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Cities in the Spotlight: Casablanca, Morocco

Updated: Mar 11

Today we are headed to Africa. This time we are visiting Casablanca, Morocco.


Casablanca City Information

Casablanca, known by its Arabic name Dar al-Bayda is the largest city in Morocco and the country's economic and business center. Located on the Atlantic coast of the Chaouia Plain in the central-western part of Morocco, the city has a population of about 3.71 million in the urban area, and over 4.27 million in Greater Casablanca, making it the most populous city in the Maghreb region, and the eighth-largest in the Arab world. Casablanca is Morocco's chief port, with the Port of Casablanca being one of the largest artificial ports in the world, and the second largest port in North Africa, after Tanger-Med (40 km (25 mi) east of Tangier). Casablanca also hosts the primary naval base for the Royal Moroccan Navy.


Casablanca Historical Significance

The area which is today Casablanca was founded and settled by Berbers by at least the seventh century BC. It was used as a port by the Phoenicians and later the Romans. In his book Description of Africa, Leo Africanus refers to ancient Casablanca as "Anfa", a great city founded in the Berber kingdom of Barghawata in 744 AD. He believed Anfa was the most "prosperous city on the Atlantic Coast because of its fertile land." Barghawata rose as an independent state around this time and continued until it was conquered by the Almoravids in 1068. Following the defeat of the Barghawata in the 12th century, Arab tribes of Hilal and Sulaym descent settled in the region, mixing with the local Berbers, which led to widespread Arabization. During the 14th century, under the Merinids, Anfa rose in importance as a port. The last of the Merinids were ousted by a popular revolt in 1465.

In the early 15th century, the town became an independent state once again, and emerged as a safe harbour for pirates and privateers, leading to it being targeted by the Portuguese, who bombarded the town which led to its destruction in 1468. The Portuguese used the ruins of Anfa to build a military fortress in 1515. The town that grew up around it was called Casa Branca, meaning "white house" in Portuguese. Between 1580 and 1640, the Crown of Portugal was integrated into the Crown of Spain, so Casablanca and all other areas occupied by the Portuguese were under Spanish control, though maintaining an autonomous Portuguese administration. As Portugal broke ties with Spain in 1640, Casablanca again came under full Portuguese control. The Europeans eventually abandoned the area completely in 1755 following an earthquake that destroyed most of the town. The town was finally reconstructed between 1756 and 1790 by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah, the grandson of Moulay Ismail and an ally of George Washington, with the help of Spaniards from the nearby emporium. The town was called ad-Dār al-Bayḍāʼ, the Arabic translation of the Portuguese Casa Branca. In the 19th century, the area's population began to grow as it became a major supplier of wool to the booming textile industry in Britain and shipping traffic increased (the British, in return, began importing gunpowder tea, used in Morocco's national drink, mint tea). By the 1860s, around 5,000 residents were there, and the population grew to around 10,000 by the late 1880s. Casablanca remained a modestly sized port, with a population reaching around 12,000 within a few years of the French conquest and the arrival of French colonialists in 1906. By 1921, this rose to 110,000, largely through the development of shanty towns.

The Treaty of Algeciras of 1906 formalized French preeminence in Morocco and included three measures that directly impacted Casablanca: that French officers would control operations at the customs office and seize revenue as collateral for loans given by France, that the French holding company La Compagnie Marocaine would develop the port of Casablanca, and that a French-and-Spanish-trained police force would be assembled to patrol the port. To build the port's breakwater, a narrow-gauge track was laid in June 1907 for a small Decauville locomotive to connect the port to a quarry in Roches Noires, passing through the sacred Sidi Belyout graveyard. In resistance to this and the measures of the 1906 Treaty of Algeciras, tribesmen of the Chaouia attacked the locomotive, killing 9 Compagnie Marocaine laborers—3 French, 3 Italians, and 3 Spanish. In response, the French bombarded the city in August 1907 with multiple gunboats and landed troops inside the town, causing severe damage and killing between 600 and 3,000 Moroccans. Estimates for the total casualties are as high as 15,000 dead and wounded. In the immediate aftermath of the bombardment and the deployment of French troops, the European homes and the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, were sacked, and the latter was also set ablaze. As Oujda had already been occupied, the bombardment and military invasion of the city opened a western front to the French military conquest of Morocco.

French control of Casablanca was formalized in March 1912 when the Treaty of Fes established the French Protectorate. Under French imperial control, Casablanca became a port of colonial extraction. General Hubert Lyautey assigned the planning of the new colonial port city to Henri Prost. As he did in other Moroccan cities, Prost designed a European ville nouvelle outside the walls of the medina. In Casablanca, he also designed a new "ville indigène" to house Moroccans arriving from other cities. Europeans formed almost half the population of Casablanca. A 1937-1938 typhoid fever outbreak was exploited by colonial authorities to justify the appropriation of urban spaces in Casablanca. Moroccans residing in informal housing were cleared out of the center and displaced, notably to Carrières Centrales. After Philippe Pétain of France signed the armistice with the Nazis, he ordered French troops in France's colonial empire to defend French territory against any aggressors—Allied or otherwise—applying a policy of "asymmetrical neutrality" in favour of the Germans. French colonists in Morocco generally supported Pétain, while Moroccans tended to favour de Gaulle and the Allies. Operation Torch, which started on 8 November 1942, was the British-American invasion of French North Africa during the North African campaign of World War II. The Western Task Force, composed of American units led by Major General George S. Patton and Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt, carried out the invasions of Mehdia, Fedhala, and Asfi. American forces captured Casablanca from Vichy control when France surrendered on 11 November 1942, but the Naval Battle of Casablanca continued until American forces sank the German submarine U-173 on 16 November. Casablanca was the site of the Nouasseur Air Base, a large American air base used as the staging area for all American aircraft for the European Theatre of Operations during World War II. The airfield has since become Mohammed V International Airport.

Casablanca hosted the Anfa Conference (also called the Casablanca Conference) in January 1943. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed the progress of the war. Also in attendance were the Free France generals Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud, though they played minor roles and didn't participate in the military planning. It was at this conference that the Allies adopted the doctrine of "unconditional surrender," meaning that the Axis powers would be fought until their defeat. Roosevelt also met privately with Sultan Muhammad V and expressed his support for Moroccan independence after the war. This became a turning point, as Moroccan nationalists were emboldened to openly seek complete independence. During the 1940s and 1950s, Casablanca was a major centre of anti-French rioting. On 7 April 1947, a massacre of working-class Moroccans, carried out by Senegalese Tirailleurs in the service of the French colonial army, was instigated just as Sultan Muhammed V was due to make a speech in Tangier appealing for independence. Riots in Casablanca took place from 7–8 December 1952, in response to the assassination of the Tunisian labor unionist Farhat Hached by La Main Rouge—the clandestine militant wing of French intelligence. Then, on 25 December 1953 (Christmas Day), Muhammad Zarqtuni orchestrated a bombing of Casablanca's Central Market in response to the forced exile of Sultan Muhammad V and the royal family on 20 August (Eid al-Adha) of that year. Morocco gained independence from France in 1956.

4–7 January 1961, the city hosted an ensemble of progressive African leaders during the Casablanca Conference of 1961. Among those received by King Muhammad V were Gamal Abd An-Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Modibo Keïta, and Ahmed Sékou Touré, Ferhat Abbas. Casablanca was a major departure point for Jews leaving Morocco through Operation Yachin, an operation conducted by Mossad to secretly migrate Moroccan Jews to Israel between November 1961 and the spring of 1964. The 1965 student protests organized by the National Union of Popular Forces-affiliated National Union of Moroccan Students, which spread to cities around the country and devolved into riots, started on 22 March 1965, in front of Lycée Mohammed V in Casablanca. The protests started as a peaceful march to demand the right to public higher education for Morocco but expanded to include concerns of labourers, the unemployed, and other marginalized segments of society, and devolved into vandalism and rioting. The riots were violently repressed by security forces with tanks and armoured vehicles; Moroccan authorities reported a dozen deaths while the UNFP reported more than 1,000. King Hassan II blamed the events on teachers and parents, and declared in a speech to the nation on 30 March 1965: "There is no greater danger to the State than a so-called intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate."

On 6 June 1981, the Casablanca Bread Riots took place, which were sparked by a sharp increase in the price of necessities such as butter, sugar, wheat flour, and cooking oil following a period of severe drought. Hassan II appointed the French-trained interior minister Driss Basri as hardliner, who would later become a symbol of the Years of Lead, with quelling the protests. The government stated that 66 people were killed and 100 were injured, while opposition leaders put the number of dead at 637, saying that many of these were killed by police and army gunfire. In March 2000, more than 60 women's groups organized demonstrations in Casablanca proposing reforms to the legal status of women in the country. About 40,000 women attended, calling for a ban on polygamy and the introduction of divorce law (divorce being a purely religious procedure at that time). Although the counter-demonstration attracted half a million participants, the movement for change started in 2000 was influential on King Mohammed VI, and he enacted a new mudawana, or family law, in early 2004, meeting some of the demands of women's rights activists.

On 16 May 2003, 33 civilians were killed and more than 100 people were injured when Casablanca was hit by a multiple suicide bomb attack carried out by Moroccans and claimed by some to have been linked to al-Qaeda. Twelve suicide bombers struck five locations in the city. Another series of suicide bombings struck the city in early 2007. These events illustrated the city's persistent challenges in addressing poverty and integrating disadvantaged neighborhoods and populations. One initiative to improve conditions in the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods was the creation of the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center. As calls for reform spread through the Arab world in 2011, Moroccans joined in, but concessions by the ruler led to acceptance. However, in December, thousands of people demonstrated in several parts of the city, especially the city center near la Fontaine, desiring more significant political reforms.


Travel to Casablanca

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Though not as atmospheric as other Moroccan cities, Casablanca is the best representation of the modern nation. This is where money is being made, where young Moroccans come to seek their fortunes and where business and the creative industries prosper.


Must See Sites

Hassan II Mosque; This opulent mosque, built at enormous expense, is set on an outcrop jutting over the ocean with a 210m-tall minaret that's a city landmark. It's a showcase of the finest Moroccan artisanship: hand-carved stone and wood, intricate marble flooring and inlay, gilded cedar ceilings and exquisite zellige (geometric mosaic tilework) abound. It's one of two Moroccan mosques open to non-Muslims; multilanguage guided tours are conducted outside prayer times for modestly clad visitors. There’s also a small museum showcasing the craftwork involved. One of the largest mosques in Africa, it can hold 105,000 worshippers – 25,000 inside, the rest on the outside courtyards. Built and partially funded by King Hassan II (the remaining funds were gathered through a somewhat controversial public subscription process), the mosque complex was designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, took six years to build and was completed in 1993. Its dramatic location overhanging the ocean waves echoes a verse from the Quran, which states that God’s throne was built upon the water. Believers pray on a floor that can be heated when necessary and can feel the breeze through the retractable roof in warmer months. The size and elaborate decoration of the prayer hall is simply spectacular. A team of more than 6000 master craftspeople was assembled to work on the mosque, delicately carving intricate patterns and designs in fragrant cedar wood from the Middle Atlas and pink granite from Agadir. The gates were made from brass and titanium, and the ablution fountains in the basement, which are shaped like huge lotus flowers, were carved from local marble.

Abderrahman Slaoui Foundation Museum; This privately owned house-turned-museum showcases Abderrahman Slaoui’s outstanding collection of Moroccan decorative arts, from Orientalist travel posters to ornate Amazigh (Berber) jewelry encrusted with semiprecious stones, inlaid furniture (including pieces designed by Marrakesh-based Louis Majorelle), to exquisite perfume flasks. Take a sightseeing break with a mint tea at the terrace cafe.

Museum of Moroccan Judaism; The only Jewish museum in the Arabic-speaking world, this institution is set in an attractive garden villa that once functioned as a Jewish orphanage. It traces the 2000-year history of Jews in Morocco, focusing on Casablanca's Jewish community (most of the country's Jews live here). The thoughtfully curated and well-labelled collection includes ornate clothing, traditional tools and ritual objects. Photographs usually feature in the temporary exhibition space, and there's a reconstructed 1930s synagogue from Larache in an adjoining room.

Old Medina; Though lacking the medieval magic that characterizes many Moroccan medinas, Casablanca’s compact 19th-century example is still worth a wander. You're unlikely to find treasures in its everyday shops (hardware stores, pharmacies and shops selling cheap clothing and shoes predominate), but its whitewashed crooked lanes, occasional tree-shaded square and buzzy local cafes make it a popular route for those walking between downtown Casablanca and the Hassan II Mosque. The most heavily used entrances are through Bab Marrakech on Ave Tahar El Alaoui or through the gate next to the rebuilt clock tower at the northeast corner of Place des Nations Unies. The narrow lanes near these gates are where most shops are found; the rest of the medina remains largely residential. On the north side of the medina, facing the port, you’ll see the last remains of Casablanca’s 18th-century fortifications. Known as the sqala, the bastion offers panoramic views over the sea.

Quartier Habous; Built in the 1930s, the Quartier Habous, or Nouvelle Medina (New Medina), was built by the French to solve a housing crisis as the population outgrew the old medina, and is a picturesque mix of Moroccan and European architectural styles. Stop off for a sweet treat at the legendary, family-owned Pâtisserie Bennis then shop-til-you-drop at the tourist-centric souqs, where you can buy everything from slippers to shaggy rugs, spices to olives.

L'Eglise du Sacré Coeur; Dating from 1930, this blindingly white, Roman Catholic church sits on the edge of Parc de la Ligue Arabe. An extraordinary architectural mix of art deco, Moorish and neo-Gothic styles, it has twin towers that resemble minarets, external buttresses and decorative aperture-style windows. The church was deconsecrated in 1956 and has undergone a lengthy restoration. At the time of research, it was set to reopen as a cultural centre.

Church of St John the Evangelist; History buffs might be interested in the oldest church building still in use in Casablanca. This Anglican house of worship was built in 1906 on land owned by the British Crown. Its cemetery predates the church, having been built in 1864. The pulpit was donated by General George Patton, the WWII general who led Allied troops ashore at Safi in November 1942 as part of Operation Torch.

Promenade Maritime de la Mosquée Hassan II; One of the city’s major urban regeneration projects has turned the stretch of seafront promenade from the Hassan II Mosque to the El Hank lighthouse in to a sweeping public space, with gardens, cafes and endless ocean views. The perfect spot for a sunset stroll.


Must Try Food & Drink

Harsha; Harsha is a popular Moroccan bread that is usually made with a combination of semolina, sugar, butter, milk, baking powder, and salt. It is traditionally fried in a pan until it develops a soft, crumbly texture. Most Moroccans prepare it for breakfast or as an afternoon snack, serving it with butter, honey, or cheese. It is recommended to pair Harsha with a cup of hot Moroccan tea.

Harira; Harira is a herb-rich, tomato-based soup with a velvety-smooth, creamy texture, as the word hareer signifies velvetiness in Arabic. It's the most popular soup in Morocco, symbolizing the unification of people during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting in the Muslim calendar. According to religious law, practitioners may not eat or drink anything between dawn and sunset. At sunset, when the cannons strike, Moroccans eat their first meal of the day - the obligatory harira soup, accompanied by dates, figs, coffee, or milk, along with fried honey cookies shaped like flowers and sprinkled with sesame, called chebakia. Harira is made from a variety of legumes such as lentils, fava beans, and chickpeas, tomato sauce, harissa paste, and fresh herbs such as parsley, turmeric, saffron, lemon, caraway seeds, and coriander, but every region in Morocco has its own version of the soup. It's also very popular in Algeria. Harira can be either vegetarian or stuffed with bits of lamb, chicken, beef, or fish meat. In some cases, beaten eggs or flour and water mixture are whisked into the soup near the end of cooking in order to give it a slightly different texture and to thicken it. Spicy, peppery, nourishing, rich with vegetables and meat, harira is a true delicacy in the world of soups.

Chicken Tajine; As the name suggests, the star ingredient in this traditional Moroccan dish is chicken, preferably bone-in chicken cuts such as legs, thighs, or drumsticks. Like other tajine dishes, this chicken variety is also prepared in the eponymous conical cooking vessel. The meat is neatly arranged with various vegetables such as onions, carrots, tomatoes, or potatoes, and the whole dish is usually seasoned with cumin, saffron, parsley, or coriander. Typical variations also may include preserved lemons, olives, almonds, or apricots. Chicken tajine is usually served with bread on the side.

Pastilla; Pastilla is a stuffed pastry from Morocco, also known as b'stilla or bastilla. The rich, sweet and savory pie is filled with an unusual mix of pigeon or chicken meat, eggs, almonds, and cinnamon. It is commonly prepared for special events such as holidays, weddings, or parties. The name stems from the Spanish word for pastry – pastilla. It is a time-consuming dish, but well worth the effort, as the end result is an incredibly flavorful, crispy warqa pastry, concealing savory meat and spices such as saffron, nutmeg, and ginger, topped with fried almonds and a dash of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Although it is quite sweet on the exterior, this is a main course dish and not a dessert, as it is a plat complet, a dish with everything - the contrasts of savoriness and sweetness working together in unison. For the adventurous, there is also a modern and popular seafood pastilla, filled with fish, calamari, shrimp, and Asian rice noodles.

Maghrebi Mint Tea; Maghrebi mint tea is the most common term used to denote the generously sweetened combination of green tea and fresh spearmint. The consummation of mint tea is common to Maghrebi region of North Africa, but it is strongly associated with Morocco. It is traditionally prepared in berrad teapots, in which the tea is first steeped to produce the so-called spirit that is saved for later use. The leaves are washed and are then brewed with the addition of the tea spirit and water. Optionally, other types of herbs can be used instead of spearmint, and they can be put inside the teapot or directly into cups. In Morocco, Maghrebi tea is associated with social gatherings and is the ultimate sign of hospitality.

Khoudenjal; Khoudenjal is a spice infusion that is often dubbed as Morrocan spiced tea. The drink is made with a spice blend steeped in water. The most common spices in the mix include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, galangal, pepper, madder root, and nutmeg, but the exact ingredients can vary and usually differ among street vendors. The drink is aromatic and spicy, and it is generally enjoyed as a warming wintertime drink. It is mainly sold at street stalls, especially on the markets and other frequented locations.

Maakouda; Maakouda are traditional potato fritters that are popular throughout the Maghreb, especially in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The fritters are usually prepared plain, but they can also be stuffed with meat, tuna, or cheese, although not that often. They're made with potatoes, parsley, garlic, flour, salt, and pepper. The potatoes are boiled, mashed, and mixed with other ingredients into small disks which are then deep-fried in hot oil until golden brown. Maakouda is traditionally served as an appetizer, a side dish, or an ingredient in a long sandwich roll that's usually sold as street food and served with harissa, coriander, and lemon juice. The fritters are especially popular during the month of Ramadan.

Seffa; Seffa is a traditional Moroccan dish that is typically reserved for celebrations and festivities. It consists of either vermicelli noodles or couscous combined with a savory-sweet onion sauce and a topping of icing sugar, cinnamon, raisins, and ground almonds. It is not unusual to see pieces of chicken in the dish, as there are a number of variations on seffa. The dish is quite easy to prepare, and it is usually served as a side dish. It is recommended to pair seffa with a glass of warm milk.

Fekkas; These traditional Moroccan twice-baked cookies come in both sweet and savory versions. They are prepared with shortbread or yeasted dough that is usually enriched with orange blossom water, aniseed, or citrus zest, as well as toasted nuts and dried fruit such as almonds, walnuts, raisins, pistachios, or sesame seeds. Often dubbed as the Moroccan biscotti, these crunchy treats are best paired with tea or coffee.

Shakshouka; Shakshouka is a delicious combination of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. Although it has an unusual name, the dish is straightforward and easy to make. It is usually made in a skillet in which onions, tomatoes, and spices are cooked until they form a delicious tomato sauce. Eggs are then added directly to the tomato sauce and poached until done. Merguez sausage can also be added to the dish. It is believed that shakshouka originated in Tunisia, but the dish is well-known and commonly eaten throughout North Africa and the Middle East as well. Almost every region has formed its distinctive variety of shakshouka: in Egypt, eggs are usually scrambled and served in a sandwich, and in Israel it is often served with salty feta cheese on top. The consistency of the sauce and eggs is also variable – the sauce can be thinner or thicker, while the eggs can be completely firm or soft. For a more nutritious meal, meat, most commonly sausages, can be included in the dish. Shakshouka is suitable for any meal of the day and is usually served warm or sizzling hot, with bread on the side. Because it is budget-friendly, simple, and easy to prepare, the dish has recently gained popularity both in Europe and North America.


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