Casablanca Tries to Build Its Brand

70 years after Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city strives to find an identity as it ponders an Olympics bid

At Rick’s Café in Casablanca, among the Moorish arcades, palmettos, and elegant, well-heeled patrons, a piano man plays As Time Goes By on an old Pleyel. The establishment features a mahogany bar, lamps with stained-glass shades, and a popular fig-and-goat-cheese salad. It wouldn’t seem out of place to find Humphrey Bogart surveying the room, or Ingrid Bergman requesting a song from Dooley Wilson, who played Sam in the 1942 film Casablanca. But the role of Sam is here played by a local Moroccan pianist named Issam. Everything about Rick’s, which former American diplomat Kathy Kriger opened in 2004, is designed to channel the film’s glamour, radiating nostalgia for an imaginary past.

Alas, the moment one exits the café and emerges onto a dusty sidewalk, surrounded by crumbling facades and the rusting Peugeots known as petits taxis that wind through the garbage-strewn streets, the illusion evaporates: Casablanca meets Casablanca. With Minister of Youth and Sports Moncef Belkhayat talking up a seemingly quixotic bid for Casablanca to become the first African city to host the Olympic Games, in summer 2028, Casablanca’s leaders are hoping the city can claim the Hollywood glory it never had.

They will be aided in that effort by the millions of global cinephiles who know the city only as Michael Curtiz shot it. “We call it the Casablanca Effect,” says Jean AbiNader, the chief operating officer of the Moroccan government’s lobby shop in Washington, the Moroccan-American Center. “I’ve worked for a lot of Arab countries and generally, when you say ‘Arab,’ the first thing people think of is camels or sand. So if you say ‘Casablanca,’ and the first thing people think of is the movie, that’s great.” AbiNader is untroubled by the disconnect between Casablanca and Casablanca. The association “provides a point of departure,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to rebrand.” Local businesses have seized on the association, selling Casablanca-themed tissue boxes or refrigerator magnets and emulating the film’s aesthetic.

Casablanca has more to recommend it than a movie made 70 years ago with no Arabic-speaking actors. The International Olympic Committee has expressed interest in finally having an African city host the games and may be drawn to Morocco’s relative stability amid uprisings throughout the Arab world. The country enjoyed 4.9 percent growth in 2009, and 4 percent last year. Tourism in the first half of 2010 increased by 10 percent from the previous year. Billboards and office parks line the highway between Casablanca and its airport, and there are gated homes that look distinctly West L.A. with their palm trees, stucco walls, and red-tile roofs, and BMW convertibles in the driveway. Soon a high-speed train will connect the city to Tangier, in the north, and Rabat, the Moroccan capital. Construction has started on a $300 million, 80,000-seat stadium where the final round of the Africa Nations Cup, expected to draw thousands of soccer fans to the city, will take place in 2015.

Ahmed Chami, Morocco’s UCLA-educated minister of industry, commerce, and new technologies, credits King Mohammed VI, who came to power in 1999, with investing in highways, tourism, agriculture, energy, textiles, and aeronautics, and surrounding himself with smart young people—like Chami, 40. “We’re being very proactive,” he says.

This is indeed a propitious moment for Morocco, which is poised to act as a bridge between the West and a tumultuous, changing Arab world, much as Bogie’s gin joint served as a nexus for Vichy officials, Resistance fighters, fez-wearing power brokers, and Nazis. In ancient souks, vestiges of the country’s French colonial past merge with Arab, Berber, and African influences. Waiters at Parisian-style cafés read Le Monde, all while serving traditional Moroccan mint tea with lamb couscous.

“You had this big volcano that erupted,” Chami says, referring to the recent turmoil in the Middle East. “We saw what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. The dust will settle. The thing we have to do is tell our story to the United States. We can be the link between the two camps.”

Corporate America is already convinced. Dell employs more than 5,000 here. Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Boeing are also big presences. Then there’s the movie business. Morocco has become the go-to Arab country for producers in need of a desert. (One inglorious example: In Sex and the City 2, produced in 2010, Moroccan dunes stood in for Abu Dhabi.)

Some worry Casablanca will have trouble keeping its eye on the Olympic prize. If Casablanca got anything right about Casablanca, it may be the systemic corruption and Byzantine bureaucracy that many in the country lament. Kriger, who accuses local officials of “cartelism” and a “short-term mentality,” is pessimistic about Casablanca’s efforts at renovation and reform. “This is a city that could never get it done,” she says. Even Chami acknowledges that Morocco’s forward-looking leaders must contend with old timers who do not embrace 21st-century capitalism. “There are two different speeds in Morocco—slow and corporate,” he says.

Belkhayat hasn’t mentioned Casablanca’s Olympic ambitions since he first voiced them earlier this year. (His office refused several requests for comment.) There’s probably not a great deal to be said; for now, Morocco’s leaders seem to be focusing on maintaining growth and vigilantly watching the public squares, where a Tunisia-style mass protest remains a possibility. In September, 10,000 people took to the streets of Casablanca calling for greater freedoms and an end to corruption. Morocco’s parliamentary elections later this month, on the heels of a new, reformist constitution, may prove critical.

If it does plan to move forward with its bid, Casablanca would have to overhaul its infrastructure—build highways and bridges, and maybe a metro. It would also have to navigate the IOC’s tortuous application process. The winning city is announced seven years before the Games, meaning Casablanca has a decade to get ready. Much can happen in that time; some of the athletes who would compete in the hypothetical Casablanca games haven’t even been born.

The IOC is frustratingly vague when discussing what it looks for in a city. “There are so many aspects to a bid when it’s considered,” spokeswoman Sandrine Tonge says. “It’s so big, so complex.” This much is not complex: The IOC has lately favored cities on the cusp of something trendy or seismic, paying special attention to the booming BRIC countries. Rio De Janeiro, the glitziest metropolis of that emerging market, will host the 2016 Summer Games, coming in the wake of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and Beijing’s extravaganza in 2008.

Even within Africa, the competition is stiff. Two other African cities have indicated they might bid for the 2028 Games: Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and Durban, South Africa, which had reportedly been favored to host the 2020 Games until the city withdrew its candidacy. South Africa’s recent admission into the semi-official BRIC club is sure to draw the IOC’s attention. But Andrew Layman, head of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, doubts Durban will go through with a bid, suggesting there’s tepid support in the business community.

Durban’s hesitancy is understandable. Andrew Rose, a professor at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who has studied the costs and benefits of hosting the Games, says host cities must wait a long time before seeing much of a yield on their investment. “My argument has always been that making a serious bid for a major event like the Olympics is important to signal openness,” Rose says. “The hosting itself is wasteful and expensive.”

For Casablanca, then, even a failed bid may provide a reason to look toward the future rather than the past, or, at the very least, to get people to imagine the city in color. In good time, too. By 2028, Casablanca will be 86 years old, and Bogart will have been dead for 71 years.

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