Sunday, January 3, 2010

Casablanca




Casablanca. A city made legendary by a movie. The name conjures up images of intrigue, danger and, most of all, romance in a distinctly unromantic time. Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco and a major port on the Atlantic coast. The city, like the country, is quite liberal and rather cosmopolitan, defying the stereotypes of today’s Arab world. In fact, the North African nation of originally Berber culture is a relative newcomer to the ranks of Arab nations having been conquered by the Arabs arriving there via Andalusia only in the 8th century. Spain is just a stone’s throw away, only 14 km from the north coast across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Morocco has changed rapidly in the past couple of decades, much of it to the better. I was in town attending an international conference on national evaluation capacity, which focused on monitoring and evaluation for public sector accountability. The idea is that if citizens follow and assess the performance of their government, the latter has an incentive to ensure results that benefit the people. Transparent systems that monitor the performance of authorities and evaluate in an independent and credible manner the actual results of policies and programs can be powerful tools for democratic governance. The conference was organized jointly by the UN Development Programme and the newly established National Human Development Observatory under the Moroccan Prime Minister’s Office, known as ONDH based on its French name (Obvervatoire National du Développement Humain).

On the evening before the start of the conference, I was sitting in a lovely traditional restaurant, La Fibule, serving wonderful Moroccan cuisine. The host was Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdellah, president of ONDH, an intelligent and gentle man with a warm glint in his eye. Benmokhtar had studied IT engineering in France and started his working life with IBM. He had made most of his career in the private sector until he had been appointed Minister of Education by the King. He told stories about him being the first minister in the country to visit schools in remote rural areas and how his staffers were horrified when the minister wanted to talk freely with the local people.

The meal started with an amazing selection of mezze, small plates of North African starters ranging from hummus, babaganoush, tomato and beet salads to tasty pastries with meat and vegetable fillings. There were fantastic ornaments in the ceiling and the walls carved so delicately that one could only stare in awe at the craftsmanship. We were sipping good locally produced Cabernet Sauvignon and discussing the situation in Morocco.

“We’ve had some bombings here,” said Benmokhtar, “but always when there’s trouble here there’s some link to Europe, usually Belgium or France, from where the radicalized Islamists come from.” The soft spoken engineer continued: “Moroccans are not strict Muslims. It’s all mixed up with other traditions here.” This was confirmed by, Salima Aissaoua, a young woman who had only recently returned from France to join ONDH. Many Moroccans, like her own family, are not even believers but enjoy all celebrations, whether of Muslim, Christian or Berber origin. I noted that I had seen very few headscarves during my brief stay in Casablanca. Salima said that there was absolutely no pressure to wear a headscarf and that in the countryside it was even freer. This sounded counterintuitive, but on second thought may be understandable, as the Berber culture remains strong in the rural areas.

Another ONDH colleague, Mohammed Bijaad, was a Berber from Agadir. He had never learned English, so our discussion relied on my halting French. Bijaad originally went to a French school in Agadir. Then in 1960 a major earthquake struck his hometown and little Mohammed had to be evacuated with his family. Just when it would have been time for him to start learning English, his new school in the interior introduced Arabic instead.

As we continued with the main course, a delicious pot of chicken, rice and vegetables baked in a clay pot, Tajine, we were entertained by a highly skilful musician playing Oud, a traditional lute, and singing joyous songs whose lyrics mixed love and longing with religious themes. Some Moroccan colleagues joined in the songs and enthusiastically clapped their hands to the complex rhythms. It was a spontaneous and relaxing evening with excellent food and wine and delightful entertainment.

The conference started the following morning with more than sixty participants from twenty-two governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as select representatives from international organizations. One of the key discussions from the beginning focused around who has the right to evaluate government policy. The room became divided. On the one side were those, like Angela Bester, a former government official from South Africa now with the private firm Deloitte-Touche, who in her opening salvo questioned the assumption that policy was always right and the tendency to blame everything on poor implementation. On the other side were some government officials, vocally led by a gentleman from Ghana, who argued that only the government itself could assess policy and, ultimately in a democracy, the voters would decide whether it worked. The role of independent evaluation was only to focus on programs and projects. This debate would be a recurrent theme over the coming three days.

In the evening I wanted to escape the hotel where the conference was held and where all the participants stayed. I went for a walk in the city centre—Centre Ville—where we were located. French is more commonly spoken in Morocco, at least in the big cities, than Arabic and I had noted that amongst all the government officials and academics I had met French was the language in which they would communicate with each other. I crossed l’Avenue de l’Armée Royale and entered into lively quarters with narrow streets and shops. I passed a bar from where an animated cacophony of discussion was flowing to the street. Its name was Chatan. With only a second’s hesitation, I entered the premises and ordered a Stork (bière de luxe première). The place was a far cry from what one could expect in an Islamic country. It was far from sophisticated (an understatement). Everyone—every single one of the patrons—was smoking and the air was thick with blue cigarette smoke. The age bracket was wide, I would say from people in their twenties into their sixties, which suited me just fine. I would melt in, I gathered. The present king and his father, King Hassan V and VI, stared from the wall above the bar counter. The old Italian hit Volare turned into Michael Jackson, while Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones were silently robbing a vault on the small old TV screen. A large elderly woman in a pink kaftan was gesticulating agitatedly to her companions. A guy leaning on the counter already had five empty beer bottles in front of him—and it was only 7 pm on a week night. In one corner, a young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater stood alone smoking and drinking beer. At a nearby table, a shabby looking man was pouring beer into the mouth of a woman wearing a baseball cap.

While I was taking in the scene, I felt a bump and thought the man with a moustache and dirty red jacket had accidentally crashed into me. To my surprise, he handed me another bottle of Stork and said in gruff English that it was for me. We went through an elaborate handshake, shifting grips and ending in a rough bear hug, as I was profusely thanking him. The man returned to his table and his red wine. In Casa, the lingua franca is French, yet the man had spoken to me in English. Apparently, I hadn’t quite melted in and passed for a local. Maybe he was a seaman who had sailed the seven seas and visited bars like this in innumerable ports? Or was I just romanticizing things?

The port remains an important part of this city of some 3.5 million inhabitants. The architecture is today mostly modern. Wide thoroughfares cross the centre. The old town, Medina, still stands and is surrounded by the tall wall since time immemorial. Inside it is bustling with endless alleys, small shops and a bazaar. There are also cafés and small hotels. It is a place where one had better keep track of the wallet, both for pickpockets in the crowded and winding alleys, as well as the shopkeepers determined to part you from your money. Bargaining was never a sport I mastered, so I mostly focused on enjoying the colourful scene in which locals and visitors mingled. Casablanca is not a touristic city. Its raison d’être is purely commercial.

Morocco’s economy is doing relatively well. On my first day while driving from the capital of Rabat to Casablanca by the fine houses lining the churning ocean front, I asked the driver, Habibi, about the economy. His initial comment: “Ça va.” But the business was still good, he elaborated, and generally things were looking up.

The United Nations ranks Morocco as a ‘medium human development’ country. The country has made strides in the recent past. Its GDP per capita has more than doubled from $1,700 to more than $4,000 in just two decades. Social indicators show similar improvements: life expectancy has risen from 62 to 71 years and adult literacy from 34 to 52 percent. Especially female literacy levels have improved rapidly. While in 1987, only 22 percent of the women could read, this figure is now 43 percent. In particular, during the rule of the present youthful King Hassan VI, the human rights situation in Morocco has improved significantly. Still, big differences do exist between urban and rural dwellers. Some 14 percent of Moroccans still subsist on less than $2 per day.

On the day after the conference, I walked to the Mosque Hassan II, which took me about 45 minutes along a main street. It passed between the wall of the old Medina and the harbour; then onwards past the fashionable restaurants of La Sqala and Rick’s Café, which successfully capitalizes on its imitation of the scene where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman meet. There was a segment that was quite slum-like, although nothing compared with the shanties in other African countries further south. Women there wore their traditional djellabas. Like everywhere, poverty and tradition went hand in hand here.

The mosque, while not a historical building, is impressive nevertheless. It was commissioned by its namesake King Hassan II in 1980 and was completed only in 1993. The construction is said to have cost $800 million. It is located in a gorgeous spot right on the shore of the open Atlantic Ocean. The huge yard with the smaller buildings surrounding it reminded me of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The mosque has a capacity to accommodate 25,000 worshippers and its minarets rise to the height of 210 metres.

While I was admiring the considerable waves breaking to the shore by the Corniche, Casablanca’s seaside entertainment district, I met Mohammed Sharif, a man of my own age or perhaps a few years older. He introduced himself as a tour guide and after some chitchat offered his services to me. I told him that I unfortunately didn’t have time for sightseeing. This was partially true, as I had reserved the afternoon and evening for myself, having spent several days in the company of many people. We nevertheless talked for a while. Today was Hijra, the Muslim new year, marking the Prophet’s and his followers’ move from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 CE. This was a big holiday and a long weekend all over the Islamic world. Here in relatively secular Morocco people enjoyed the long weekend. Like Mohammed said: ”In Morocco religion is not that important. We welcome everyone here, Christians, Jews, Muslims.”

A powerful wind blew from the sea raising dust into the air from the dry sidewalk. My eyeglasses were dimmed by the salt in the air spraying from the breaking waves. Mohammed knew that this northerly wind had brought first snow into the Atlas mountains.

I walked back to Centre Ville. Everything was dusty and my throat was dry. I bought a Fanta from a kiosk and found an old shoeshine man. He did a good job on my dusty shoes. There was a Moroccan man standing next to me having his shoes shined. I asked him how much I should pay; he told me 5 dirhams. When I gave the shiner his five dirham coin plus some change, he protested wildly. Expectations are that foreigners should add another zero at the end of the bill.

I had indeed decided to enjoy my last evening alone in Casablanca. I started it with a visit to a sauna to relax my sore muscles after my walk of several hours earlier in the day. Clean and equipped with an appropriate thirst, I then again crossed l’Avenue de l’Armée Royale and entered Saillant, a bar that I had already visited on earlier occasion. It is in the same neighbourhood as Chatan, but a notch above in style and clientele. It still is just a simple establishment with a long counter and a few wooden tables. Like on my earlier visits, I was the only foreigner. I ordered a Stork from the bar maid who reminded me of Herman Munster. When I took out a 100 dirham note to pay, she pleaded with me to find smaller change. The equivalent of $12 was far too large a denomination for this place. She only relented when I promised to have a second beer afterwards. Having served me, she returned to her own beer and cigarette while Egyptian style pop played on the background.

I continued my trip and followed a route that I had memorized from a map that I had studied prior to leaving my hotel this evening. The shop-lined pedestrian streets and plazas with fountains in the city centre were crowded with people and the lights from the various establishments provided a cosy atmosphere in the darkening night. After one junction, the street turned dark and quiet and I started to doubt my mental map. Just when I was about to turn around, I detected the sign to Al Mounia. A wooden door opened to a garden and I walked through it to the restaurant known for its authentic Moroccan cuisine. The two small rooms were decorated with elaborate carvings. A sofa circled the walls and small round copper tables were arranged in front of it. The place was not crowded yet. In a nearby table were three men discussing in Swedish. The waiters, all men, wore red fezzes on their heads, pasha pants, vests and pointed slippers. While thinking about what to eat, I started the meal with succulent olives and delicious bread, which I washed down with local Cuvée du President Cabernet. I decided to order brochettes kefta—Moroccan grilled meatballs—which came with six plates with different kinds of salads of tomato, onion, eggplant, zucchini, carrots and peppers. The food was exquisite both to the palate and the eye, and one could hardly eat a healthier yet fulfilling meal. By the time I left around 9:30 p.m., the place was starting to fill up. With the Swedes also gone, all customers were locals.

Not quite done yet, I headed to Cas-Bar, which I had heard was a hot nightspot in Casa. At 11 p.m. the place was still sedate but people were starting to arrive in groups. The majority appeared to be young women and all were Moroccan. The theme turned out to be karaoke, but what a feast it turned out to be. With the exception of a few English pop songs, all of the songs that evening were in Arabic. A bald headed DJ in the corner made sure that the right discs were turning. Without exception, the singers were good. They attacked with flair the polyrhythmic songs with meandering melodies. Two men sang a series of duets in complex harmonies. A particular young woman in a black miniskirt stood up to sing several songs with the panache of a professional karaoke star. The only place where the Islamic propriety was evident was the videos accompanying the songs: instead of people, they showed bees pollinating flowers. Their meaning would hardly elude the revellers.

On the last day of the conference Benmokhtar had once and for all settled the question of who could evaluate policy. In his final speech, he recalled how King Hassan VI was concerned with the lack of development in the country. While in purely economic terms Morocco was almost as wealthy as Portugal, it was lagging seriously behind in terms of human development. The King appointed a group headed by Benmokhtar to evaluate the policies of the past decades to find out what had gone wrong. The evaluation was highly critical and identified all the areas where the country’s policies were amiss: education, distribution of resources, gender, democratic governance, health inequities, and the differences between urban and rural areas. All findings of the evaluation were made public and decisions were taken to revise policies accordingly. Evaluating policy requires political will and courage, concluded Benmokhtar. As he said, the King did not have to worry about re-election. The point didn’t go unnoticed by many political appointees in the audience.

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Mohamed Bijaad's English is actually quite good, he is just more confident in French. I tutored him in English for quite a few years at the ALC.