A local's guide to Casablanca

Discover the winding romance of Casablanca by digging deeper into the city's history.

A dozen years ago I swapped life in an unremarkable London apartment for a haunted mansion—set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown.

With more than 30 rooms, Dar Khalifa—or the Caliph’s House—was a faded paradise of shaded courtyards, packed with gardens, fountains, birdsong, and genies.

A year of renovations ended in a grand exorcism to rid the house of its unwanted guests. Twenty-four exorcists arrived from a secretive brotherhood. Through days and nights, their dark ceremony featured trumpets, drums, and animal sacrifice.

Renovating the house introduced me to the endless interwoven layers of Casablanca—without a doubt Morocco’s most magical and misunderstood city.

From time to time a traveler happens upon a real crossroads. Not the kind where two streets intersect, but one far more profound: a meeting point at which history and landscapes, people, superstitions, and culture all collide.

Such destinations are the holy grail of adventure—especially when foreign visitors are few and far between.

Nudged up on the northwestern edge of Africa, gazing out over Atlantic shores, Casablanca is one such destination. A realm as bizarre as it is intoxicating to the senses, it’s famous for all the wrong reasons.

Like everyone else weaned on the film Casablanca, I thought I knew it. Half expecting Bogart and Bergman to be whiling away the long, scorching afternoons in some smoke-filled bar downtown, what I found was in many ways all the more tantalizing.

At its heart is Boulevard Mohammed V, a study in decadence. It was one of the grandest streets built during the French protectorate of Morocco in the early 20th century. Towering up on either side, great monuments of imperial might, the prewar buildings are as bewitching now as they must have been back in the ’30s.

Although it’s easy to be seduced by the big picture, Casablanca’s magic is in the detail: art deco signage and sweeping balustrades, angular panels of stained glass, zigzag awnings, and cresting waves of wrought iron.

Stroll down Boulevard Mohammed V as sleek new electric trams glide by and it’s impossible not to think back to the days when all the men wore hats and the women on their arms strutted along in Parisian heels. Like everything else, café life may be a little forlorn, but it harks back to the good old days, as do the names—Café Champs Élysée, Café des Négociants, Le Petit Poucet. Before World War II, the French jet-setters were commonly found here, soaking up the winter sun. Among them: Edith Piaf, Albert Camus, and The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Set back half a block from the main drag is Cinéma Rialto, one of the many cinemas that put Casablanca at the cutting edge of architectural design. By designing the modern city from scratch, French architects could indulge their fantasies—something unthinkable back home in Paris.

A stone’s throw from Cinéma Rialto is Marché Central. The old Central Market is a French-built fantasy right out of The Arabian Nights. At dawn each morning the catch of the day is hauled there in handcarts from the port nearby.

At the stalls, oysters are shucked, given a squeeze of lemon, and served just as they are, with cats circling like sharks on the ground below. In a throwback to another time, you can buy your fish in the market, then take it to one of the ramshackle restaurants to have it cooked up for lunch.

At the far end of the great boulevard lies the old medina, which was walled by the French—who did their best to pretend it wasn’t there. A honeycomb of interwoven streets, the medina abounds with donkeys, water sellers, and seasonal fruit and vegetables piled high on carts. Unlike other Moroccan cities awash with tourists, Casablanca’s medina is the real thing.

By morning the street corners are loaded with plumbers and painters hoping for a day’s work. By night they’re teeming in carts laden with overripe melons, thirdhand clothing, and anything else needing to be sold off quickly.

The commercial heart of Morocco, Casablanca is in itself a cross section of the kingdom. Ask where they’re from and most people won’t say “Casa” (pronounced CAH-za by locals), but the name of the province from which their ancestors came. The result is a hybrid of food, style, and ethnicity—just as it is a mixture of both paucity and wealth.

Casablanca’s restaurants cater to locals, relying on repeat customers, rather than tourists who’ll dine there once and never turn up again. There’s an abiding feeling that prices asked are the right ones—whether you’re buying rugs in the old Arabian souk at Habous (built by the French) or prickly pears from the back of a donkey cart near the Corniche.

But, in true Moroccan style, shopping wouldn’t be the same without a certain amount of haggling—never more so than in the city’s fabulous junk markets.

When the French departed en masse in the years after the war, they left behind all sorts of loot. Casablanca’s antique stores and junkyards abound with a hodgepodge culled from the war years—radios as big as refrigerators, brass bedsteads, grand pianos, cocktail shakers, and exquisite crystal chandeliers.

As the magical old villas are knocked down one by one, the cast-iron bathtubs and art deco washbasins the size of cattle troughs find their way to the twisting lanes of the souks, too, where they wait for a new life to begin.

Relocate to a haunted mansion in a Casablanca shantytown and you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to trawling junkyards for treasure.

If it’s not amazing objects crossing the threshold, then it’s unusual people.

One morning a passing magician arrived unexpectedly at my door. He said I was not safe—that a genie was living in the courtyard outside my study (a common belief in Morocco). The genie was guardian to a vast buried treasure, he insisted. I asked the magician for the best course of action. Narrowing his eyes, he whispered darkly:

“An exorcism.”
“We had one already,” I said.
“Its power is all used up.”
“But I don’t want to hold another exorcism.”

The magician frowned in disappointment and in fear.

“Then the genie will swallow you whole,” he said.
“What about the treasure?” I asked.
“Hold the exorcism and you can go and dig it up!” the magician replied.

Experience Tahir's favorites in Casablanca:

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is the art deco heart of Casablanca, built by the French in the interwar years.

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You can see my city best from one of the rooftop cafés in the old art deco quarter.

The wonderful markets at Habous are the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs.

My city’s best museum is the Moroccan Jewish Museum because it shines a light on a side of Casablanca that's rarely seen.

You can tell if someone is from my city if when they say the name Casablanca there's a dreamy look in their eye.

For a fancy night out, I go to dinner at my favorite restaurant, Relais de Paris, and order the magret de canard, with a bottle of good Moroccan wine.

Just outside my city, you can visit the beach area of Dar Bouazza. You'll find a great selection of restaurants that spill out onto the beach, like Babaloo Beach.

Chez Paul at Villa Zevaco is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Casa Jose is the best place for late-night eats.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Bewildered in Morocco blog.

Armstrong, near the Corniche, is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out Sky Bar.

Tahir Shah is a writer based in Casablanca, where he lives in the Dar Khalifa mansion. He is the author of The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca and In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams.

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