Casablanca Chasms: The Bidonville in Muhammad Zafzaf’s Muhawalat Aysh
One of Morocco’s most important novels is also a window into the unaddressed tension between Casablanca’s center and its marginal bidonvilles. The city’s public spaces and streets remain prescribed with an ordering of belonging and not belonging.
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Casablanca’s long-neglected bidonvilles have been sites of renewed interest since 2003, when five simultaneous explosions killed forty-five people in targets in the city’s center. The twelve young men responsible for the attacks came not only from the same shantytown, Sidi Moumen, but also from the same neighborhood within it, Douar Toma.1 To many, the bombings were a direct result of socio-economic deprivation and tangible proof of the danger latent in the city’s glaring inequalities, making it clear that Casablanca’s underserved areas have never been more important. Yet the bidonvilles have rarely been acknowledged as part of the public imagination, either as a source of unrest or as a social reality. Likewise, they remain a blindspot in the tradition of the Moroccan novel. Characterized since the 1940s by autobiographical accounts, historical fiction, and narratives concerned with the nationalist struggle for independence, the Moroccan novel in Arabic has focused on the interests and lifestyles of the bourgeoisie since its inception.2 The works of Muhammad Zafzaf (1945–2001) stand as an exception. Muhammad Zafzaf began his literary career in the early 1960s and ultimately gained recognition as one of Morocco’s most distinguished modern novelists. Not only widely considered Morocco’s most important early novelist, Zafzaf is also the writer most closely associated with the depiction of Casablanca’s peripheral, disregarded landscapes. His work remains unsurpassed in its portrayal of the stark disparities that characterize Morocco’s economic capital.

“Zafzaf’s novel continues to resonate as a text that makes Casablanca’s bidonvilles and their relation to the city center legible, providing crucial insight into the complexity of the city’s lived realities.”

Zafzaf wrote the experiences of the bidonvilles as Naguib Mahfouz wrote the alleys of Cairo’s old city. His novels not only offer portraits of these seldom represented people and their inhabited spaces but also intervene in the discourse born in the colonial period that paints the bidonville dwellers as compliant subjects to be managed, their status necessarily peripheral. Counter to these historical assumptions, Zafzaf’s characters refuse to experience Casablanca as it would be imposed upon them; despite restricted access, they directly intervene in the city’s social space and its production. In his fiction, Zafzaf uncovers the ways in which the city’s spaces often conveniently conceal its uneasy class relations for the sake of those comfortably living within its center. Published in 1985, his novel Muhawalat Aysh (An Attempt to Live) is exceptionally incisive in its articulation of the struggles of those living in the shantytowns; it continues to resonate as a text that makes Casablanca’s bidonvilles and their relation to the city center legible, providing crucial insight into the complexity of the city’s lived realities.


Place de France, Casablanca at night from Michel Ecochard’s Casablanca: le roman d’une ville (1955).


Historical images from the era in which Zafzaf’s novel is set reveal a bidonville and its relationship to an industrializing Casablanca. Images are taken from Jean-Louis Cohen’s Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures (2003).

For the writer who chooses to depict Casablanca, the city’s disconnectedness from Morocco’s cultural and intellectual heritage presents a challenge. To speak of Casablanca is to speak of a city that is decidedly modern. Morocco’s traditional capitals are elsewhere: the imperial cities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakech, and Rabat-Salé. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Casablanca, now Morocco’s largest city, had a population of just twenty thousand inhabitants; today, the count is over three million. Growth was a result of rural-to-urban migration, those living in the country who came to the city in the search for prosperity. By the end of the French protectorate in 1956, an estimated 75 percent of Casablanca’s population had immigrated from the countryside.3 By the 1920s, rural exodus had led to the creation of the bidonvilles, migrant shantytowns built from salvaged materials at the fringes of the urban center.4 Even a cursory glance at the history of Casablanca’s rapid growth in the first half of the twentieth century reveals the French authorities’ failure to manage these spaces of “adobe, corrugated iron, … porous masonry, … tents and nouallas” that sprang up around the city.5 Current-day Casablanca is marked by the colonial missteps in urban planning related to the bidonville. The same materials and mismanaged growth continue to define the housing districts that lace the city’s edges.

The neighborhood of Habous represents this miscalculation. Designed as a simulacrum of a traditional medina in the 1930s, Habous was intended to be a sanitized ghetto for the rural migrants who had come “to lend strength to budding industries and large-scale urban development” but had found themselves “packed into filthy slums, reed dugouts, and even in petrol drums, without sewage facilities, or … hygienic amenities of any kind.”6 Rather than the peasants, port workers, and factory laborers the French housing authorities had imagined living in the quarter “without impinging on the European town,” Habous’s occupants ended up being Casablanca’s more affluent middle class – also in search of housing in a city where it was scarce. Meanwhile, new settlements of corrugated iron and flattened petrol drums continued to propagate on the city’s outskirts.7 Currently a tourist district, Habous has since become even less utilitarian.

While other observers might have condemned the conditions endured by Casablanca’s slum dwellers, architect Michel Ecochard saw in them the hopes for a better future. Images are taken from Michel Ecochard’s Casablanca: le roman d'une ville (1955).

Since Habous, planning initiatives have done little to mitigate conditions for Casablanca’s migrants, and the bidonvilles have remained an indelible condition for Casablanca since the modern city’s founding. The colonial administrators were aware of the dangers latent in unchecked rural-to-urban migration:

The attraction of city life has caused many Moroccans from the Southern part of the country and the Atlas Mountains to break with the framework of their rural and familial lives. In moving to bidonvilles they lose contact with their tribes and villages, and the communal support of these social structures is replaced by a feeling of isolation amid chronic overcrowding. Rural migrants subsequently find it difficult to integrate, for although they are often welcomed in the city and factories, no provision is made for them in the way of housing or public facilities.8

Despite realizing the devastating consequences migrants suffered once severed from the social structures fundamental to their lives, neither they nor the post-independence Moroccan governments have adequately facilitated the process of integration. As the city has grown since the colonial period, the percentage of residents living in shantytowns has remained steady. In the 1940s, the city’s bidonvilles housed approximately 14 percent of Casablanca’s residents, with 50,000 shantytown dwellers of an urban population of 365,000; by 1982, the number of bidonville dwellers had swelled to 306,412 of Casablanca’s 2,253,029 counted residents, with the bidonville ratio remaining nearly the same at 13.6 percent.9 King Muhammad VI’s urban renewal policy, Villes sans bidonvilles (Cities without Shantytowns), has likewise failed to eradicate the economic capital’s shantytowns. In 2012, Casablanca’s bidonvilles housed as many as 17 percent of the city’s inhabitants (about 500,000).10Though written in the mid 1980s, Muhawalat Aysh is most likely set in the 1960s, in the years immediately following Morocco’s independence, as Casablanca solidified its position as the country’s economic capital under King Hassan II. A 1960 census had put the city’s population at one million, and by 1964, its urban footprint had far more than doubled in twenty-five years.11 Set during a moment of significant historical change for Casablanca, Muhawalat Aysh also represents part of a shift in Zafzaf’s writing, a means to distance himself from the concerns of the bourgeois intellectual toward a focus on society’s marginalized populations and spaces, those generally not considered the appropriate material of literary fiction and ignored as essential to the city’s economic and social stability.12

“Zafzaf can only portray the bidonville through a juxtaposition with its antithesis, the city center.”

Poet and critic Muhammad Munib Buraymi has noted the significance of this aspect to Zafzaf’s prose:

Zafzaf wrote about and gave expression to marginalized spaces … where everything is temporary and fleeting: place is marginal/time is marginal/character is marginal/vision is marginal/action is marginal. Everything speaks with a marginalized voice. With or through Zafzaf’s spaces, we first and foremost recognize what we can designate a rhetoric of the marginal.13

In Muhawalat Aysh, Zafzaf proves to be a skilled portraitist of the neglected spaces of Casablanca’s urbanity. The dominant setting of the novel is an unnamed bidonville; it does not, however, exist simply to be described or elaborated upon. Rather, Zafzaf engages in the stark depiction of the rural migrant’s struggle for integration beyond the margins and into the urban core. Zafzaf therefore can only portray the bidonville through a juxtaposition with its antithesis, the city center. The setting of one location against the other drives the novel’s narrative, with a number of characters trying to negotiate a relationship with both. The literary critic Muhammad Izz Al Din Tazi has observed the import of the spatial shifts from one chapter to the next: from the port where the novel opens to the corrugated tin shantytown where the story’s protagonist Hamid resides, and then to the spaces he ultimately learns to navigate and inhabit within Casablanca’s main arteries – its public parks, bars, and coffee shops.14 Yet his relationship with these places in the city center is always marked by his origins in the bidonville.


Another in a sequence of state-supported attempts at housing Casablanca’s poorest residents makes a backdrop to the more informal settlements that still house hundreds of thousands of people on the city’s edges. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.

The novel’s plot revolves around Hamid, an eighteen-year-old newspaper seller who lives with his family in the novel’s unnamed bidonville. His father spends his days lamenting his fate to friends; blaming a lack of opportunity, he declares in one instance, “If I had had a little capital, I would have opened a store selling charcoal.”15 Instead, he takes Hamid’s meager earnings. Hamid’s mother focuses on finding a wife for Hamid and building him his own shack in the courtyard of the family’s shed. Running counter to Hamid’s outward trajectory, she strives to develop their property situated on Casablanca’s social and physical edge. While Hamid’s parents are restricted to the shantytown – its small courtyards, its shops offering the barest essentials – Hamid sets his sights on the city beyond.

In unembellished prose inflected with local dialect, Zafzaf contrasts the city’s peripheral spaces with its core through his protagonist’s subjective experience of Casablanca’s urban topography.16 Public spaces, both peripheral and central, are a means in the narrative to convey Hamid’s struggle for a sense of identity and a right to occupy Casablanca’s urban center.

“The bidonville dwellers must convey through outward signs that their houses make no claim of permanence.”

Here, literary representation functions as a vehicle for dispelling the ambiguity often embedded in the city’s symbolic order, where social divisions and power relations can appear natural. Each of the city’s public spaces exists within a hierarchy – zoned or segregated, if not gated – and often encoded with exclusivity that defines freedoms and restrictions for both those admitted and denied access.17 Access to these sites and mobility to and from them are dependent on a resident’s status as defined by his association with the city’s geography – namely, where he comes from. Urban identity is therefore formed through the city’s spaces.18 Hamid’s struggle to integrate into Casablanca’s urban center, and therefore to alter his urban identity, comprises the narrative’s most crucial source of tension.

Muhawalat Aysh begins with Hamid hawking newspapers in the port with several other sellers like himself. The port, while most often a symbol of the city’s cosmopolitanism, its literal and metaphorical opening to the world outside, represents in this instance a claustrophobic space of restriction and impasse.19 The spaces through which Hamid can move without impunity are immediately shown to be demarcated, his access highly restricted, as he tries unsuccessfully to sell newspapers to the sailors on the ships passing through:

The ship guard threw the remains of a sandwich in Hamid’s face, swallowed a can of beer in one gulp, then tossed it in his direction but it didn’t hit him. Hamid retreated. There was nothing to be done with that scoundrel. He walked toward his three companions, who had just finished arguing. They sat over the wine pipe and began to exchange a single cigarette.

One of the boys said, “Did you go see your Senegalese friend?”

Hamid answered, “I went, but that scoundrel kicked me out.”

                One of the three said, “He’s from our neighborhood, I’ll act as your mediator at his place.”

The others laughed.

                The boy said, “Why are you laughing? I know his mother. And his aunt lives near our house.”

                One of them retorted, “If you go, he’ll throw you in the river. Don’t you know that swine? There’s no doubt he’s drunk now.”

                Hamid replied, “He just threw a can of beer at me but missed. No one can enter the ship he guards.”20

Scenes constructed around this kind of denied access comprise the greater part the novel. Hamid moves on to sell his papers in Casablanca’s center but can only sell to the customers of the city’s chic cafés and restaurants if he is on good terms with the establishments’ owners. Casablanca’s public parks offer reprieve, an escape from the tyranny of his employer, but he is aware of the frequent policing efforts to sweep the city’s public spaces clean of people like him. In an inner dialogue, he plainly states that if boys from his quarter stayed too long in the city’s parks – if they made themselves too visible – “in the end police cars would capture them or they would be thrown out during a campaign to clean the city of their kind.”21

An appreciation of Zafzaf’s handling of the center-periphery duality so important to Casablanca’s contemporary cityscape can be gained by revisiting the French architect and urban planner Michel Ecochard’s conception of these spaces in Casablanca: le roman d’une ville, published less than a decade before the novel’s setting. In the 1940s, Ecochard was commissioned to run Morocco’s “urbanism services.”22 As part of his mandate, he considered the design of alternative dwellings for Casablanca’s bidonvilles. In his 1955 account of the city, he vividly describes Casablanca’s center. He draws an image of the Place des Nations Unis (at the time called the Place de France) as reflecting the age’s modernist ideals, the city’s vibrant hub connecting the medina and ville nouvelle:

There, the grand cafés, hotels, banks, the center of business, the fever of the import-export offices, the daily stock exchange, and luxury stores. There, the collections from Paris, the latest refrigerators and radios, but also the little cigarette and chewing gum sellers … the shoeshines. At noon and six o’clock, the intense movement of cars, nearly all new and made in America.23

While the bidonvilles were described by Ecochard’s contemporaries as a “filthy pit with pestilent cesspools and dirt tracks,” Ecochard’s views on the city’s shantytowns were more idealistic.24 His descriptions of the Carrières Centrales or Ben M’Sik slums often verge on the pastoral: inhabitants live in the open fresh air, the conditions a vast improvement over those in the cramped environs of the medina; men leave in the morning for work, gainfully employed in factories or at the port; wives spend the afternoon cooking in the courtyard; children diligently attend school; women are freed from the strictures of tradition as many liberally serve as domestics in the wealthy homes of the urban center, providing them with essential positive exposure to the norms of modern life.25

Ecochard’s optimistic interpretation of the bidonville as a positive space that serves the ultimate goal of integration stands at odds with the documented results of French colonial policy that all but ensured the lasting systemic race and class inequalities that endured through the lifetimes of Zafzaf’s characters and remain in place to this day.26 Yet Ecochard recognized that Casablanca’s bidonvilles held the potential to be dynamic, transitory spaces that could provide the rural migrant with a point of entry to the city proper. For the bidonville to function in this way, however, it would require several stipulations: it should create a network, a web of human relationships connecting the departed village to the bidonville to the established city; it should provide access to affordable housing, assistance in finding employment; it must allow for village migrants to save and purchase housing of their own and start small businesses; it must provide access to the established city for education; in sum, it should enable social mobility.27 The absence of these features turns a shantytown into a perpetual slum. If the alternative representation that Zafzaf’s novel offers is read against the idea of the shantytown as an idealist instrument of assimilation into urban life like that found in Ecochard, the critical social commentary of Muhawalat Aysh can be clearly discerned. It shows how post-independence Morocco has failed to reverse the policies set by the French in order to incorporate generations of rural migrants into mainstream urban society.

The relationship that each of Zafzaf’s characters has with the city center is established early in the novel. While the main characters of Muhawalat Aysh live in a marginalized community “laid out in a wide field on the outskirts of the city,” they are inextricably connected to Casablanca’s public spaces, locked in the struggle for assimilation.28 As Zafzaf notes, “All of these thousands of people [the shantytown dwellers] are in the service of the city’s residents.”29 The novel shows the lived intersections of Casablanca’s urban social realities, the overlap between center and periphery. Like Hamid, his mother is motivated by a pursuit of legitimacy, but she employs a competing strategy to achieve assimilation into the urban environment. While Hamid attempts to move to the center, his mother works to transform her property in the bidonville into a sanctioned part of the city. Throughout the text, she is preoccupied with the construction of the additional shanty for Hamid and her family’s permanent establishment in the bidonville. With less access to the world beyond the bidonville than her son, Hamid’s mother sees the property – “a shanty the size of doghouse” – as an investment and a source of pride, a means toward legitimacy and a foothold in the city, even if just from within the shantytown.30

A bidonville roofscape leads toward the perimeter wall of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Sidi Moumen, Casablanca. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.

Lamia Zaki has highlighted the ambiguity of the institutional attitude of both tolerance and prohibition toward the bidonvilles. These spontaneously constructed areas represent a “direct violation of property rights and urban rules.”31 In a sense, they are symbols of deviance, and the maintenance of their transitory character is necessary for their legal acceptance. The bidonville dwellers must convey through outward signs that their houses make no claim of permanence and present no challenge to existing legal codes.32 It is precisely this illegitimate status, however, that Hamid’s mother contests. Initially, Hamid’s parents build their son’s shanty without a permit, despite the father’s objections:

[Husband:] “I hope he [the inspector] doesn’t come with members of the Auxiliary Force to tear down our entire residence.”

[Wife:]: “May your mouth be licked by   a dog, he’s never done that, has he?”33

[Husband:] “He’s done it many times.”

[Wife:] “But with the shanties that don’t have a number. Our number is recorded in the state’s papers: 2834.”

[Husband:] “You’ve memorized that number as if you were protecting the number to some great wealth.”

[Wife:] “This residence is our wealth. If it’s destroyed we’ll be sleeping out in the elements.”34

The inspector does indeed pay a visit, but Hamid’s mother learns to negotiate the necessary corrupt channels and through a bribe ensures the survival of her project of urban assimilation. It is not, notably, just the property she seeks, but rather the state’s recognition of her legitimacy. She later boasts:

Afterward, the wife went to the neighbors. She spoke of the new shanty and about the inspector who had become her friend … The wife said to the neighbors, lying, “He gave me a new number for my son’s shack, and promised me yet another number. We’ll have three numbers.”35

The city is often a symbol for “generalized desires and anxieties configured around concepts of nationhood and citizenship.”36 For Hamid’s mother, who has no access to Casablanca’s public spaces, belonging to the city requires another type of legitimation, even if the legitimation itself is invalid, illegal, obtained through corruption, or, in this case, illusory; while the inspector agrees to turn a blind eye to the additional shanty, she did not, in fact, receive the official numbers as she claims. Nevertheless, she does not accept, even symbolically, the transitory nature of her home and aggressively tries to acquire the symbolic signs of its permanence through the validation of the state and her neighbors. Her defiance in the face of a closed path to urban assimilation can be found in her attempts to transform an “unsympathetic spontaneous urban architecture” (cramped rooms hardly larger than the people occupying them) into a habitable and government-sanctioned space, an extension of the official urban structure from which she is effectively barred.37

The mother’s status as a rural migrant is underscored by the generational differences in the fantasies and fears connected to urban living. While Hamid’s mother works to normalize her bidonville existence, Hamid, by the age of sixteen, has already experienced the greater city when he visits the newspaper distribution office to look for a job. When asked by his future employer if he knows the city’s streets well, Hamid does not answer, but his unfamiliarity is evident when he heads off in the wrong direction and finally has to follow his superior’s pointing finger.38 As the novel chronicles, he finally learns Casablanca’s streets but remains painfully aware of his marginalized and impotent position in the established city outside the bidonville.

For most of the narrative, his interaction with the urban core is colored by anxiety and exhaustion. As a result, he continually strives for invisibility and a place to rest, his experience with the city always peripatetic and unmoored. Like the other hawkers, Hamid ultimately finds his individual site of reprieve concealed within the city’s public spaces: “There was a specific place in which Hamid disappeared, between the public toilets and the offices of the tourism guild, among short thick shrubs planted haphazardly by municipal workers.”39 He hides in the shadows of trees, in the entryways of elegant apartment buildings; he slips beneath the radar of those who hold power while inhabiting spaces that he cannot see as his own. But even the clandestine space he has claimed as a sanctuary is tinged with hostility: “He stood partially, leaned over, and left the place. A branch clung to his shirt, stretched … and hit Hamid forcefully in the head.”40

At the same time, as his contact with the city increases, he becomes less able to reconcile himself to the bidonville. He rejects his mother’s plan to legitimize their meager dwelling and becomes ashamed of his family’s roots in the countryside. In a conversation between Hamid and the proprietor of a café that a large portion of his client base frequents, the café owner asks in reference to Hamid’s mother:

“She could work as a cleaning woman like most women, or is she lazy and from the countryside, with no skill in anything?”

                Hamid lowered his head in silence and didn’t answer. His mother and father were all of that, lazy, from the countryside, migrants, everything.41

With Hamid’s move to the city, the novel focuses on his assimilation. In some ways, the novel is a bildungsroman mediated by the urban landscape. Hamid, initially plagued by fear and trepidation, is gradually “no longer silent with his head bent down like a calf.”42 His self-loathing only begins to dissipate after he separates himself from the shantytown, no longer sleeping in the shack his parents constructed for him. The interior changes in his personality are mirrored by the exterior transformations of his body. In contrast to Ecochard’s highly atypical view of the bidonville as a positive space, most colonial discourse depicted the urban center as hygienic and the bidonville as unsanitary. Once in the city center, Hamid learns to take care of his appearance, to wash, to gel and comb his hair, and to shave.43 Shunning the bidonville, he shares an apartment in a modern, multistory building in the city's center. The apartments are arranged around a wide courtyard, and the door to each apartment is locked, an absent condition at his family's home and a symbol of the individual privacy associated with modernity. In keeping with the bildungsroman genre, he learns to accept Casablanca’s value system and, as a result, achieves a greater degree of integration in the established city.

Despite the sanitized quality of his new surroundings, his assimilation cannot be read in a wholly positive light. Integration into the city’s core exacts a price paid in moral sacrifice, as Hamid is shown to realize. In the bidonville, he did not smoke cigarettes or kif, he did not drink, and he did not consort with women.44 As his fiancée from the bidonville suggests, Hamid’s former propriety may have been driven by fear as much as moral conviction; she notes that he was likely to be a faithful husband: “he never raises his eyes to a woman, he’s afraid of his own shadow.”45 Nevertheless, once he is a full-time resident of Casablanca’s center, he acquires most of the vices he had avoided earlier.

“In many of his narratives, Zafzaf illustrates the results of the systemic failure on the part of successive administrations to turn the bidonville into a mechanism of the city’s regeneration.”

His move to the city center is only enabled by the relationship he develops with a prostitute named Ghannou, whose apartment he shares. Like Hamid’s parents, Ghannou is a migrant from the countryside. Zafzaf describes her own assimilation: “In three months, she learned how to wear pants, cut her hair, wear make-up, drink, smoke, and to use a few words of American English when she needed.”46 This could be read as the urban-inspired corruption that leads to her moral disintegration, except that the site of her initial fall was a compromising “incident” that occurred in her village. She is not, however, portrayed as morally bankrupt, despite the unsavory nature of her occupation.47 On the contrary, she is perhaps the most honest character in the novel. She is also, notably, the only person Hamid can trust, a fellow rural transplant whose options for education, training, and general social mobility are severely limited. Prostitution is for her the only apparent opportunity. At the novel’s close, it is implied that Hamid has taken up residence permanently in the city center, his relationship with Ghannou his only remaining social bond. Meanwhile, the bidonville is left in a state of chaos after the dramatic discovery at Hamid’s wedding that his fiancée is not a virgin. The wedding is left unconsummated and the bidonville is, in the end, shown to be hardly less corrupt than the city. One of the few American-based literary critics to address the representation of Casablanca in contemporary Moroccan literature, Katarzyna Pieprzak characterizes the dominant literary image of the economic capital as that of “a spiritual wasteland.”48 Yet, Zafzaf’s Casablanca is neither the flip side of an idealized pastoral nor an urban dystopia.

A bidonville family expresses domesticity and territoriality without any illegal claim for permanence. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.

In many of his narratives, Zafzaf illustrates the results of the systemic failure on the part of successive administrations to turn the bidonville into a mechanism of the city’s regeneration. In the absence of any legitimate means toward upward mobility, his characters manipulate strategies of their own improvisation in an effort not just to live but also to gain entry to the city. As a novelist, it is not Zafzaf’s role to offer solutions to the crisis of rural to urban migration but to alert the reader to the desperate struggles of those affected by it. Casablanca’s chic Maârif cafés, for example, become less comfortable when encountered from the perspective of Zafzaf’s novels. While we walk through the city, our gaze fixes on the sidewalks: the black market DVD sellers, the shoeshines, the newspaper hawkers. While the opulent villas of Ain Diab and the new Morocco Mall modeled on Dubai’s mammoth shopping centers obscure the harsh reality of so many of Casablanca’s residents, Zafzaf, even today, brings our focus back to those we see outside but often choose not to notice. Through his writing, the sheen of luxury that covers many of Casablanca’s public spaces is dissolved, our attention directed to the periphery inextricably connected to the center. With more people than ever before currently living in Casablanca’s bidonvilles, with all the city has to offer effectively beyond their reach, Zafzaf’s writing continues to deserve our attention.


1. Zakia Salime, Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 110.  

2. Morocco’s first Arabic-language novel was published in 1942. For a brief history of the Moroccan Arabic novel, see Abd Al Rahim Allam, Al Riwayah Al Maghribiyah Al Maktubah Bi Al Arabiyah: Al Hasilah Wa Al Masar, 1942–2003 (Al Rabat: Wizarat Al Thaqafah, 2003).

3. Paul Puschmann, Casablanca: A Demographic Miracle on Moroccan Soil? (Leuvan: Acco Academic, 2011), 14.

4. Lamia Zaki, “Transforming the City from Below: Shantytown Dwellers and the Fight for Electricity in Casablanca,” in Subalterns and Social Protest: History from Below in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Stephanie Cronin (London: Routledge, 2007), 116.

5. Jean-Louis Cohen and Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures (New York: Monacelli Press, 2002), 292.

6. Ibid., 217–218. A noualla is a portable reed hut.

7. Ibid., 224.

8. Ibid., 325.

9. Puschmann, Casablanca, 105.

10. “Housing in Casablanca: a Tricky Task,” Newsbook (blog), The Economist, September 5, 2012, 09/housing-casablanca.

11. Hassan Awad, “Morocco’s Expanding Towns,” The Geographical Journal 130, no. 1 (1964): 49–50.

12. Muhammad Izz Al Din Tazi, Al Sard Fi Riwayat Muhammad Zafzaf (Al Dar Al Bayda: Dar Al Nashr Al Maghribiyyah, 1985), 12.

13. Muhammad Munib Buraymi, Al Fada Al Riwai Fi Al Riwayah Al Maghribiyah Al Hadithah: Al Atar/Al Tansiq /Al Falalah: Dirasah Fi Aamal Ghallab/Al Arawi/Zafzaf (Wajdah: Jamiat Muhammad Al Awwal, Kulliyat Al Adab Wa Al Ulum Al Insaniyah, 2001), 282–283.

14. Tazi, Al Sard Fi Riwayat Muhammad Zafzaf, 108.

15. Muhammad Zafzaf, Muhawalat Aysh (Al Dar Al Bayda: Al Markaz Al Thaqafi Al Arabi, 2008), 61. Translation of passages from this novel are by the article’s author. 

16. In contrast to most of his contemporaries, Zafzaf often incorporates Darija, Moroccan Arabic, into the Standard Arabic of his texts, reflecting the way people actually speak. This creates a narrative discourse significantly less elitist than is usually the case.

17. Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy, “Introduction: Urban Space and Representation,” in Urban Space and Representation, ed. Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 1–24.

18. Ibid., 11.

19. Tazi, Al Sard Fi Riwayat Muhammad Zafzaf, 118.

20. Zafzaf, Muhawalat Aysh, 6–7.

21. Ibid., 25.

22. Paul Rabinow, “France in Morocco: Technocosmopolitanism and Middling Modernism,” Assemblage no. 17 (April 1992): 56.

23 Michel Ecochard, Casablanca: le roman d’une ville (Paris: Éditions de Paris, 1955), 15.

24. Cohen and Eleb, Casablanca, 235.

25. Ecochard, Casablanca, 25–26.

26. For a thorough critique of French urban planning during the colonial period, see Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). She notes, for example, that even Ecochard, who sought to rectify the fact that “for 35 years, Moroccans have been forgotten,” solidified the urban spatial divisions in such a way that it “foreclosed the possibility of later integration” (223).

27. Doug Saunders, Arrival City (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 20.

28. Zafzaf, Muhawalat Aysh, 17.

29. Ibid.

30 Ibid., 60.

31. Zaki, “Transforming the City from Below,” 116.

32. Ibid.

33. The expression used in this sentence is similar to the English idiom “knock on wood.”

34. Zafzaf, Muhawalat Aysh, 57–58.

35. Ibid., 63.

36. Balshaw and Kennedy, “Introduction,” 6.

37. Richard Ings, “A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Text and Image in The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” in Urban Space and Representation, ed. Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 39–55.

38 Ibid., 23.

39. Ibid., 39.

40. Ibid., 41.

41. Ibid., 47.

42. Ibid., 83.

43. Ibid., 75.

44. Kif is a type of marijuana widely used in Morocco.

45. Ibid., 85.

46. Ibid., 75.

47. Zafzaf’s strikingly sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute is most likely the cause of the Islamists’ frequent calls to remove the novel from the Moroccan public school curriculum: see

48. Kararzyna Pieprzak, “Ruins, Rumors and Traces of the City of Brass: Moroccan Modernity and Memories of the Arab Global City,” Research in African Literatures 38, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 187–203. coupon read coupons cialis
Gretchen Head holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the department of comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco by Janet Abu-Lughod
For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri
Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
Photographs of life in Casablanca’s bidonvilles today and historical images accompany this article about an unnamed bidonville in Muhawalat Aysh. (Above) A teenage boy holds his brother outside their home in the Sidi Moumen district of northeastern Casablanca. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.
Place de France, Casablanca at night from Michel Ecochard’s Casablanca: Le roman d’une ville (1955).
Historical images from the era in which Zafzaf’s novel is set reveal a bidonville and its relationship to an industrializing Casablanca. Images are taken from Jean-Louis Cohen's Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures (2003).
While other observers might have condemned the conditions endured by Casablanca’s slum dwellers, architect Michel Ecochard saw in them the hopes for a better future. Images are taken from Michel Ecochard's Casablanca: Le roman d’une ville (1955).
Another in a sequence of state-supported attempts at housing Casablanca’s poorest residents makes a backdrop to the more informal settlements that still house hundreds of thousands of people on the city’s edges. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.
A bidonville roofscape leads toward the perimeter wall of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Sidi Moumen, Casablanca. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.
A bidonville family expresses domesticity and territoriality without any illegal claim for permanence. Photograph by Ziyah Gafic.
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