A Return to Morocco, with New Perspective

Tuesday, December 24, 2019 | Casablanca, Morocco

Young Moroccans walk past the Balima Hotel in downtown Rabat.
A decade had passed since I last lived in Morocco, and nearly as many years since I last visited. So I was curious to return on a pair of business trips from Algiers this year and discover what had changed.

In March, I spent a few days bouncing between meetings in Casablanca and Rabat, while also reconnecting with friends or just wandering the streets, camera in hand, in my free time. In October I did the same but Nina joined me (her first time in Morocco) for a few days of touristing in Marrakech. Here's what stuck out:

Already pleasantly verdant in my time there, Rabat now resembles one giant park of studiously manicured shrubs and lawns. Uniformed teams of gardeners trim the grass and tend to the palm trees that now fill every road median. Streets are wider, freshly repaved, and the traffic mostly orderly. (Or did it just seem so in contrast to Algeria's? As much as I tried to assess Morocco on its own terms, comparing only to its earlier self, I couldn't help but contrast it with its neighbor at every minute of every day.)

In foreground, the modernist roof of the new Casa Voyageurs train station.
And the train stations! The quaint little colonial-era stations are still there, but are now dwarfed in Rabat, Casablanca, and other large cities by gleaming white, modernist colossi encased in glass and metal skins. What's crazier still: These stations are now waypoints along a new high-speed TGV train line linking Tangier to Casablanca. On the old rails, that 320 km (200 mi.) route used to require 5+ hours and at least one transfer, and now takes just 2 hours. It's direct and cheap, too, at just $30 for a first-class ticket. Construction is already underway on ambitious extensions to the TGV line.

As much as this ultra-modern machine is a symbol of progress, however, the controversy around it points to one major facet of Morocco that was every bit as present as it was a decade ago: the poverty.

Just beside the highway and train line linking the country's main airport to nearby Casablanca, shanty towns cluster amid dusty fields. Windblown plastic bags clot the farmers' makeshift fences of prickly pear cactus. Elsewhere in the outskirts of Casablanca and other cities, the poverty has been much worse for much longer. When I left Morocco, debate was already underway about the TGV's merits, with many Moroccans reasonably asking "Why does a country that can't yet guarantee the basic housing, food, healthcare, and education needs of its full population need to spend $2 billion to build a moderately faster train?"

Boulevard Mohamed V, Rabat
The rulers went ahead and built the train anyway, but that question has only echoed louder since it was first widely posed a decade ago. During my visits, Moroccan friends spoke of deepening inequality, and said that grumbling about the monarchy's management of the kingdom (even in private, a nearly unheard of offense when I lived there) is now more common. Those trends pushed Morocco's long-neglected northern Rif region into open revolt in 2017-18.

Although the government has since succeeded in repressing and containing that popular movement (known as the hirak), the forces that fueled it remain. I was disappointed to see just how present homelessness, slums, street beggars, and other visible manifestations of desperation still are in Morocco in 2019.

Morocco's working on these problems too, of course, but progress is elusive. Money does flow into housing, education, and social programs, but Morocco doesn't enjoy any of the oil wealth that has allowed neighboring Algeria to make huge leaps forward on poverty alleviation. (Morocco's modern achievements are built instead in no small part on the necks—and the phosphate revenues—of the Sahrawis. Returning to Morocco for the first time after seeing the Tindouf refugee camps firsthand, I found it even harder to ignore the country's dubious affairs south of that infamous dotted line.)

Nina at Riad Yima, artist Hassan Hajjaj's colorful tea house and gallery in the medina of Marrakech
Marrakech had plowed forward, trajectory unchanged, over the past decade, embodying more and more its own stereotype as Moroccan Disneyland. This most Moroccan of Moroccan cities has ever more luxury hotels and boutique riads, fusion shops alongside the traditional souqs, chic caf├ęs and restaurants, spas and hammams, and other (increasingly expensive) facilities catering to the droves of tourists that pass through each year. It was an unmissable destination for Nina's first visit to Morocco, especially since I had been charged by Moroccan friends with leading a charm offensive to convince her of the country's creature comforts and other merits. Unsurprisingly, Marrakech proved quite convincing.

Surprisingly, so did Casablanca, of all places.

Back when I lived in Morocco, I sped through the Casablanca only when strictly necessary, pinching my nose and rushing to leave behind the commercial capital's raucous, grimy boulevards in favor of more tranquil Rabat. In my final roundup of Morocco travel advice ("Morocco: 12 Essential Questions for First-Time Visitors"), I trashed the city and urged visiting tourists to spend their time elsewhere.

After returning this year with a more open mind and actually spending some time getting to know Casablanca, I concluded that I owe the place an apology: I got Casablanca all wrong. Sure, the city is bustling and gritty, but once I opened my eyes to it, a rough beauty shone through and I began to notice the city's charms. Unlike Morocco's tourist hubs, which are so intent on selling visitors on ancient traditions, Casablanca is forward-looking, buzzing with cosmopolitan culture and commerce. Cafes, shops, and hotels do brisk business, West African students and traders are all around, and new construction is transforming the city while leaving intact its marvelous colonial-era architecture.

As I walked Casablanca's streets, I couldn't help but notice the striking ressemblance to Algiers. How had I once managed to hate a city that so closely resembled the one I now live in and love? Maybe it took six years of appreciating Algiers for me to re-tune my mind and be able to recognize the many positives of a vibrant modern North African metropolis like Casablanca. Or maybe I'm just thick-headed!

Boulevard Mohamed V, Casablanca

When Nina and I flew back to Algiers in the first days of November, after our long weekend in Marrakech, I was already sniffling through the start of a wicked cold.

We arrived to find the power off in our apartment, and the air inside so cold that we couldn't remove our jackets. Vacation was officially over.

I fished an overlooked electric bill out of a dark corner of the building's entryway and trudged down the street to the post office, where I took a number then sat for hours, sniffling and watching the waiting list tick down at glacial speed. After I finally paid, I returned home to find a scattering of wire clippings at our doorstep, and the electrical counter replaced by a blank spot on the adjacent wall. While I'd been out paying the bill, the state electric company had come and taken our counter—apparently a standard measure for unpaid accounts here in Algeria... and something that had never happened to me when I was living in Morocco, I couldn't help but reflect.

I wallowed in self pity for a few minutes, then took Bourek and Chorba for a walk. As we zigzagged along a nearby lane, the dogs doing their best to sniff at every square inch of the road, a middle-aged woman stopped in her tracks and asked, "Andrew?!"

I had never seen her before. She introduced herself, then explained, "I'm a huge fan of your blog!"

She paused right there in the street to tell me how much she enjoyed my work, share some frank assessments ("To be honest, your photography is alright I guess, but I like the writing more"), and recount how an outsiders' view on her country helped propel her through some recent medical troubles and reminded her of American friends she had had in Algiers back in the 1980s, before most foreigners fled in the Black Decade.

Reflecting on the serendipitous meeting later that evening in our cold, candlelit apartment, I had to admit that this, too, would not have happened in Morocco. In all my time there, I had precious few of these profound, genuine interactions that seem to pop up randomly but so frequently in Algeria.

Morocco and Algeria remain so close yet so far away, and among those of lucky enough to know both of them well, each of us has their favorite.

Nina and Andrew, a self portrait of sorts in Marrakech
My Rolleicord photos from Morocco are available here: 2019 Rollei - Morocco, and my Leica Q2 photos are available here: 2019 Q2 - Morocco.

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