The Slum’s Warm Embrace

City of slums and sheep hotels, city of insurrections and immigrants from the mountains. An impressionistic portrait of Casablanca by Moroccan writer and film director Mohammed Benaziz.

They’ve got sheep for sale here. And over there, a ‘Sheep Hotel.’ Hay. Charcoal. Onions. Knives and utensils for grilling. Midway between the sheep market and the sheep hotel, a pile of trash. And of course above every trash pile, there is a handwritten sign on the wall that warns: “Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness.” “No Littering Here.” “No Urinating Here, And Thank You.”

In almost every neighborhood, and especially in the outskirts of the city, the sheep vendors have set up shop and planted their tents. And because apartments are too small to temporarily accommodate a live sheep, the vendors have come up with a solution: they will sell you the sheep, and then take care of it for you until the morning of the Eid. The verbatim wording from the signs on their grimy tents: ‘Five Star Sheep Hotel’: unambiguous evidence of the importance of meat in our society.

On Eid Essaghir [the feast at the end of Ramadan], families might content themselves with exchanging phone calls and greetings. But with Eid al Adha approaching, we will all go visiting for the food.

When the time comes for the sacrifice, the fatter the better. And to keep the sheep and calves happy, the sheep hotel’s guard takes them out of the tent for a walk early every morning.

But what a scene the city becomes on the day of the slaughter. The mask of civilization is pulled away and the face of the Bedouin lifestyle shows through.

A spectacle so powerful that it angered king Mohamed VI. Addressing parliament’s opening session, he criticized the city’s destitution. A city that is the center of gravity of the country’s capital and wealth, and of its hopelessness and unemployment. Not to mention the trash and the waste that stain the whiteness of its name and blemish its reputation.

The king concluded his address with a rhetorical question: “Why is this city that is among the wealthiest in Morocco not the hub of development that its residents wish it was?”

casa-slum21 Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: CC.

For Casablancans, the king’s remarks were a delight; nothing brings solutions faster than a burst of royal anger.
The mayor of the city immediately declared war on trash.
The outcome of the mayor’s campaign remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we might ask ourselves how we arrived at this desperate state of affairs in the first place.
On a municipal level, the city has never had the benefit of being governed by a strong majority of elected officials from any one party. Instead, it has always been ruled by coalitions of political adversaries, who spend their time attacking one another for the things they have jointly done to the place.
Handouts and political compromises between the factions result in the inflation of city staff.
And so the city ends up keeping 17,400 people on the payroll, three times what it needs. The budget dissipates and the city grows, expanding predatorily across the surrounding plains. A dense flow of migrants has swollen the population from 20,000 in 1900 to more than 5 million last year.
Casablanca has endured political turmoil: the most violent of its uprisings were during the reign of Hassan II, in 1965, 1981 and 1984. And so the security obsession which dominates the relationship between the authorities and the people of the city.
The late king saw the difficulties of controlling an uprising in a big city, and quickly understood that Casablanca was the proving ground for the rest of the country. The city’s insurrectionary propensity persuaded him to shatter it into five, and then seven provinces. From then on, those who ran the city could have no global vision of Casablanca’s future. In place of city planning, we could only have city patching. Stagnation ruled, as the government abandoned city development in favor of city policing.
In the heart of the ‘Useful Morocco’ first seized by French invaders in 1907, Casablanca sits on extremely fertile agricultural land. It took the French until 1930 to bother colonizing the mountainous areas, what they called ‘The Worthless Morocco.’ Worthless to the French, at least.
The city’s food comes from all over: it arrives in from the sea, and it arrives from inland. And though real estate costs dear, food at least remains affordable. Everywhere you look, you see donkey carts piled high with seasonal fruits and vegetables. They were picked only hours ago, produce that has not spent hundreds of hours fading inside of supermarket refrigerators.
Casablanca monopolizes a third of all the manufacturing in Morocco. A magnet which attracts a spectacular migration, much of it from the south and east. Those who note that Casablanca’s budget is twice as big as the city of Fez forget that it also has more than twice that city’s population. Though when Fez was born, Casablanca did not exist; a city that only appeared when the colonizers decided to erect new coastal towns to counterbalance the weight of the country’s interior cities, ancient and conservative.
These new cities are the home of the elite that has ruled Morocco since its independence. In its nicer neighborhoods, home of the ‘Real Casablancans,’ a nostalgia prevails for the city of the years after independence, the Casablanca that used to be, before all of the ‘Bedouins’ showed up. In other words the rural Moroccans who colonize the public spaces, fill them with their informal businesses. Slum businesses.
The urban elite sneers at the Bedouins: their slums have not only swallowed up the city, they like to say, they have swallowed up the minds of the people.
Whence this sarcasm? This is the narrative of an elite that earns a living at a conventional job, that lives in modern, costly homes, pretends not to see that modernity is expensive.
Yes, for those whose pockets are full, the cruelty of need is difficult to understand.
Viewed from an entirely different perspective, the slum becomes a blessing and a boon. To the person who has no college degree. Who has no job. Who lacks.
The arms of the slums are always wide open, an embrace that is warm and welcoming.
They are hospitable places for migrants, for the uprooted, for women especially. The giant city is a liberation for women, from the domination to social pressure. Here there is the freedom to redefine themselves, freed from the compulsions of tribe and village.
And so they arrive in their hundreds of thousands to this place where the market is spectacularly free. Where they can perhaps launch a small business project without a cent of capital. Where the walking vendors do not own the borrowed goods they display. Where they can pitch a shred of a tent and call it a restaurant. Or a ‘cooking pot repair factory.’

casa-vendor21 Bread vendor. Photo CC: Yassine el Mouhafid

The Bedouin newcomers have a lifestyle: it is their muscles. Making a living is their mode of being. Their workdays are long hours and no time or energy for thinking. Repetition builds the muscles while it weakens the mind. Their exhausted bodies become obstacles to the expansion of their minds. Reduced to this state, they make no demands; they offer the government total peace. When the government impounds their vegetable carts, they do not set themselves on fire.

In spite of all this, the culture cuts them no slack.
Theater, television and films spend vast time on their stock character, the Bedouin in Casablanca.
Many a Moroccan actor makes a fine living playing the Bedouin character. An undemanding role for an easy target: a character with a funny accent, an archaic vocabulary; simple minded, lost in the metropolis, an easy mark for scams by the city slickers, no match for the urbanites around him.
A loathsome and vulgar comedy, really. One that does not even really make people laugh anymore. It insults the dignity of its viewers, petty and superficial and unworthy of the beating heart of this city.

Mohamed Benaziz