Casablanca Day 7: The Notorious Southeast
Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
39Trip End Ongoing
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From an adventure perspective, today will be the highlight of the entire tour: I will accidentally discover a neighbourhood nicknamed "Chechnya"… Yeah, you get the picture.
High School crowd
I start out the day in the heart of Hay Salaam, where Colonel Driss Boulevard meets another north-south boulevard
I feel a bit self conscious, a 36 year old man just showing up in a crowd of teenagers and pulling out a guitar, and for a moment consider just skipping this park. But then I spot an empty bench, and decide I’d better just go for it. Nobody seems to look at me funny, instead soon a small crowd gathers around, as if this were the most normal thing in the world… First it’s a group of girls… I sing a Spanish song and of them tries to translate for the others as I sing. Then these girls head off to class and a group of guys amble over… one guy asks me for a riff and then starts rapping at machine gun speed… Another fellow asks to borrow the guitar… and plays a Moroccan Arabic song set to a Western folk style tune.
I start to wonder if I’m contributing to student truancy, as hours go by and no one seems to be in any hurry to head to class… Then somebody seemingly pulls out a guitar from thin air, and next thing you know, we’ve got a full blown concert going with lead and solo guitar
It’s an unforgettable morning, jamming with the youth of Hay Salaam… A full two hours go by and no one seems in the mood to leave… until it suddenly starts raining, and we all have to rush to a nearby shop for shelter.
I finally decide I’d better head on my way and I bid my new friends farewell.
Lalla Meriem Park
I continue on south, through a cozy neighbourhood known as Lalla Meriem, with narrow streets and little markets tucked away, and folks that seem cheerful and neighbourly.
Then suddenly, I reach the edge of the city. Or at least that’s what it looks like. There is a big cluster of new apartment buildings far across the fields to the west, but I figure it won’t be worth trekking across the fields just for that
It’s a strange mix of scenery. To my left are gritty apartment blocks. To my right is a mixture of open farmland, garbage dumps, and a few little country huts here and there.
Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, pops up a beautiful park, rivalling even Murdoch Park on 2 Mars. It has lush gardens with tropical style palm leaf umbrellas for shade… separate area for sports, with bright murals painted on the other side… Even some modern art metal statues…
But what is most surprising is the location. Why would this very well maintained park be put right on the edge of town next to a rather poor neighbourhood? The answer lies right up ahead to the southeast: a new neighbourhood is being built that is clearly aiming at being a bit more upper class. In the middle is a magnificent, huge mosque.
Apparently, here they decided to build the mosque and the park first, hoping that these will set the tone for a more classy neighbourhood
The Outer Neighborhoods
After leaving the park, I figure I should head over to get a closer look at the beautiful mosque. I head down a road going south, I notice that there’s an awful lot of traffic heading south, seemingly to nowhere. Most of it is pedestrian and horse cart taxi-- but not the classy horsecarts I’ve been seeing lately, just very basic, no frills horsecarts. I know these people must be going somewhere, so after the mosque, I continue on south past empty fields.
I come upon the grid of a “preplanned neighbourhood” with the streets, utilities and a forest of lightpost set up, even before any houses have been build-- a common way of doing things here in Morocco. These will be lots for single family homes-- thus it’ll probably a middle upper class neighbourhood someday.
But so far there are no takers, and I can see why. Just on the other side is a sprawling slum area, which apparently has not garbage collection system, thus trash carpets the entire area. I wonder how these folks feel about an upper class neighbourhood encroaching on their turf… Where will they be driven off too next? They’re already at the very edge of the city!
I continued on south, actually quite fascinated by this discovery. I guess I hadn’t realized what a clean, well organized city Casablanca is until I saw what it might be like with no street sweepers or garbage collection. I wonder if this is even considered Casablanca… I see one lone city cab-- this means I’m still in the city limits.
I get some funny looks as I trudge through the squalor… over to the side is a huge donkey cart parking lot… these look like the donkey carts used by folks who wander around the city, scavenging through the garbage dumpsters.
I think about what it must be like to live and grow up in this neighbourhood. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if this were all they knew… if they just assumed the whole world looks like this… But just across the fields to the north a clean, well organized city with running water, gardens and paved streets-- things we all just take for granted…
Derb Chechen (Chechnya Neighborhood)
Suddenly I reach a bridge
But there’s still a lot of horsecart traffic going over the overpass, so I figure I’ve got to go see what’s on the other side. I head up and over… and into a whole nuther world.
It’s like going into the scrappiest, most forgotten backwater village in all Morocco. In fact, it feels more like Mauritania than Morocco… I ecstatic about this discovery… just in walking distance from Casablanca! Soon I’m wandering down “Main Street” through a rugged little market and then on down through alleys past all kinds of eclectic shanties.
The good news is that this is certainly a whole new town that I’ll be able to add to my collection. The bad news is that that means I’ll have to have a parkbench session here and take a video clip… and this really does not seem like the kind of place you just whip out a camera and start taking photos!
Chechen does have a few modern amenities
Sewage runs in the streets, some of it in dirt troughs, other “classier” alleys actually have concrete troughs for the sewage to run through.
I get calls like “amigo!” or someone playing air guitar as I go past… One guy asks his companion “what the hell is that guy doing here?” But for the most part, no ugly or unwelcoming looks. There’s so much that would be fun to photograph here, just as such a contrast with Casablanca, but that would really be pushing my luck… Walking around with a guitar and a camera and not getting robbed… I think I’ll settle for that…
I reach the edge of Chechen
I look up around the perimeter of the town, past what looks like a school that’s been built recently… It looks like a hopeful sign… Maybe this village hasn’t been entirely forgotten.
I figure if I’m going to do my music session, it’s now or never, before I head back into the heart of town. I very quickly set up my camera next to a electric pole where there aren’t a lot of people, whip out my guitar and do a very short clip… Then I sit down and hurry through five super short songs… then put my guitar away and move on my way.
I have officially “parkbenched” this town, whatever it’s called.
I’m in no hurry to move on from this town, so I figure I’ll sit in one of the two cafes and chill out with the locals
«You don’t say hello ? » an older fellow asked me in French, probably testing to see if I’m foreigner or not. I give him a « Salaam Aaleikum » and that ends the conversation. The waitress is female, which seems a bit odd in this off the beaten track town. I ask her the name of this town, and she seems a bit confused.
“Medioni” I’m finally told. But I’m not quite convinced—“Mediouna” is the name of a town a good ways south of here. So I stop in a little shop and ask again. A friendly shopkeeper tells me again “Medioni—but it’s also known as “Chechen (Chechnya) because of the rough people that live here”
I want to shout in excitement... Chechnya! I’ve only heard rumors of this place! This is the most dangerous neighborhood in all of Casablanca! I can’t believe my luck! Now I’ll be able to boast that I wandered around Chechnya neighborhood and lived to tell about it-- with my guitar slung over my shoulder I might add..
I later learn more about how this neighborhood got its dubious name: the whole town is an illegal shantytown and one day the government sent in the riot police to shut it down. Normally when the hardcore riot police are sent in, they get the job done and any attempt to resist is futile. Well, as the story goes, the young folks in this neighborhood put up quite a fight, thus earning their nickname “Chechnya Neighborhood”.
And they’re still here to this day.
Suddenly the friendly gestures I’ve received throughout the neighborhood seem so much more meaningful. During this expedition I’ve also debunked the stereotype that everybody in this neighborhood is so “dangerous”.
But then again, there must be a reason why there are no taxis, no buses and no police in this area.
I head on back. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to experience one of the darkest corners of Casablanca. Truly this is an essential facet to really discovering the city-- I have to see all of its angles… the good, the bad, the ugly, and the really ugly!
Back over the bridge, I follow the slum on the other side west for a ways, until I reach that big new apartment development that I’d seen earlier in the day-- this is Hay Salmia. Now we’ve got paved roads, buses and signs of modern civilization.
Back to “Civilization”
After a mere two hours outside, I feel an incredible reentry shock coming back into Casablanca. Paved roads! Running water! Cars! Sidewalks! regular shops and houses! I feel like I’ve just walked into Beverly Hills… I want to bow down and kiss the pavement… and I feel so safe and free as I walk up and down the streets.
I’ll never be able to look at Casablanca quite the same, now that I’ve seen its darkest corner. Nor will I look at the dumpster divers the same way, as I think of the places they have to go back to at the end of the day. It’s been an amazing and very sobering experience.
Next I go to Lalla Meriem neighbourhood and head straight east, now determined to make it all the way the farthest southeastern corner of the city. I pass through some rather unremarkable neighborhoods, stop for my standard snack of tea and mnsimmen… past a shanty outdoor market that hasn’t opened yet… a small stadium.
I’ve actually seem quite a few stadiums around the city and I wonder if they’re used much. It seems folks here only care about their two city teams, Raja and Wydad-- I’ve never of anyone going to see a second division or neighbourhood team.
Beyond the stadium, down a cliff is another dusty football field and a beautiful park, so I find a path down the cliff to go check it out. When I get there, try hard to suppress a grin… The place is packed with older djellaba wearing ladies-- some in their 60s perhaps, walking, jogging doing aerobics together. It’s a beautiful sight and something that was probably unheard of a few years ago. It’s something I’ve seen along the coast, but not that much in these neighborhoods way out in the suburbs. It’s great to see the concept is catching on-- the idea that it’s OK for older women to get out of the house, get some exercise and fresh air, and not worry about what people are thinking about them.
But even I can’t help but chuckle seeing 70 year old hajjas doing aerobic dances in unison!
I find a bench a bit off too the side to play my songs-- I wouldn’t want to scare them off with my presence
I continue on through what is Moulay Rachid neighbourhood. It has a pretty modern, “big city” feel with rows of apartment blocks and nice little cafés at street level. I figure I’ll just continue on east all the way to the end of the city.
A domed mosque catches my eye. You don’t see a lot of domed mosques here in Morocco, so I thought it deserved a mention. I continue on, wandering the side streets and the city gets quieter and quieter. I look to the left and to the right and see open fields just a few blocks a way-- it seems like this is a “finger” of the city that stretches out into the countryside.
But where are the sprawling shantytowns of Sidi Moumen? How did I miss them?
The First Eastern “Edge” of Casablanca
The neighbourhood turns into a more upscale, villa neighbourhood that continues to narrow until it’s only 3 blocks or so wide. It seems I’m way out in the middle of nowhere. Finally I reach the tip.
I’m at the top of the ridge and gaze down a sloping field and… what do you know? About a 1000 meters ahead, the city starts all over again! It looks like an enormous development of identical apartment blocks, all clustered together like a massive fortress.
So this isn’t the edge of the city after all. Gazing to the north I’m also able to figure out the mystery of the disappearing Sidi Moumen. It looks like I’m in a completely different area south of Sidi Moumen, and there are cliffs that separate this area from that one. These cliffs serve as a barrier between this upscale neighbourhood and the poorer neighborhoods below.
I head down the ridge and along the main road to Anassi. Suddenly I go from quiet open countryside to a very urban atmosphere churning with life. The cookie cut apartment blocks might look a bit monotonous, but the bustle of activity makes up for that. Anassi is a city all by itself-- and it looks like it was built by a single company… perhaps the biggest single urban development I’ve seen so far here.
The apartments have a simple, but pleasant design, with semi-covered driveways going through the middle with tiny little green spots tucked here and there.
In the center, Anassi has a little commercial area, a bus stop area where several buses reach the end of their line, and an enormous fortress like mosque-- one of the largest I’ve seen in Casablanca.
It seems that despite it’s “edge of town” location, Anassi has its share of superlatives.
Overall it feels like a pleasant place to live… plenty of shops of every type… a close neighbourhood feel-- but with open fields around that you can go for a stroll in if you feel you need some space.
Death of a Shantytown
Beyond Anassi, the city continues on a bit further. There’s some industry, a big school and the remains of an enormous shantytown.
Part of the shantytown is still in place, and part of it has been torn down, leaving nothing but trash and scattered rubble. But what I find interesting is that in the torn down area, here and there you seen a shanty still standing all by itself. Apparently it people were not forced out-- but probably offered a plot of land elsewhere, or subsidized apartments. Since all the shanties were interconnected it looks like it was a tricky process to knock down some and leave others standing. The one’s they didn’t leave look particularly decrepit, standing all alone in a trash strewn lot.
Beyond Anassi and the shantytown, veering to the north a little bit is yet another neighbourhood, called “Azhar” according to the locals. It’s a middle class neighbourhood of mainly apartments, but rather poorly designed with streets going every which way and no real rhyme or reason to the layout.
So after wandering around a bit, I figure it’s time to head on back west once again-- this time to the north of Anassi, below the cliffs, through notorious Sidi Moumen.
Finally reaching Sidi Moumen
Figuring out my way back from Azhar to Sidi Moumen is one the most confusing sections of my tour. It should just be very simple: Just take the main road heading west. But no, each time I try the road veers off to the north across the autoroute to Sidi Bernossi. I want to finish exploring everything south of the autoroute before I mess with Sidi Bernossi, so I end up having to backtrack a ways to find another way east. I end of trudging through some long, boring industrial strips past warehouses and factories-- including the Coca cola bottling plant… I wonder what Coca cola pays folks who work there...
The shantytowns are a bit frustrating too-- not that I don’t enjoy exploring shantytowns, but a lot of their alleys are dead ends and I’m just not in the mood for running into any more dead ends right now, so I have to make a big loop around them.
Finally after a frustrating tour through this maze of industry and poverty, I reach a cheerful, lively neighbourhood-- which I’m assuming is the “heart” of Sidi Moumen. Here I decide to call it a day-- but not before strumming yet one more time in a little park outside a high school.