That is what many of the guidebooks tell you about this city once you open the first Moroccan guidebook you get your hands on.
There is Marrakech, the ancient Saharan desert city with its beating heart that is Djema el-Fnaa – the vibrant square of snake charmers and street vendors with its music and melodic storytelling that goes way into the night.
There is Fez and its ancient souq, or marketplace, with its narrow streets and exotic appeals which immerses you in the time of the great Andalusian Caliphate.
Or Tangier with its gypsy charm and melting pot ambience, the city of beginnings, whether the beginning of an African tour or the beginning of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.
Yet Casablanca is given the same description over and over again by the guides; gritty, chaotic, dirty.
How strange for a city with more allure than the others beckon? Let’s be honest, no other movie has been named with the city’s name as the key title – Casablanca, that Hollywood classic of course.
No other city seems to hark such emotions in the minds of millions of travellers to Morocco than Casablanca, so the very jarring warning to spend ‘no more than a day’ seems farfetched or beyond reason to comprehend.
And indeed, I was like this before I made my way to this city. From the pink Saharan facades of Marrakech to the famed white buildings of Casablanca. I intended on being here for just a day as the guidebooks suggested. Instead, I spent four months living here.
Casablanca in Spanish translates as “White House” and the meaning is the same even in the name of the city in Arabic – Dar al Badia. But if you are imagining the bleached white homes you have seen in Greece or other cities of the Mediterranean, you would be swiftly mistaken.
The buildings vary from white to grey to an off-white beige mixture. Some buildings are new while others are worn down. The city has not seen a war, but the architecture could make you believe it has seen it all with its reminiscence of even Beirut’s torn down decadence.
And perhaps that is because Casablanca has seen it all – the Phoenician, Berber, Arab, Spanish, French and then finally the Moroccan again. This city reflects the thousands of years in which it has stood so the haggard appearance is not from war or from conflict – they are from a lifetime.
Yet, Casablanca knows how to mask its imperfections and make them beautiful. Next to the abandoned and decaying French-style buildings are bushes of magenta bougainvillea followers and palm trees rendering a certain charm that is unique to this city.
Even the graffiti on the off-white walls, mixing Arabic and French, evoke a certain elegance that is hard to be said about graffiti in Paris.
To be honest, if you were to kidnap me and send me here, on first impression, I would have assumed I was somewhere in the South of France (even with the Arabic script to boot). Where Tangier is more Hispanic and Marrakech more Saharan, Casablanca has a more French allure to it. This was due to the heavy investment that the French made in the city during the time when Morocco was a French Protectorate (a diplomatic term for colony). The French even built many of the famous landmarks of the city – such as the whitewashed Cathedral of Sacre-Coeur and the famed Quartier Hebou in the affluent neighbourhood of Mers Sultan, which is a French creation of a Moroccan souq.
But to call this city French would be a mistake – Moroccans are very proud of the influence they have imposed on Europe and the world – not the other way around. Yet, it is clear that the Casablancais are more welcoming of the Francophone spirit (albeit not necessarily pro-French).
French is spoken as often as Arabic (or Moroccan Darija to be more precise, a dialect mixed with Arabic, Berber and French). French products and stores are omnipresent and the neighbourhoods of Gauthier and Maarif have a very French touch about them, from the way the palm trees are aligned along the Boulevards to the libraries and patisseries which dot these well-to-do neighbourhoods.
Yet, in the Casablancais spirit, what appears French is actually Moroccan. The soupe du jour is the rich Moroccan mix harira with its chickpeas, lentils and saffron broth. The crepe is actually the Moroccan breakfast staple of Baghrir, slightly larger and more filling, served with honey and butter (or French peach marmalade…my favourite).
There’s an energy to this city that you cannot find even by standing in the middle of chaotic Djema al-Fna on its busiest of days (and those who have been to Marrakech know that this says a lot). This is the city full of Moroccan hopes and dreams. The Moroccan New York that famed Casablancais and Moroccan-American rapper French Montana once claimed it to be and rightfully so – this is the city that never sleeps.
The beach lounges along the beach neighbourhood of Ain Diab blast music and serve cocktails well into the night. The cafes of Anfa remain active with coffee, Moroccan mint tea and cigarettes until the wee hours. And even on the streets, groups of friends spend all night talking, smoking and laughing under the dim streetlights.
This is a city that exhibits all of Moroccan life; where Moroccans from the desert to the Atlas and the Mediterranean North come to make a life, which is hard to define and difficult to find in this still developing country.
It is a city where the traditional and the modern clash. Where the French and the Spanish mingle. Where the forbidden and the sacred shake hands – where else can a man experience unwanted attention in broad daylight in the middle of the street where homosexuality is seen as a crime?
Only in Casablanca.
Casablanca does not have a large enough souq to fill your suitcases, nor does it have the number of sites to make you “insta-famous” on your social media feed. It is not pretty enough to make your friends envy and it is not slow enough to whisk you into another world.
But what Casablanca has is life. It has energy. It has an allure – or a “toute petite charme” as you like. The guidebooks say skip it, but to experience the true Moroccan pulse, your journey can only begin and end here.