November 12, 2007

Stay there again, Sam

Decadently refined Casablanca is an intoxicating throwback to the past, writes SEAN BADAL

  ON THE train into Casablanca, the civil engineer I had struck up a conversation with offers me cologne from a small glass phial. “To freshen up,” he adds decorously.It’s a gesture from the past – from the seedy milieu of Eric Ambler and other 30s thriller writers who managed to evoke so brilliantly the kind of exaggerated refinement beloved by Middle-Eastern despots.

It lingers in the mind, a memory inflated and embellished by literary allusion. Casablanca is that kind of city. It wants desperately to remind you of something, but everything is out of place, disjointed, ragged, fragmented. Casablanca is resolutely behind the times – as if 1945 was the year before – chaotic, unruly and tinged with a slight air of menace.

Not that it’s any the worse for it. The billboards may exhort the masses to buy computers! Buy cellphones! Buy Nike! But no-one is taking any notice – it is a culture that has elevated ennui into a national pastime.

An afternoon in the city becomes both comedic and scary. Enter seedy restaurant to soak in authentic city ambience. Discover after substantial meal that owners don’t accept travellers’ cheques and are getting decidedly edgy. Race to Hilton Hotel near the Place Mohammed V – the city centre – to convert cheques to dirhams. Surly youth behind metal grating says “come back Monday” and refuses to make eye contact.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice wealthy Saudi businessmen casting disdainful glances at the hoi polloi and knocking back expensive drinks in “Rick’s Bar” in the hotel – the only “authentic” Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, says the notice. It has a badly drawn Humphrey Bogart on the outside. His trench coat makes him look like a flasher. The film, incidentally, was shot entirely in Hollywood. The closest Bogart ever came to anything vaguely Moroccan was probably the hashish he was alleged to have smoked.

Race back to the restaurant. Get lost and panicky amidst the narrow, winding streets. Not helped by the fact that all of them seem to be preceded by the word “Rick’s”. Eventually find restaurant and send colleague to the Hilton this time as she is prettier and more persuasive. Colleague returns, triumphantly waving local currency. Huge sighs of relief all around. Incipient menace dissipates like the early morning mist that envelopes the city.

Casablanca makes very few concessions to the ordinary tourist. It’s a living city, unlike the glacéed brashness of New York or Amsterdam. Some may bemoan the lack of tourist offices, public toilets and neat little signs in English – others revel in its unabashed exoticism. Its physical structure is unprepossessing, almost utilitarian. There are kilometre upon kilometre of satellite-capped buildings seemingly on the throes of collapse.

The guidebooks say the lack of monuments is because Casablanca was (and is) a largely commercial city, dedicated to Mammon. The truth is somewhat hazier. It is almost axiomatic that, as soon as businessmen accumulate wealth, they aspire to cultural pretensions – Venice, London, even Dallas lately.

Casablanca’s population is different. It’s a transient population, hankering to be somewhere else – the glitzy streets of Paris, the crisp hills of the Atlas Mountains. Nowhere was this more succinctly evoked than in the film Casablanca – although its protagonists did have to worry about an imminent German invasion.

Then there’s the smell – fetid and briny, a mixture of diesel fumes and a few hundred years of accumulated garbage hang in the air. It’s both revolting and intoxicating because, somewhere in the malodorous soup, there is a hint of sea. The primeval stirrings are inexplicable, but there is something reassuring in the knowledge that an ocean is lurking in the background. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that it provides an escape route to other worlds.

There are olfactory compensations. Wander through the back streets and, in the fuliginous haze of the dying day, you encounter a troop of women sashaying down the street, djellabas swaying in the breeze, heads swathed in florid towels. They leave behind them a trail of ineffable freshness – of jasmine, saffron and citrus.

If they smell as if they’ve just come out of the bath, it’s because they have. The hammam is a public bath. Once a Roman institution, here it’s given a uniquely Arabic twist. It’s where most of the working classes go daily to get clean.

I smuggle a hotel towel into my rucksack and head for the nearest back street. Inside, it’s a Stygian hellhole – steam bellows from orifices in the walls and hot water gushes from a rusty pipe into an equally ancient stone bathtub.

I make my way to the first room (hammams are divided into three sections according to varying degrees of heat), acutely conscious of the good-natured sniggering behind my back. A wizened figure materialises from the steam and offers to wash my back. Around me, young boys gambol on the slippery floor like seals. Unlike the female hammams, the male counterparts have a pervasive and overpowering odour of unwashed feet.

Along the corniche Ain Diab, the strong Atlantic breeze is a refreshing elixir. The Ain Diab is Morocco’s Cannes, according to the publicity bumph. In reality, it’s closer to Blackpool. In the warm afternoon – there is no other kind of day in Casablanca – the area is packed with locals and tourists.

Like everywhere else, how much money you have determines how good a spot on the beachfront you get. The French have pretty much colonised the wealthier clubs. Middle-class families stay closeted in their compounds, rarely venturing outside the walls – which makes you wonder why they didn’t drive to the south of France instead.

The gay Frenchmen are a bit more adventurous. Muscular studs in tight, lurid shirts (Jean Paul Gaultier, no doubt) – looking as though they come from the same pan-European genetic pool that bred Jean Claude van Damme – mince their way through the streets, one eye on the naked torsos that pass their way.

Morocco was, of course, the gay capital of the world. Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs have perpetuated enduring images of the rakishness of Morocco’s cities, luring a steady stream of men to the country. In theory, homosexuality is illegal, but neither the tourists nor the locals seem to care.

In the restaurant Zahoun on the Boulevard D’ Anfa, a large man in a white dinner jacket weaves his way through the tables, a nod here, a handshake there. His name is Rick – and he is as black as ebony. The Romans would have called him Nubian. It’s hard to tell if he owns the restaurant or is managing it, such is his proprietorial air.

Zahoun serves the best Middle-Eastern food I’ve ever tasted. Olives, handled as reverentially as gold, are ladled onto plates. Meze plates are piled high with exotic delicacies.

Zahoun also seems to function as a brothel. The tables are largely populated by males. It’s communal and festive, unlike the forced, testosterone-driven rituals of male bonding normally seen in pick-up joints. They sit around hookahs, drenching the air with the sweet smell of tobacco. Arriving women are prodded and kneaded as if they were ripe fruit, and then encouraged to join the table.

It is bizarrely retrogressive, like a Hollywood set from the 40s. It’s perhaps a fitting finale, enduring as another one lodged in memory. At the end of Josef van Sternberg’s Morocco, Marlene Dietrich – in an act of masochistic unselfishness – stoically takes off her sandals and plunges into the desert sand after Gary Cooper’s disappearing train of legionnaires.

In Casablanca, the warm, soothing night air reminds you exactly what lies beyond the city’s boundaries.


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