Tell someone that you're going to Casablanca, and you're guaranteed to get one of two reactions. Either a moony, far-off gaze because the name conjures up grainy, vintage images of the film noir era, or a wrinkled nose and bewildered expression because the Casablanca of today is one of economic power replete with all the negative inevitabilities of socioeconomic disparity - unemployment, crime, prostitution, etc. It certainly felt dodgier than the other cities - even Tangier, but maybe that's because I had spent too much time Googling variations on "is Casablanca safe...[for women/at night/etc]" beforehand, only to come up with unsettling results that made me feel exceedingly paranoid by the time I disembarked at Casa Voyageurs. (Mugging at knifepoint, according to the interwebs, is not uncommon).
But beneath the grubby exterior is a trove of Art Deco buildings, vestiges of a bygone golden age, that deserves to be appreciated. Such is the mission of the Casamémoire organization, which normally offers walking tours to showcase the best architectural specimens but, alas, not during Ramadan. However I did get in touch with them via email early enough that they sent me a list and map of their standard hit list.
Yet for all this twentieth century nostalgia, I need to get one thing straight: not a single frame of Casablanca was shot in Morocco. I know, I know, Rick's Cafe is convincing, but in reality was founded by an entrepreneurial American riding the wave of tourism sparked by a seventy year-old film. (Not to knock the cafe - I went my first night in Casablanca and it's just as glamorous and decadent as you'd expect an homage to Old Hollywood to be). But the fact remains, they didn't shoot on location back in the day.
Apart from the above, really the only reason to spend any time at all in Casablanca is to visit the majestic mosque Hassan II - the third largest in the world and one of the few in Morocco that non-Muslims can enter. I'd say it's almost on par with St. Peter's Basilica in terms of magnitude of size and opulence but, of course, being built within the last few decades the mosque lacks the same richness of history. However it is pretty awe-inspiring to stand in the grand hall decked out with titanium gates that won't oxidize, marble columns featuring disguised loudspeakers, massive chandeliers, hand-carved stucco, and an orate cedar ceiling that can mechanically open to the heavens like Safeco Field, where 25,000 worshippers can all pray at the same time. Our tour guide dubbed it the "iMosque," but you wouldn't know just by looking at all the traditional embellishments. The walk to the mosque may feel a bit sketchy, and it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to picture slums where the multi-million dollar structure now rests.
The city is worth spending one or two nights here, but if you're still not sold it did make the NYT list of places to go in 2013. The nightlife scene is supposed to be quite lively, but given the harassment that ensues simply from walking around in broad daylight it didn't really seem a worthwhile thing to pursue.
1. Tribunal. 1922.
2. Rick's Cafe.
3. Post office. 1918-1920.
4. Mosquée Hassan II, exterior.
5. Mosquée Hassan II, interior.
More Casablanca (and the grand mosque) on Flickr.