Archive for June, 2007

Jewish museum, French Casablanca

Jewish museum, French Casablanca

Casablanca’s only museum tells the story of Morocco’s Jewish community. Well-maintained, it sits in a tree-lined suburb with bouganvilla and hisbiscus hedges. A guard welcomed us, and a very kind housekeeper followed us from room to room turning on the lights in the exhibits.

The group sponsoring the museum seems to have collected architectural elements from most of Morocco’s largest synagogues, as well as a few Torahs and ritual objects. A wonderful collection of photographs and a display of Jewish costume emphasize the Moroccan-ness of the Jews that lived here. Silversmithing and jewelry-making.had a prominent place in both Jewish livelihoods and the museum.

Jewish Moroccan, Muslim Moroccan CaptionCaption

I was curious about how the museum (sponsored by the Fondation du patrimoine culturel Judeo-Marocain) would present the experience of Morocco’s Jewish community, most of whom emigrated during the 1950s and 1960s. The official Israeli narrative has long held that the Jews were forced out of Arab lands, an assertion consistent with Zionist ideology (Israel was necessary as the safe refuge for all Jews). Recent research by scholars in Israel and abroad has disputed this narrative. The museum’s brochure emphasizes the continuing Moroccan identity of the expatriate Jews. Like all other Moroccans living outside their homeland, the author claims, the Jews still identify themselves as Moroccan and still belong here. The pamphlet describes Jewish faith and practice in ways that emphasize the clear similarities with Islam (monotheism, similar values, circumcision, laws of purity, ritual sacrifice, use of a directional focus for prayer, charity, belief in the messiah and ressurection, common prophets, and disagreement with Christians over the divinity of Jesus).. Jews had a very long history in the country, and were never forced to leave; they left, the pamphlet claims, because of the combined effects of economic and political change, including the creation of Israel and the fight against the French. Jews had played an important role in the fight for freedom against French rule.

The French were prominent in our travels today. The Habbous Quarter just south of the center of Casablanca was created by France as an alternative “Arab” city during the early twentieth century. French officials disliked what they viewed as the disorder of the old city (hardly old or large–Casablanca was a small town until quite recently.) So they created a brand new “Arab” city that local people could live in and that the French would find more comfortable. The streets are wider, the buildings shorter, the shops more ordered than in the downtown walled madina.

I’ve been quite curious about how Moroccans see their colonial past. In the US, it seems, we never think of the British as our former colonizers. Here, the efficient (French view) and despised (Moroccan perspective) Marshal Lyautey still rides a horse in the square in front of the downtown government building. Why is he still there?

The current king’s Mercedes with its red-star license plate made an already-exciting car ride even more thrilling today as it drove, surrounded by motorcycles, through downtown traffic.

And speaking of traffic, check out the images on the truck. chesmall.jpg

What would Colbert and his nation think of this bilingual sign?




June 29, 2007 at 6:56 pm 2 comments

Casablanca walks

Ian recognizes the problem. How do you describe what you’ve seen to someone who hasn’t been outside the US and Europe? And today, we saw a lot. We walked for hours, first on the Lonely Planet’s walking tour that emphasizes the Art Deco buildings of 1930s Casablanca. Then stopped at the Central Market, an enclosed structure with many individual stalls, purveying only food. I’ve never seen people selling live turtles at a fish market. And lot of fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, spices, and happy cats (presumably not for sale).


The back entrance opens onto dozens of outdoor tables owned by six establishments, each vying for patrons among passersby. As soon as we sat at one, four paper placemats appeared, along with three plates of relishes (tomato, pepper, lentil) and a basket of bread. The lunch options seemed to be two different kinds of fish (fried) or boiled shrimp. They were all terrific.

Casablanca from Sacre Coeur roofSacre CoeurCentral Market

Walked, and walked, and walked. We saw the “old” church, Sacre Coeur, built by the French. Katie and Ian climbed to the roof and took photos of the whole city. From Katie’s blog: “As usual, Ian and I, after being told we could, climbed the staircase to the roof of the church. The stairway was full of 50 or so years of pigeon guano, and there were some pigeons roosting at the top. The view was great – we could see all the way to the ocean. When we got down, the caretaker laughed at us, and poured the contents of his water bottle over our hands to rinse off some of the guano.”

We visited the “new” mosque. Hassan II mosque is enormous, overwhelming, and unusual. I asked the guide what I should tell my students about it. (Tourists are required to pay 120 dirhem, about $14, and take a guided tour.) He emphasized the size (third largest in the world at 20,000 meters inside), the capacity (more than 100,000 worshippers inside and out, a speaker system providing sound to those outside), the minaret’s height (200 meters). The minaret beams a light every night toward Mecca. I asked about the remarkably eclectic variety of decorations, and he explained that it was intended to draw from all three major monotheistic religions.

Hassan II mosqueHassan II interiorHassan II fountains

Built to celebrate the former king’s 60th birthday, the monument is said to evoke a bit of resentment. It sits partly in the ocean, on piers made of titanium to resist the corrosive effects of the seawater, partly on what used to be a poor neighborhood. It keeps its 41 fountains for ablutions indoors, and has hamams open only to see, not to use. Construction took six years and some 12,500 workers, and cost upwards of half a billion dollars. On our long walk back, along the outside of the old city walls, people were selling things they had acquired from the neighboring trash dump in order to try to scrape together enough to survive. On the other hand, the guide pointed out that the Hassan II mosque had brought both jobs and tourists to Casablanca; in the past, he said, the city had been only an extended airport–people left for Marrakesh immediately because there had been nothing to see in Casablanca.

Crossing back over one of the major streets, the distance seems much greater than a few kilometers. We left behind the preponderance of jalabas and open stall shops for Moroccans wearing suits and selling their merchandise in enclosed stores. Casablanca has many sounds (including after midnight those Harleys returning under our window, their twenty or so inebriated owners apparently trying to figure out how to make room to park them all on the street). Throughout the city, though, music seems strangely lacking. No blaring car or shop radios, no street musicians, no ubiquitous music shops.

June 28, 2007 at 9:33 pm Leave a comment


Mustafa met us at the airport with a 60’s vintage Mercedes that had a trunk not quite large enough for the huge amount we were carrying. Mustafa used a broken bungee cord to close the trunk enough to make sure our stuff stayed inside. The rest rode inside the car with us. The forty-minute ride into Casablanca was exciting. Rides from airports reinforce how little I know about new places.

This is clearly the fast part of the learning curve. I have seen prickly pear cactus all over the American southwest, I have seen palm trees of various kinds in California and Florida. But this morning was the first time I had ever seen the two side by side. And the first time I have ever seen the characteristic square North African-style minarets. We passed cinder block homes that seemed large enough to hold the smallest of families (at best) and large estates that Mustafa explained with what seems to be a universal sign for rich people. I asked Mustafa whether he had music, and he tuned the radio to a channel that first played some Euro-pop, then switched to something that sounded like an effort to update Moroccan “folk music,” followed that with rap in Arabic, an American 90s style pop song, and ended with American rap just before we hit the center of town. Eclectic. (I photographed a local McDonald’s sign for course use: it advertises a halal sandwich called the McArabia.)


The landscape, the flora, the buildings, especially the red curved tile roofs, made Ian ask about when the “Moors” attacked Spain: the place reminded him of Ensenada, in Baja California. So, in my sleep-deprived state, I got to muse on the Talavera pottery in Mexico that looked remarkably similar to Ottoman designs, and think about the number of times people have asked me about the clash of civilizations.

Like Turkey, Morocco could save huge public expense by no longer painting lane markings on roads. Drivers use whatever space is available, and Mustafa was no exception. We arrived at the Gyanmer with only a few near misses, no injuries.

We checked into a small hotel in the center of Casablanca, which we seem to be sharing with a group of Basque bikers. They rode in on their Harleys wearing leathers and T-shirts noting that they were from the Basque Harley-Davidson Owners club.

We bought a Moroccan sim card and walked, down to the busy port and back through the old city. The old city is surrounded by walls–I suspect my traveler predecessors would have called it labyrinthine. The French quite preferred straight streets and regular city plans, and nearly surrounded the old city with a newer one. And William wasn’t lying all those years–people here really do grin at him and call him Ali Baba.

June 27, 2007 at 5:30 pm 1 comment

On Leaving

Our travel between Chapel Hill and Timbuktu will follow an unlikely path, hardly one a geographer or planner would have plotted. Our flight is scheduled to depart shortly before 5 this afternoon. All four of us plan to spend a few weeks in Morocco before William and I go on to Syria for the fall semester. Our return to Chapel Hill will come by way of Mali and the Festival in the Desert.

I have promised friends and colleagues to blog about the journey. I have never kept a public weblog before, and the process of writing one seems to be a peculiar challenge. I’m an historian, and that usually means that everything I publish is supposed to be well-documented and sourced, well-argued and coherently written. And historians like to wait until we can actually get a longer perspective on events, ideas and issues before we actually write anything. This blog will force me to do a different kind of writing.

It seems to be a helpful project. Even thinking about the first posting has made me reflect (with some amusement) on the journey I’m about to begin. I often use travel accounts in my courses, asking students to consider not only what European travelers saw in the Middle East, but also what they expected to see, and how those expectations colored what they noticed. I ask them to think about the power relationships between the travelers and the people the met on the road. It seems impossible, then, not to see my own trip within the context of the past two centuries of growing European and American control over the Middle East. I wonder both how current US hegemony in the region will influence the way I view our travels, and the extent to which it will affect our relationships abroad.

At the same time, I’m excited to be beginning the journey. Like those earlier travelers, I have heard a lot about the places I hope to see. Morocco figures large in my courses on the Modern Middle East and on Islamic civilization. Some of the most important dynasties that ruled Spain came from Morocco; the great historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun came from the land now Morocco; Morocco is the only country in the Middle East/North Africa region that never came under the control of the Ottoman empire; and the Moroccan struggle for independence against France is legendary.

But all that reading and writing and lecturing hasn’t introduced me to the varieties of people, the food, the music, the ideas and experiences of today’s Moroccans. I’m full of questions, thrilled with the journey ahead, eager to see and learn and hear everything, and, I admit, a bit anxious about the whole thing.

June 26, 2007 at 5:01 pm 2 comments

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