded wooden door was falling to bits. The boy glanced at the scribbled directions and gave a thumb’s up.

Ariane and I stood there in awe. We were on hallowed ground after all – at the home of the greatest pirate in Barbary history, the progenitor of Jackie O no less.

As the muezzin called the prayer, his voice singing out over the tiled rooftops of old Salé, I whispered thanks to Jan Janszoon and to his band of marauding corsairs. Through a special conjury of Moroccan magic, the Dutch-born freebooter had lured us through a keyhole into his own pirate realm, the Moroccan Twilight Zone, where nothing is ever quite what it seems.


My Best Friend


Dar Khalifa is large, spread out, encircled by gardens and, beyond them, girdled by the shantytown. Very often, I scoop up a clutch of random people and drag them home to eat. Few things excite me more than seating half a dozen strangers around the dining table for good food and lively conversation. Rachana (who insists I have no spam filter on my friends) doesn’t quite understand my craving for people. I think it’s a family thing, ie from my family, something I must have acquired from my father. Just like him, I can’t help myself but collect people… the stranger the better.

     So, often, the house is full of voices, the sound of cutlery clattering on plates, and glasses clinking together. And, on those days and nights, I am content. But then, on mornings like today, when I am home alone, I feel something different, yet equally pleasing. It’s perhaps my greatest Moroccan friendship of all… the one I share with Dar Khalifa itself.

     This house is not quite like other houses. You see, it’s magical, the kind of place conjured from a child’s imagination. It’s made from stone, quarried nearby, and it feels alive… as if it knows I’m inside. Right now I am in the library, staring out at the riad, the courtyard garden, where tortoises amble slowly through the shade. And I am thankful, most of all to my great friend, Dar Khalifa, for touching our lives with magic… the kind only Morocco knows.



If it’s pure unadulterated skill you’re after, then Mustapha the ferronier is one of those people who’s a rare diamond of a man, one in a generation. I hardly know where to begin describing him, so I’ll start at the beginning.

     A few years ago, while I was in the middle of Casablanca gridlock, I spotted a shortcut going off to the right. I didn’t know where it went, so I swerved and accelerated up a narrow alley, which tapered as it went.

     The thing about Casablanca shortcuts is that you have to surge up them fast, foot flat down. If you don’t, then all sorts of traffic hurtles toward you in the other direction – cars, trucks, carts, bikes, trikes, blind men, wild dogs, donkeys, geese, chickens… everything you can imagine.

     So I was careering up that alley, teeth gritted, face in a frenzied snarl, and then I saw it: a panel of the finest geometric wrought iron work I had ever seen.

     I slammed on the brakes.

     Screech. Wheels locking.

     Then, wounded by the whiplash, I leapt out, and started to shout:

     ‘Who made this? Who did this work? Please will someone tell me at once?’

     There was silence for a long while. Silence, except for the hooting from the traffic that was backing up behind my car. Then, after a minute or two, a passing child jabbed into a filthy workshop with his thumb.

     I went in, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. I scanned the place. There were three or four anvils, odd lengths of metal, a heap of wrought iron, the stench of sulphur and of coal and, in the dingiest corner, the shape of a man.

     He was bent over the forge, his short wizened outline emaciated as if a terrible illness had taken hold. In his right hand was an oxy-acetyline torch. Over his eyes were a pair of cheap sunglasses, extra dark.

     Nudging a hand out into the sunshine, I motioned towards the panel of geometric ironwork.

     ‘Did you make that?’

     The figure switched off the torch. It went out with a crack. He nodded.

     ‘Will you work for me?’

     He nodded again.

     That was seven years ago. And in that time Mustapha the ferronier has become a huge part of our lives. Whatever we need made, he will do it, and he’ll do it with a touch of genius. I would give my front teeth to have skill like that, mixed with a gentleness, a calmness, that allows the mind to spark, and brilliance to unfold.

     He has made wrought iron beds for the children, curtain rods, tables, and garden chairs, and gates eleven feet tall adorned with the most intricate work, fire tools and screens, iron fences, display frames and bookcases, and even wooden cupboards when the iron ran out.

     Mustapha likes to work at the end of the garden on a patch of empty land. His tools are almost non-existent, little more than a hammer, a ruler, a file and a welding torch.

     I often find myself concluding that he’s a magician.

     I’ll go down and check how he’s doing, only to find that the work hasn’t yet begun. But then, checking the next day, it’ll all be finished, with Mustapha sitting beside it sipping a glass of sweet mint tea.

     Last month I copied a page from a book of geometric designs. Mustapha is far too polite ever to complain, and very modest in every he does. But I felt he needed something extraordinary with which to show off. He looked at the page for a full minute, his eyes tracing the interwoven lines. A grin gradually moved from the left corner of his mouth to where his front teeth had once been.

     ‘Pas de problem, Monsieur,’ he whispered.

     A month later, a gate appeared, just like that — painted black and perfect. The great master craftsman handed me back the photocopy I’d given him, all soiled with dirt.

     ‘You’re a magician,’ I said.

     The ferronier looked at the paper, then gate, then me.

     And, slowly, he blinked.


The Warrior on the Roads

Live in Casablanca as I do, and you have to get used to a few things. Most of the time they’re good things, like the way complete strangers greet each other, or the way the young still have respect for the old. But there are things that take a lot of getting used to, none more so than driving from A to B.
     To drive in Casablanca you have to be a warrior.
     Opening the door of your much-dented vehicle and clambering in, you are a knight clambering onto his battle speed. The dents, scratches, gouges and scrapes, are all testimonies of battles endured and won. Every day the traffic gets a little worse, the gridlock a little more ferocious. Much of the time there may be very little movement, but the clamour of the horns and klaxons is like a hundred thousand harbingers of hell.
      And in this cutthroat realm of cacophony there is one place more feared, more tempestuous, and more draining on the adrenal glands, then any other. The infamous Marjane Roundabout. Ask anyone who’s ever driven in Casablanca if they know it, and their face turn ashen with alarm. It’s where six or more streets converge in a frantic, frenetic juggernaut wheel of life and death.
     I can’t tell you how many accidents I’ve seen there. It must be hundreds. Trucks on their sides, precious cargo strewn in a wide arc all around. Motorcyclists lying on the ground, limbs crumpled and contorted. Communal taxis set ablaze by the impact of a multiple pile-up.
     Mastering the Marjane Roundabout, positioning yourself exactly, learning to keep your cool, is a badge of honour. There should be medals awarded for anyone who has survived it, the best of them reserved for those who manage to complete a left turn.
      Morocco is unlike other countries when it comes to the left turn. In most countries, turning left is all about following the gentle arc made by the car in front, executing the manoeuvre neatly and without any fuss. But in Morocco, turning left is all about exercising one’s indomitable sense of individuality.
     No one lines up. To do so would be to make you the laughing stock of the roads. Instead, all the cars planning to turn left, position themselves side-by-side. And, as their passage opens up, honking and clamouring, they nudge forward in fits and starts, until the moment to charge.
      But at the Marjane Roundabout, the sheer pressure of traffic, the tension, and the fear, usually leeds to a stalemate – a knot of choking vehicles that simply can’t move.
      It may sound dire, but there is a plan to strip Casablanca of all this fun. It’s called the Tramway, and its construction in recent months has only ratcheted up the chaos on the roads. My barber was groaning about it last night. Waving a cutthroat razor in his right hand, and gesticulating wildly with his left, he shouted out loud:
      ‘What madness is this?! This damned Tramway. They’re building it from where no one lives to where no one works!’
     Even if the zillion-dollar Tramway did go where people wanted it to, I have a feeling no one would use it anyway. Because Moroccans are true individuals – and that’s what’s so amazing about them. They don’t like to be guided by others, or follow a path prescribed by anyone else.
     I may be the traffic’s worst critic, but I secretly love it as well. After all, every time I clamber into my car and venture out into the grinding slipstream of ferocity, I have no idea of what tumultuous encounters I’m about to hit headlong with my trusty battle steed.



Art Deco Casablanca

 Stroll down the long palm-lined Boulevard Mohammed V, the heart of old Casablanca, and you have to squint to appreciate the glory of it all. On the surface it may appear more than a little tatty at the edges but, look beyond the obvious, and you slip into a Twilight Zone of utter enchantment.
            Laid out by the French a century ago, the old crumbling downtown was once a showcase of imperial might, one of the first cities planned by aeroplane. A gleaming jewel of Art Deco style, pre-War Casablanca was synonymous with all that was dazzling, exciting, and new. Back then, the chic restaurants and cafés were packed with men in trilbies, their women in long silk gloves and heels. These days, a façade of grime may cover every surface, but the magic’s still there, waiting to be revealed. And, more to the point, change is afoot. The phoenix is about to rise from the flames once again.
            A stone’s throw from the Central Market, a farrago of fresh fish and hopeful cats, a pair of wizened old pied noir take coffee on the pavement outside Le Petit Poucet. The syrupy morning North African light bathing them in shadows, they reminisce of how things used to be.
            ‘They all came here to dine,’ growls François, his voice roughened from a lifelong love affair with Gauloises. ‘Among them, Albert Camus, Saint-Exupéry and Edith Piaf.’
            ‘In the ’twenties and ’thirties, the greatest architects flooded to Casablanca,’ adds Laurent. ‘They worked with a blank canvas, creating a cultural masterpiece!’
            Across from him, François sips his coffee and scowls.
            ‘The city was in full bloom back then. It was a fragment of paradise.
            ‘So what happened?’
            The Frenchman frowns at the question, as the ancient waiter shuffles forwards with fresh glasses of ubiquitous café noir.
            ‘Independence! That’s what happened. And, all of a sudden, this precious bijou was thrown into the trash!’
            In the seven years I have lived in Casablanca, I’ve discovered the secret Art Deco splendour, an understated opulence shunned by almost everyone. The grandeur is everywhere… in the detail. Amble through the backstreets off the main boulevard, and you can’t help but notice it. The marble foyers are adorned with the finest quality brass-work, parquet, and wrought-iron, the curved lettering outside each building hinting at a time when Casablanca was wealthy in the extreme.
            There’s a sense that this wasn’t just another city, but a statement. The French constructed every inch with abounding national pride. In their legacy there’s a smugness, as if the streets of sleeping buildings know full well how extraordinary they are. But, despite the grand pedigree, modern Casablanca has lost its identity, and the glorious downtown has paid a heavy price.

Fifty-five years since the colonials packed their sea trunks and left, the ‘Moroccan’ Casablanca continues to percolate forth. In some ways it’s the perfect balance, a realm with plenty of slack in the system, where nothing’s taken very seriously at all. The Art Deco Stade Velodrome is a case in point. With no need for a cycling track any longer, the 1930s stadium is used for nocturnal greyhound racing of an uproariously sleazy variety. The preserve of Moroccan Del Boy Trotters, cloaked in thick woolen jelaba robes, they turn up nightly to swap tall tales and to blow the family’s savings on the dogs.

            Not far off, with their sleek curved lines, cupolas, and floral motifs, the majestic old apartment blocks of Mers Sultan are as impressive as anything you might find at Miami Beach. Once a posh residential quarter, Mers Sultan is avoided by the nouveau riche and by the few tourists who brave Casablanca. It’s a treasure trove of buildings that are themselves the epitome of faded grandeur. My favourite is the Café Champs Elyssée. A great rollicking rollercoaster of a building, fashioned in the shape of a luxury cruise liner, it’s filled morning till night with regulars, most of them tired old men hiding from their wives.
            Nearby, across from the Art Deco Cinema Lynx, is the iconic Bar Atomic. Dating from the ’thirties, when anything with the word ‘atomic’ in the title was regarded as racy and cutting edge, it’s one of a kind. Behind the bar, the bottles of cheap Flag Special beer are kept cool in the original wooden fridges, the speckled granite floor hidden beneath a layer of sawdust. Every few minutes a flurry of hawkers bluster in, touting everything from peanuts to underpants, to back-scratchers, toothpaste and shoes.
            Most days of the week Salah couches outside, selling cigarettes one by one. His face buried by scraggly white beard, his teeth mostly missing, he flutters a hand towards the street.
            ‘The money’s all gone,’ he says, choking back down a lungful of phlegm. ‘And there’s shame in it all. The rich moved away, or died out. Or both. You don’t smell their perfume here any more.’ Salah pauses, lights a cigarette and sucks the end hard. ‘As I child I used to go just there to the Lynx, and watch the latest flicks, he says, ‘I liked Charles Bronson. He was the King of the             Stars. I always dreamed he’d come here to Casa. But there’s no hope of that any more.’
            In the distance, there’s a thunderous smashing sound which makes Salah cringe.
            ‘What is it?’
            ‘Go have a look for yourself.’
            Following the sound, I turn the corner to find an old Art Deco villa being reduced to rubble, by a team of men with sledge hammers, their bare backs gleaming with sweat. The fixtures and fittings are loaded onto a truck, which speds away to the junkyard up the road in Hay Hasseni. I recognise the driver, after all I spend half my life there, trawling through the wreckage hunting for gems. Go often enough and you can find roll-top baths with claw feet, wooden roller blinds, and fabulous washbasins the size of cattle troughs. But each cluster of baths discovered means another magnificent Art Deco villa has been ripped down.
            Live here long enough and it’s easy to be jaded and just a little bitter that no one seems to care. But the green shoots of recovery are all around. With the backing of the king, there’s a grand plan to revitalize the old heart of Casablanca, just before it ceases to beat. A tramway is being constructed, expected to be launched next year. It will link the main thoroughfare Mohammed V to other areas of the city. After all, one of the great problems has been that the post-Colonial centre moved away to the chic new district of Marif.
            The master plan is to get investment downtown again, a long process that’s begun with cleaning up the streets and giving the grand old buildings a badly-needed lick of paint. The most important change is that of the mindset, enthusing both locals and visitors about real Casablanca again. And, it’s happening. Precious Art Deco treasures are being restored on a micro scale – the engine of true inertia.

            One of the most impressive renovations is the boutique Hotel de la Doge. Tucked away in a narrow cul-de-sc opposite the imposing Sacré Coeur Cathedral, the hotel is a hymn to Art Deco style. The doors are festooned with curled wrought-iron, the furniture and fittings sculpted from sweeping lines. Named after famous celebrities of the time, the sixteen rooms and suites have been painstakingly adorned with period objets – all of them sourced in the city’s antique shops and flea markets. The result is a dream-like moment from Titanic, stepping into a pristine 1930s Casablanca.
            Back at Le Petit Poucet, Laurent and François have moved on to the house wine, and have knocked down a bottle each. Both at once they shake their heads in despair, take a sip and grimace.
            ‘The future,’ says François, his eyes widening, ‘how can it be any good?’
            I nudge a thumb towards the newly laid tram tracks and the fresh whitewash. Laurent shrugs.
            ‘Who knows?’ he says, his hands thrust into the air. ‘Maybe new life will be breathed into the old place again.’
            François suddenly taps his watch.
            ‘We have to go,’ he says. ‘Are you coming?’
            Round the corner, to Cinema Rialto.
            ‘What’s showing?’
            Laurent downs his wine in one.
            ‘Casablanca,’ he says, with a smile.

(Written for The Times)