Casablanca Stories and Tips

La Bodéga de Casablanca: Guerilla Revelry

The early 21st century is an interesting time to be in Morocco. Most Western political analyses show that (since even before 9/11) King Mohammed V of Morocco has been outwardly re-inventing himself as a defender of "traditional" Islam, subsequently contrasting himself and the Kingdom to the West. Behind this image makeover, Morocco is still moving to strengthen its economic ties with both the US and Europe (which is what brought me to Morocco in the first place). Cultural ties to France and economic ties with the Iberian Peninsula and France are particularly strong. Many of the elites I met during my meetings in Casablanca were educated in the US or Europe, and they all send their children abroad as well. Naturally, when these kids come home, they want to be able to play in the same types of venues they visited while studying in France or wherever. For those who can afford it, nightlife in Casablanca caters discreetly to this vibrant, entitled group of partygoers amidst an apparent resurgence of conservative (and distinctly anti-Western) Islamic politics. This underground scene has its nerve center at La Bodéga de Casablanca.

The main floor of La Bodéga is a Spanish restaurant. My German colleague - Sepp - who brought me, promised me that I would not be disappointed by a night out at this place. La Bodéga is located on a dead-end street (rue Allal BenAdballah) behind the Marché Central (Boulevard Mohamed V). The walls are a tobacco-stained white plaster with dark wood trim and fittings, covered with mementos of Spain. Their specialty is Spanish wines and a wide variety of tapas. Portions are decent, the atmosphere is boisterous and friendly, and the house band played everything from traditional Spanish flamenco to rock-and-roll. There was a wonderful chaos to the arrangement of tables, and the food service quickly enabled me to be in conversation with all those around me. The "locals" I met were all from the aforementioned elite partygoing class. They were all in their 20s or early 30s, dressed to the nines, well-educated, glamorous, and 90% female. They all spoke French, and many were quite fluent in English. Everyone "studied" in Europe and visited home (Casablanca) for "frequent family visits". For those who now resided in Casablanca, I was assured that a shopping trip to Europe was only a short flight away.

Sepp assured me that, as cool as the restaurant of La Bodéga was, it was only the tip of the iceberg. He took me down the back stairs into a basement disco. A DJ was spinning on the decks in one corner, and there were a few tables in the alcoves. Through the smoke and bodies, the main chamber of this basement opened up to a long bar, behind which three of the most hyperactive bartenders I have ever seen were busily slinging drinks and flinging bottles through the air.

The scene down there was incredible. I had expected that nasty cheesy synth music (aka "international music"), but what I heard from the DJ was a fantastic blend of house, lounge, hip-hop, and traditional Moroccan music. Bodies were grinding, and the liquor was flowing freely. The crowd was primarily wealthy Moroccan, but there were some tourists and Western businesspeople there as well (the Sheraton and the Hyatt were walking distance from here).

At one point, the music was at such a crescendo that the bartenders grabbed traditional instruments from under the bar – a two-sided drum called a daff, a tambourine, and metal castanets called qaraqib – and started playing in time to the music. The crowd hit such a fever pitch that a few women started dancing on the bar. The men and women started singing and shouting out that traditional Maghrebi ululation, adding to the intensity. Suddenly, the DJ killed his sound, and these traditional instruments, the ululations, and our clapping carried the beat. For a full five minutes, the women danced, twirled, and swayed to the percussion, encouragement, yells, and ululations of the bartenders and the crowd. Finally, the DJ swooped back in with a thumping beat, perfectly choreographed to the tempo kept by the bar staff. In this traditional, conservative, Islamic country, these surreptitious merrymakers only shouted for more, and the party carried on until the early hours. When la Bodega closed (i.e., when they threw us all out), we stumbled off, ears ringing, into the silent, empty streets of Casablanca.

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