As a newcomer to a city whose best days are at least ten years gone, it’s not quite nostalgia that you feel. There is longing, of course, but for something you can only imagine. It’s unlike what I feel for the humanity of the Kasba or the calm radiance of Sablettes Beach, experiences stolen by Lockdown. Then again, memory and imagination are both acrobatics of the mind in the present, so maybe the nostalgia is the same.
This morning, I woke up early feeling unusually energized – first I went to the roof to greet the day, but found it insufficient to impart the fullness of the morning’s beauty, so I put on shoes, a mask, and snatched my citywide hall-pass. On the street, I made it all the way to the Ali Ben mosque, but walking felt inadequate too, so I went back for my bike, the Greenway AKA the Black Bullet. Gliding silently down Boulevard d’Oujda on the Bullet, wearing my knock-off Adidas tracksuit as camouflage, everyone but me snoozed through the first hours of the day’s fast. The streets possessed a numinous tranquility beneath the dual effect of the pandemic and Ramadan; it felt like skiing alone through virgin snow.
The winds carried me first to La Falaise, the Cliffs, where lovers meet by day and thieves scheme by night, or so I’m warned. Closed for quarantine, but open enough for my bike to slip past for the first time since mid-March, I rode along with my attention divided between the potholes and the magnificent Atlantic that slammed unseen on the rocks below. Memories stirred of how the Greenway’s maiden voyage was to the Cliffs with Ken, shortly after we’d bargained the price down from 3000 to 1700 D’s at a mechanic’s shop up in Hassania – a steal for a single-speed racing bike that was clipped off the streets of Europe and shipped south. That was a glorious day. This morning, the air was clear enough that the Casa skyline easily rose into view across the curve of the coast. In the middle of the urban sprawl, gargantuan Hassan II Mosque stood arrogantly in the waves, taunting Nature to contend with the symbols of man’s religion, as if his book of proof were more powerful than the ocean that constantly erodes the mosque’s foundation.
Through the streets near the port, I cruise past all the fish restaurants with their identical blue awnings, menus, and signs saying Fermé. Ahead is the Catholic Church for the city’s many Résidents Français, a petit morceau of Europe where boys and girls wear shorts and play together beneath the old churchyard trees. Perhaps reluctantly, a police officer stands outside guarding the tiny French planet behind the gate.
I swerve to the left onto a narrow street edged with dust and debris from the construction of titanic buildings that will house glitzy new apartments. The height of these brick and mortar skeletons, draped with cranes and scaffolding, makes this street chillier and darker than the rest except for at midday. Maybe they’ll restore some of Mohammedia’s faint pulse when they’re decorated and inhabited.
At the top of the wide esplanade known simply as Le Parc, is the old Miramar Hotel (built in 1927) that belonged to King Hassan II and then later his son, the current ruler. It was Mohammedia’s only 5-star hotel, and in 1942 General Patton headquartered there when American troops landed at Mohammedia in Operation Torch. Owing to mismanagement, it was closed some years ago. At present, the hotel looks like a mirage, a crusty edifice crowded in by a jungle of trees and plants, and swarming with birds for whom Mohammedia was historically a trucker stop along the Great Migration. It ought to be restored if only because a whole city goes to seed when a main landmark is empty and dilapidated.
My morning tour doesn’t ascend out of the flatlands of the centre ville with its humidity, higher prices, and government buildings. It doesn’t pass the train station whose massive panneau d’information can now display all the day’s departures at once because there are so few. It doesn’t climb up to Al-Alia, the Heights, where first impressions were made and where the price is right. Instead, it weaves through the confusing French streets of this industrial beach town, back through my building’s door which is always ajar, marches up the stairs and leans at rest against the wall before 8 a.m.
I cannot speak for whatever bureaucratic vendetta drained Mohammedia’s parks and beaches of their funding, and thus their greenery and liveliness, in the years before I came. When my parents were visiting, they recognized the near-total vacuum of art and culture in Mohammedia, and mused that this is what Oneonta could become: pretty enough and livable, but lacking in vitality. “It is a quiet, comfortable city,” I was told at the Casablanca hostel where I stayed after landing with my backpack, suitcase and sitar.
That it is! and I do love Mohammedia even though it doesn’t have the charm of Essaouira or the storied past of Salé, the pirate haven of olden days; even if there’s not one cinema for its population of 200,000; even if I feel like a foreign observer after eight months; even as I grow nostalgic for it while I’m still here. It’s one of the only places I’ve lived where my drive to move on has evaporated into the striking blue sky.