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Tag: France

4

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?’
            ‘Where?’
            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)

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March 3, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Transitions

Something I find tremendously interesting is the way icons and ideas pass from one culture to another. And, as they do so, the society in which they arrive believes quite ardently that it has originated them. Let me give you a couple of examples. To the French there is nothing more, well, French, than the Croissant. There are various lines of history on these puff pastry crescents, but the most likely is that they arrived in France from Constantinople, where the pastry is a much-loved favourite. And, of course, the crescent is a known symbol of Turkey as well as Islam. But the star and crescent symbol was not originally Islamic. It was adopted by the Turks when they conquered Byzantium, from the Christians (i.e. the same people who now claim the crescent croissant as their own… so it’s come full circle in a way). The Christians didn’t create the crescent form as an icon though, they merely borrowed it from their Near-Western pagan ancestors. Another wonderful example of such a transition that lives in the Madre de Dios jungle in Peru, and elsewhere in South America. I have been warned by tribesmen there to watch out for the so-called ‘Mal de Ojo’, the ‘Evil Eye’. The superstition was actually taken to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores, whom in turn acquired it from Morocco.



TS
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June 11, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

My friend Wednesday

There’s something magical about Wednesdays. I really mean it. It means you’re in the middle of the week, a little like a traffic island in the centre of the road — protected between oncoming lanes of traffic by a thin sliver of concrete.

So here we are, perched on the traffic island with a clear view forward and a clear view back. I won’t rant on today. You must have better stuff to be doing than reading this, and I have broken through the procrastination barriers, dozens of them, and am, finally, cranking out some of the work that’s been heavy on my desk for days.

I’m actually still reeling from last week. Spent most of it in Paris, doing publicity for the French edition for The Caliph’s House (La maison du caliphe). The best thing was hanging out at Editions de Fallois, my absolutely amazing and old-fashioned French publisher… and the very very worst thing was being obliged to speak French endlessly on the radio. But then, as I always say, a life without steep learning curves is no life at all.
The middle of the week’s a weird little time, one of those days when you can take solace in strange thoughts, dreams that one might more normally expunge from a well-tuned mind. On Wednesdays I like to think about the village of Llactapampa in the Madre de Dios jungle, where I left Eduardo and his family. And I like, too, to think about a torture cell in Peshawar where I once spent time, and about waffles covered in homemade vanilla ice cream, because it’s one of those things I never quite allow myself to enjoy.
Sometimes on Wednesday I go for a long walk down the beach and watch the gulls swoop and dive over Sidi Abdur Rahman, the glorious enchanted shrine near our home, where seheras cure the needy and the good. In winter the sky is inky and full of dark possibility and, in summer, it’s indigo and pure. From time to time I mount the steps at low tide and walk up to the shrine itself and through until I’m on the apron of land at the back where the chickens are being sacrificed. I like it where because of the smell. It smells of hope, as if a thousand, or a hundred thousand people have pinned their lives to the clefts in the rocks. It’s a place of wishes, a fragment of calm destiny.
Once in a while I pass a Wednesday morning down at Casablanca’s port. I like to watch the fishing boats heaving up to the quay, low in the water, their precious hauls of fish ready for beds of crushed ice. There are cats in abundance and more gulls, and rubber boots moving fast over the stone slabs, and the cries of the fishermen boasting of their skill.
And, sometimes on a Wednesday, when the first days of summer are so near you can taste them, feel them on your skin, I climb up onto the top terrace, and look down. You can see the ocean from up there, and Casablanca’s great mosque in the distance, and the lighthouse at El Hank that’s protected ships for century or more. And you can see the bustle and real life of the shantytown all around: children running to the communal bakeries with loaves of flat bread on great unwieldy trays, women walking out to the hammam with plastic buckets and stools, the school teacher flexing her length of orange plastic hose, shepherding a flock of children into class.
And then, as always, poised on my sliver of concrete in the middle of the week, I say a little prayer, thankful for it all.
TS