advertisement

91km (57 miles) S of Rabat; 238km (148 miles) SW of Marrakech; 289km (180 miles) W of Fes

Modern-day Casablanca is Morocco's capital in all ways except ceremonial. The teeming city is the country's largest, with a population going on four million, the majority of whom are only first- or second-generation inhabitants. Casa, as the city is popularly called, is a new city, having grown from a small village of less than a few thousand only 150 years ago. The settlers are coming even today, drawn by the mostly false hope of finding a job, housing, and a better life than what rural Morocco can offer. Some do make their fortune here, and the display of wealth on Casa's streets and in its trendy bars and restaurants gives the impression of a city in southern Europe.

For travelers, modern and cosmopolitan Casa never fails to surprise. The veil is rarely seen here, and the mixing of men and women is the most open of anywhere in Morocco. With its small medina lacking any of the exotic atmosphere of the country's better-known ancient cities and a dearth of sights bar the grand Hassan II Mosque, many travelers pass through Casa with only a fleeting glimpse -- or bypass the city altogether. Those who stay, however, find the city grows on them, offering a good choice of fine restaurants, a few places to let their hair down and enjoy a drink, and a buzz of a city striding forward.

The city's origins trace back to the medieval town of Anfa. Set on a plateau overlooking the coastline and a small port, Anfa (nowadays one of Casa's more affluent suburbs) became the capital of an independent Berber state in the aftermath of the Islamic Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries. The state was known as Berghouata, after the tribe that lived here. The pious Almoravids considered the Berghouata heretics, and commenced a holy war against them in the 11th century. The battle was continued, and finally won, by the Almohads in the late 12th century, with the Merenids taking control of the state during the 13th century. The Merenid dynasty began to falter by the early 15th century, and the local Berbers again rose up to take control. Anfa quickly became a port centered around piracy activity, and continuously incurred the wrath of the Portuguese navy. After two failed attempts to subdue the rebellious seamen, the Portuguese finally landed in 1575, erecting whitewashed fortifications and renaming the settlement Casa Branca (White House). Although under almost constant attack by the surrounding tribes, the Portuguese stayed here until 1755, when they abandoned the city after it was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake that also flattened their capital, Lisbon. The town was rebuilt shortly after by the revered Saâdian ruler, Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah, who bestowed upon it the Arabic translation of Casa Branca: Dar al Baïda. The area struggled to regain its former importance, however, and by 1830, Dar al Baïda housed no more than 600 inhabitants.

The city we see today only really began to take shape in the mid-19th century. Europe was flourishing, and nations such as Britain, France, and Spain looked toward Morocco's fertile plains to help feed and clothe their people. The Dar el Baïda region became a major supplier of both wheat and wool, and European merchants converged on the city they called Casablanca -- after the Spanish translation -- to secure trade agreements. At the beginning of the 20th century, the French were granted permission to construct a bigger, artificial port to keep up with the growing demand, and regular maritime services soon commenced to the port of Marseille. European influence grew quickly, and although the city as a whole prospered from the increased economic activity, tolerance between the Europeans and Moroccans wore thin, eventually erupting into violence when in 1907, nine European workmen were killed after they commenced construction of a railway that crossed a Muslim cemetery. Pro-colonialist France had been looking to increase its presence in Morocco, and in response to the ensuing riots, promptly bombarded the town and sent in its navy. After fierce battles with both locals and Berber tribes from the inland, the militarily superior French troops gained the upper hand and occupied the city, setting in motion a process of colonization that culminated with Morocco being declared a French protectorate in 1912.

Under Resident-General Louis Lyautey, Casablanca became the blueprint for France's plans throughout the country. With Tangier declared an International Zone, Lyautey completed the construction of Casablanca's harbor, confirming its status as the country's new economic center. True to his respect for Morocco's ancient medinas, he proceeded to build a ville nouvelle outside the walls of the original Dar el Baïda. Casablanca became colonial Morocco's showpiece, sporting a unique architectural style, called Mauresque, which combined French colonial with Moroccan traditional.

French Morocco was supposedly an ally of Vichy France and Hitler's Germany during World War II. However, in 1942, U.S. General Eisenhower landed more than 25,000 troops here -- presuming correctly that the Vichy soldiers were reluctant to shoot at U.S. soldiers -- and declared the city as his air force base for the Allied North African campaign. A year later, the leaders of the Allieds, including Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt, met in Casablanca to discuss the progress of the war. At the same time, Bogey and Bergman's classic Casablanca, loosely based on current events but shot entirely in Hollywood, was released. While Casa was gaining international recognition, it was also fast outgrowing its initially well-planned suburbs. Moroccans flocked to this new "capital," looking to make a quick fortune before returning home. Although some prospered, most didn't, spawning vast slum areas of shantytowns, or bidonvilles. By war's end, the city was fast approaching a population of one million, where only a century before it was less than 1,000.

Official recognition of the bidonvilles only commenced toward the end of Hassan II's reign, with his government preferring to ignore the problem, mirrored by many Moroccans who saw the rural immigrants as lower-class citizens. The early 2000s saw many bidonville families forcibly moved into high-rise apartment blocks, merely paying attention to their accommodations and not their socioeconomic problems. Casa's concentrated urban poor have developed into the country's most serious domestic situation. In 2003, the city experienced a coordinated attack from suicide bombers, attributed to an Islamist extremist group based in the largest of Casa's slums, Sidi Moumen. This directed attention onto the plight of the city's slums, said to house up to a third of its population. Some voluntary organizations moved in, teaching skills such as basic literacy and IT. The progress has been slow, however, with most slum dwellers still facing a desperate future void of any meaningful employment and social acceptance. More suicide bombings in 2007 only served to reiterate the problem.

The casual traveler, usually confined to the city center, won't be exposed to much of this internal discord. Indeed, the city center is experiencing a miniboom, with new hotels going up, old ones being refurbished, and an ever-expanding restaurant scene. There's no doubt that Casablanca lacks the allure of some other cities and regions, but taken for what it is, this modern city could be considered a true reflection of today's Morocco.