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Bidonville Blues

In French ‘Bidonville’ means ‘Tin Town’, taking its name from the battered old oil drums (bidons), the metal of which has traditionally been used to make the shacks weatherproof. Casablanca is a wild and eclectic mix of housing. Near to where we live are some of the smartest villas in the city — even the smallest would go for well over a million Euros. Many are five times that. Other Moroccan cities have Bidonvilles, but few have them nestled so cheek by jowl with the more upmarket areas. Casa Trash, the dreaded nouveau riche, are embarrassed by the shantytowns, and will tell you that they are hotbeds of danger, dirt, and depravity.
     As anyone who has read my books will hopefully know, this perception couldn’t be farther from the truth. Living in the middle of Sidi Ghanem, the Bidonville that surrounds our home, has been more most rewarding and humbling experience imaginable.
     At first when we moved here, to live at Dar Khalifa, I looked at the situation in black and white. Come from the Occident and that’s how you tend to see things — good and bad, rich and poor. But Morocco is a realm of shades of colour rather than monochrome. And that’s where the true magic lies.
     The Bidonville functions in a very sophisticated way. There’s no crime to speak of, and most of the people who live here have some employment, many of them working in the surrounding villas as gardeners, maids and guardians. Their homes may look shabby on the exterior, but inside they are always neat, spotlessly clean, and welcoming. What has always impressed me is the way that the community works. If anyone’s sick or ill, friends, neighbours, or even strangers, watch over them. There’s a sense of fraternity that doesn’t exist in the fancier areas of town, such as Anfa, where the new money can be found.
     Walk through during any hour of the day and you’ll see women chatting on the main street, carts laden with pots and pans, fishmongers weighing out sardines, encircled by hopeful cats, and children scampering about between the buildings. There’s a sense that the streets are a grand sitting room, a place that belongs to everyone at the same time. The cornerstones of Moroccan life is very much in evidence — friendship, faith, and family.
     I’m not pretending for a moment that all’s well. Because it is not. Over the years we have been living here there have been mumblings from time to time about moving the Bidonville on and using the space for luxury. Once or twice there were even plans to bulldoze some areas. But then, at the end of the summer, construction began in ernest. The animals were moved first. They used to live in a great sprawling paddock of dust, donkeys, cows, geese, goats and sheep. Free-ranging and fabulous. The sound of the geese in particular formed a raucous quite musical backdrop to my working days.
     For six months the engineers have been toiling, building a series of plush apartment blocks on the far side of Dar Khalifa, homes for the wealthy that will — soon — overlook our lives. It’s not the high rise apartments for a new wave of Casa Trash that worries me, so much as what’s going to happen to the hundreds of ordinary people who lives in the Bidonville.
     Our maid, Zenab just told me that last week a man with a clipboard came round and asked her questions…. how much she earns, how many people in her family have jobs, and whether she has relatives elsewhere in town. She came to work this morning and broke down sobbing, damping her eyes with the corner of her headscarf.
     ‘They said we will have to leave in a few month,’ she said. ‘But where will we go?’