Boulevard Mohammed V, Casablanca
Written by Tara Stevens Illustration by Florian Schubert
Boulevard Mohammed V is the art deco heart of Casablanca. Conceived and built during the protectorate as the grandest showcase of French colonial architecture outside Paris, its facades and buildings today are faded and worn. Look closely, however, and you will see graceful floral motifs, sweeping lines, and intricate ironwork: a treat for lovers of the style.
For a veteran adventurer such as Tahir Shah – who has traversed the Amazon jungle in search of El Dorado, served as apprentice to an Indian sorcerer, and spent time in a Pakistani jail – it’s exactly this faded grandeur that keeps him inspired.
??“It’s such a cliché,” he says, “But Mohammed V really is the sleeping beauty of Morocco. Nobody in Casablanca would ever dream of hanging out here, but what I love about it is that you have to ferret out the beauty because it’s covered in a thick layer of grime in every sense. A lot of the shop windows are smashed, some of the buildings are badly renovated, and most of the fashionable shops have moved far away, but at the same time it is totally magical.”
??Begin your stroll at one of the juice vendors who set up all along the boulevard. “Moroccans are obsessed with orange juice,” explains Shah. “In the autumn – orange season – every day the juice tastes a little bit sweeter and a little bit stronger until it becomes almost overpowering and quite intoxicating, almost like it’s a sacred act”.
??Casablanca’s downtown area wakes up late and most people, especially the men, spend their mornings in cafés, drinking oil-like café noir. Shah’s favourite haunt for people-watching is the Café France near the United Nations building. “It’s a cross-section of ordinary Casablancans,” he says. “Shopkeepers, street hawkers, even the homeless who have scraped up enough money for a cup of coffee. It’s real-life, unfiltered Morocco”.??
From here it’s an easy stroll to the Marché Central, taking in the recently renovated art deco Cinema Rialto en route. This, Shah considers the greatest jewel on the boulevard. Located next door to the old stock market (La Bourse), it still shows old movies and is a splendid vision of Casablanca past.
??Two blocks along, the voluminous halls of the Marché Central bustle with fish sellers, their stalls brimming over with the catch from the nearby port. “You buy your fish and then take it to one of the tiny restaurants here who will cook it just how you like it. It is probably the best place to eat fish in Casablanca, and I love the sheer range of clientele. It’s not fancy, but there’s an incredible atmosphere, as if everyone realises their good fortune”.
??On the right side of the boulevard just across from the Marché Central is Derb Omar, one of Casablanca’s liveliest, yet virtually unknown shopping emporia, specialising in textiles and homeware such as light fittings, cutlery, and Venetian glass.
??“This boulevard is like a kaleidoscope that you see in a different way each day, depending on the light and what your senses pick up,” says Shah. “Sometimes I feel elated as if I’m a part of the most alluring place on earth, at other times I feel quite melancholy, which is equally valuable. It’s a great giver and provider of a place, not so much in terms of what you can buy here, but in terms of the sensations it gives you.”
Author Tahir Shah came to live in Casablanca with his wife and two small children seven years ago after buying a rambling mansion, Dar Khalifa, in the middle of a shanty town. His book, The Caliph’s House, which describes his experience with jinns, renovations, and general life in Morocco, came out in 2005 and has since been translated into 25 different languages. He is currently working on a novel about Arab science from the golden age of the Abbasids to its influence on us today.