For thousands of people around the world, Casablanca is more a movie than a town.
When the low-cost 1942 production was given almost by chance the euphonic name of a North African city, probably no one at Warner Bros imagined that both the film and the city were going to walk into legend. It was also by chance that, a few months after the film was produced, the name of the city was going to get involved in World War II. The landing of British-American forces in neighbouring beaches in November 1942, and the conference between Churchill and Roosevelt held in Casablanca in January 1943 were excellent publicity for the film.
Casablanca was entirely set in a Hollywood studio. The budget and the war would not have permitted otherwise. Quite unbelievably, some city guides still show naive tourists dubious locations allegedly used for filming. The decadent Continental Hotel, overlooking the port of Tangiers, is a frequent stage for these stories. Tourists are impressed – probably as much as guides are convinced that they are telling the truth.
But Casablanca, where I have been living for three and a half years now, is much more than the name of a great movie. It is a vibrant metropolis whose population was set at more than three million inhabitants in the latest census (dated 2004), although the actual figure may be close to five million. If Rabat is the administrative capital of Morocco, Casablanca is the economic capital – its region concentrating nothing less than 60 per cent of the economic activity of the country.
There are 100 kilometres between Casablanca and Rabat, which both lie on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. This axis started to gain its present splendour when the French protectorate was set up. The first French Resident-General Marshall Lyautey, a man who shaped modern Morocco as much as Morocco marked him, chose to promote this axis in detriment to the then capital, Fes, to weaken the sultan´s power. Lyautey depicted Rabat as “my Washington DC” and Casablanca as “my New York City”. The description is very accurate, and still stands.
The city has one main port, whose importance could be exceeded soon by the new port at Tanger-Mediterrannée, 60 kilometres east of Tangier. In spite of this, Casablanca does not interact with its port as it would be expected to do. The port was long ago surrounded by high walls for security reasons and is a separate world, looking a lot like the Forbidden City.
City growth has been chaotic, but the central district hides much of a rich past and the stroll is really worth it. Under the protectorate, the city was developed by a brilliant group of French architects headed by Henri Prost, who gave birth to a particular style – art deco with a Moorish – Andalusian influence – that is hard to find elsewhere. Another generation of architects followed, strongly influenced by Le Corbusier. This made Casablanca one of the most prominent cities in Africa, the first to have a conservatory or a skyscraper.
This architectural legacy now declines, neglectfully forgotten by the authorities. Let us hope it will be saved in time to play the major role it deserves in the window through which the world looks into modern Morocco.
Still thinking about the movie? Then take a walk to Rick´s Café, just by the walled port. It only opened four years ago, but it succeeded in reviving the atmosphere of the legendary movie.
José Ignacio García Muniozguren is a partner in Spanish firm Garrigues’ Casablanca office.