Casablanca Day 8: Moumen to Mohammedi
Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
39Trip End Ongoing
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Today I'm at the 3/4s mark of my tour-- 7 out of 10 days finished. I’ll also finish exploring the "Southeast quarter" of the city, and cross the Autoroute for the last time.
Breakfast in Sidi Moumen
It’s 7:30 AM, and Sidi Moumen is alive. People are lined up along the main drag waiting for transportation to get to work. The mnsimmen stall is doing brisk business
Sidi Moumen is has a bit of an isolated feel to it. To the south is a large swath of shanty neighborhoods, and then the cliffs that separate this neighbourhood from Anassi. To the south is a swath of industrial land and then the freeway. Sidi Moumen itself has only one main east-west road which connects it to the rest of the city.
Sidi Moumen is a bit notorious for its sprawling shantytowns which I’m told are quite dangerous. But then, after Derb Chechen, everything else in Casablanca feels pretty mellow. This neighbourhood also gained international notoriety a couple years back when there were a couple of suicide terrorist attacks and it was discovered that the attackers were from training cells in this neighbourhood.
I’ve been told. “Folks from the Old Medina would never do something like that… they fight each other, smoke hashish, and don’t allow the police to enter their neighbourhood-- but they’d never think of causing real trouble…”
Dangerous or not, I certainly feel no unease here as I enjoy my breakfast and gaze about and soak in the vibe of the neighbourhood
Sidi Moumen Shantytown
Of course a tour of Sidi Moumen would not be complete without a tour of a shantytown or two. So when I see an alley that looks like it’s not a dead end, I dive in.
I actually find this slum to be quite homey. Many of the shanties are recently painted, the alley itself is swept and clean, each home has it’s number in front, and many have little plants and decorations to give them a cheerful feel. If this were somewhere else in the world, I would think of this as a “nice” neighbourhood.
But here the problem is contrast. Right smack in the middle of the shantytown is an island-- a modern apartment block towering over this slum as a constant reminder that this is not the acceptable way to live here in Casablanca… slowly but surely these shantytowns are being eliminated and replaced.
Afterwards I continue on west until I finally reach a main road and a pleasant indoor market on the other side
Continuing on west, I finally big farewell to Sidi Moumen and am back in Moulay Rachid/Ben M’sik area. I pass through some areas of huge empty lots interspersed with residential neighbourhoods. Finally I reach a very modern boulevard lined with apartments and classy cafes at street level-- giving the illusion of being in the middle of the city… but behind then, there’s not much of anything… It seems this is a neighbourhood still in process. After Sidi Moumen though, it all feels super upscale here.
Back to Ben M’sik
I reach a traffic circle with some outstanding structures. One is the grand Ben M’sik prefecture, a huge building with a high green tiled roof of typical Moroccan architecture.
From here I continue on west. I missed Sidi Othmane’s “Main Street”, so today I have to explore. Again, a pleasant neighbourly feel with all your typical snack shops and eateries and a lot of hustle and bustle.
One experience here really sticks in my mind. A girl, maybe 8 years old with a younger boy came up to me and said “Cut us” making a scissor gesture with her hand. My first thought was that she wanted money to buy scissors or something… Then it sunk in… that’s right… “cutting” is a Moroccan idiom for “crossing the street”, apparently she wants me to help them cross the busy street. She took my hand and her brothers hand and we headed across… A touching moment… She made my Sidi Othmane tour unforgettable.
I finally reached the point where I couldn’t go further without retracing my steps, so I looked for a side street to head back east again.
I come across an unusual café-- the owner used stiffened rags to give the entrance a quirky cavelike feel… It’s nice to see someone having some imagination and doing something completely out of the ordinary.
I continue on back to the main boulevard that leads up to Lalla Meriem and Hay Salaam. Here I have my last little concert of the Southside Neighborhoods in the parklike strip in the middle of the Boulevard.
And with that, I head on north across the autoroute one last time, and I figure it deserves a photo and a mention. This is after all, Morocco’s oldest autoroute, and only urban one, neatly dividing the city into north and south neighborhoods. I used to think it marked the edge of the city-- but no, a huge chunk of Casablanca lies south of this freeway, a chunk that I have finally finished exploring once and for all.
The Autoroute runs to far south of the center of town to serve as a commuter route, but it still plays an important role in speeding up traffic-- especially when you want to get out of the city towards Rabat or Marrakech
While crossing and taking a picture, a couple of guys on a horsecart speeding by gestured that they wanted their picture taken… or course I was happy to do so.
Now on to the Northeast quarter—my final “quarter” of Casablanca.
I start my tour in a quiet neighbourhood just north of the freeway, Hay Mourad. Here the apartments have more of a “government project” feel-- a bit boxy, no shops at street level and in serious need of a paint job. There’s a little garden right along the freeway, but no benches, so I decide to skip it.
I reach Boulevard Tachfine which is a diagonal boulevard that connects Sidi Moumen with the rest of the city. Here I decide to break with tradition and have a bowl of oatmeal from a street vendor rather than my typical mnsimmen and tea. It seems like a nice opportunity to mingle with the lower working class on their way to work.
Right on the other side of Tachfine Boulevard is a very lively neighbourhood called Hay Mohammedi (not to be confused with Mohammedia, a city east of Casablanca.) It’s a major transportation hub especially for collective taxis, and at rush hour Mohammedi market is probably the busiest, most chaotic spot in the whole city.
But now it’s morning and things are pretty calm. The market still isn’t up and running yet and the street sweepers still haven’t swept up the trash scattered from yesterday. But the memories of experiencing the absolute pandemonium of this spot almost 2 years ago right as Ramadan break-fast time was approaching are still fresh.
Continuing on north is another single alley open air market, with a shantytown off to the side. It’s also pretty quiet, with just folks heading off to school and work. At the other end I reach a busy east west street which looks like an important artery connecting Hay Mohammedi with neighborhoods to the east. The street is lined with palms and a pedestrian walkway-- a bit scruffy, but still with a faded charm.
This street continues on for a ways, through a commercial strip of various shops before suddenly turning into an ugly, semi-abandoned industrial area. It looks like I’ve reached Ain Sebaa industrial zone-- an area I wasn’t really looking forward to hiking through. Mostly just walls and trucks park beside the road… There is a stadium out in the middle of nowhere, but I frankly doubt anyone uses it anymore. The whole area has a rather forlorn, unfriendly feel.
The road finally hits a T… after a bit of debate, I decide to head north, to look for another way to continue on east to downtown Ain Sebaa. But when I see a residential neighbourhood off to the west, I can’t resist the invitation. So I loop back towards Hay Mohammedi once again.
The cheerful cafes are so welcoming after the dreary walk around the industrial area-- and to top it off, there’s even a little decorated “gateway” welcoming me back.
I continue on in Hay Mohammedi once again, sometimes on the main street, sometimes down the side streets and alleys to discover everything I can. I find this area particularly colourful-- with brightly painted private schools brightening up the landscape.
I reach another market area, this one a street market in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, with vegetable vendors opening up for the day. The sight of a butcher shaving the face of a cow head is particularly memorable-- I imagine a Gillette commercial with a bearded Moroccan butcher shaving a decapitated cow head with the title “Everybody can find a use for a razor…”
I’ve already had breakfast, but I still can’t resist the temptation to stop at an mnsimmen shop looking out onto the market to enjoy the vibe. There’s something particularly cozy about Hay Mohammedi. With the Autoroute cutting it off on the south and ugly industrial zones on the east, west and north it has had the chance to create its own distinctive identity. It’s has an older, grittier feel with mostly single family homes rather than apartments built along narrow alleys and streets.
I continue on back through downtown Hay Mohammedi, and on west back towards central Casablanca. Outside a small military facility, I find another shady strip with some benches.
I head north a bit more and the west once again through a mixed residential-industrial area until I finally reach Boulevard Tachfine. This boulevard doesn’t have quite the same charm as Mohammed VI or 2 Mars-- but it does have a couple of huge middle class apartment complexes built around their own little exclusive park in the middle. It’s nice to see a building design that really tries to create a pleasant atmosphere for the residents.
From here I head west a bit farther, hoping to do one last little loop in the area between Tachfine and Ouled Ziane. But I end up stuck in a monotonous warehouse area with no side streets, so I hike all the way to Ouled Ziane Boulevard and decide to call it a day. I didn’t get as far east as I was hoping, but I think Hay Mohammedi was worth giving it plenty of time to explore.