Feb 19, 2013
Navigator: 10 Years in Casablanca.
On a drive through Casablanca with travel writer Tahir Shah and his wife, Rachana, in the MINI Clubman Bond Street, we discover why the pair left London a decade ago for this colourful city on the Moroccan coast.
Why uproot your family from familiar surroundings in London to an old, tumbledown mansion in the middle of Casablanca? “To give ourselves and our children the gift of cultural colour,” explains author and travel writer Tahir Shah.
Tahir’s father, a poet and storyteller, took him and his sisters on holiday to Morocco as children, inspiring in them a love of the country through tales of magic carpets and genies, of the snowy Atlas Mountains, of Ali Baba and Aladdin’s lamp. Tahir’s wife, Rachana, on the other hand, was raised in Bombay, and – despite a successful London career as a graphic designer – she longed for the warmth and vibrancy that she knew in India.
When they were presented with the opportunity to buy Dar Khalifa (the Caliph’s House), a crumbling old 40-room residence that once belonged to Casablanca’s spiritual leader, the decision to leave London was an easy one.
Fast-forward a decade, and Tahir and Rachana are on a drive through Casablanca in the stylish MINI Clubman Bond Street. “When I was a kid, my mother drove an old MINI Clubman,” says Tahir, “so this car has a nostalgic resonance for me. It feels poignant, somehow, to be driving it.”
What they’ve found in the city is cultural colour on every corner: from the bustling Arab quarter and the narrow dusty streets of the old Medina to the proud palm-lined parks, the pastel-painted ocean promenade and the many markets with their sacks of bay leaves and buckets full of fiery heliconia.
One street is busy with traditional Moroccan tent-makers, another with tailors and metalworkers, while water sellers work the central square with their brass cups and broad red Berber hats. Even to an untrained eye, the city has spirit and diversity. “Yet Casablanca is a city that reveals itself slowly,” explains Rachana.“To really know it, you must stay awhile and observe the details.”
When driving in ‘Casa’, as the locals affectionately refer to the city, two of Tahir and Rachana’s favourite places to visit are Habous, the Arab quarter, and the Art Deco quarter, which centres on the grandiose Place Mohammed V. Habous, just behind the Royal Palace in the southern part of the city, is a place of antique shops, tea shacks, grain markets and bakeries, where Tahir and Rachana stop for cake at the Pâtisserie Bennis, or dig out antique treasures, such as the 18th-century Spanish cavalry uniform that proudly hangs in their library.
Despite Habous’s Arabic flavour, however, it was – like the rest of the city – built by the French, who in the early 20th century created Casablanca from a blank sheet of paper. Although the French left the city in droves after Morocco gained independence in 1956, the elegant Art Deco quarter is their most evocative departing note, with its stately squares, colonial facades, beautiful tilework and ornate wrought-iron balconies.
“Look at the details!” exclaims Tahir, pointing to an intricate carved frieze high up on a building. “So many people adored this city,” he says emphatically. “In the 1930s and ‘40s it was considered the jewel of the Moroccan coast.”
Fine buildings such as the crimson-red Rialto theatre, the police prefecture and the Palace of Justice certainly bear witness to a glorious past, mingling richly with more traditional Moroccan Moorish styles. With some of the buildings being knocked down for contemporary developments, however, and a new tramline running down a recently pedestrianised Boulevard Mohammed V, modernisation seems inevitable, change is afoot and the time to discover Casa’s unique architectural heritage is now.
Another place Tahir and Rachana like to explore is the old Medina – devoid of tourists, the only area of the city that pre-dates the French and offers a glimpse of old, traditional Morocco. But the greatest drives in the city are through the wide, palm-lined streets of upmarket Anfa, past pillowy white villas and regal bronze gates, or along Casablanca’s seafront corniche, where you pass the El Hank lighthouse, nostalgic candy-striped parasols and faded beach clubs with names like Tahiti, Tropicana and Sun Beach.
Back on home turf, Dar Khalifa rises up from the red Moroccan earth like a house from a fairy tale, with its soaring ceilings, spitting wood fires, mosaic fountains, portraits of ancestors and tortoises ambling across fragrant, shady courtyards. The family brought elements of English life with them to Casablanca – teacups and umbrellas, black-and-white photos of boarding schools, shelf upon shelf of books – yet Dar Khalifa feels exotic and mysterious, strangely compelling, certainly fit for a caliph or a king.
“It’s not just a house,” explains Tahir. “Dar Khalifa is a force. It watches you. It breathes. This place gets in your blood.” Life in Casablanca is in many ways idyllic for the Shahs: writing, designing and working on books together, drinking coffee in their local bakery designed by Jean-François Zevaco, holidaying with the kids in Fez, Essaouira or Marrakech. But do Tahir and Rachana ever miss that grey-skied city that they left behind? “Yes,” says Rachana in an instant. “I pine for London’s museums and bookshops, for the buzz of an office.” Tahir, meanwhile, says he misses “English eccentricity, the shops on Jermyn or New Bond Street, those archetypal expressions of London style.”
What they don’t miss, however, is the rigidness of life in London, the rules, the commuting, what Tahir describes as “an absence of slack in the system”. He explains, “Here in Casa you can pull up outside an ATM for 10 minutes and nobody cares, and there’s only one parking clamp in the whole city!” The MINI Clubman Bond Street – the Shahs’ vehicle for Moroccan adventure, yet at the same time an expression of Britishness and London style – is a bridge between the two worlds.
Tahir Shah is a storyteller like his father. (His latest book, Casablanca Blues, is a love story inspired by the 1942 movie.) He describes Morocco as not just a place but a promise, the land of One Thousand and One Nights. As a child he believed it was alive with romance and magic, and – from the emotion in his voice as he talks of it now – it’s clear he still does.
“In Morocco your friends are not just people you go to a café with so you’re not alone. They are people that would drop anything for you. It’s a bedouin society, a place of brotherhood, everyone sitting by the same campfire under an amber desert sky.
Has the Shah family succeeded in finding cultural colour? Yes, by the shipload. Their children speak four languages, their magnificent house resonates with history, they live in a multi-faceted city that inspires them, they travel up and down the country seeking out new adventures, and they wake in the night not to the sound of London’s sirens but to a muezzin’s bewitching call to prayer.
With Casablanca modernising and changing, however, as any place unspoiled by tourism eventually must, and with a new, 10-storey development being built in Dar Khalifa’s backyard, will their dream last forever? “Nothing lasts forever,” says Tahir. “And if it did, it wouldn’t be quite so wonderful.”