x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Casablanca is an unpolished jewel

Slideshow Renovating an old and possibly haunted mansion in the Moroccan city,Tahir Shah discovered the remains of the city's grand past.

On some nights when I cannot sleep, I go down into the garden and listen to the wind in the eucalyptus trees. As I stand there in the shadows and moonlight, stray dogs barking far away, the bizarreness of our lives hits me. Five years ago we moved from a cramped apartment in London's East End to a haunted mansion set squarely in the middle of Casablanca's biggest shantytown. For me, the move was a kind of survival mechanism. I couldn't stand rip-off Britain any longer, and I dreamt of a home where there was space, bright sunshine, and babysitters who didn't cost the earth.

I first came to Morocco as a toddler, and my childhood memories are of the fragrant scent of orange blossom, fresh mint, spices and cinnamon. It was the early 1970s then, and Morocco was just one stop on the hippy trail south: a time of tie-dye and hash, and clapped out VW camper vans. Fast forward 30 years and, finding myself drowning in bills and depressed beyond belief by the weather and the grey, I begged my wife to trust me. We would move, I said, to a brave new world, a magical land that was for me a fantasy inspired by the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. It was called Morocco.

After searching out houses in Marrakech and Fez, I received a phone call out of the blue. It was from an old English lady, the mother of a school friend whom I had last seen 25 years before. She said she had heard through the grapevine that I craved a Moroccan mansion. She owned one, she told me in a whisper, a very special house in Casablanca, one she was eager to sell. I flew down the next day, and found myself in a twilight zone inspired by my own fantasy. The house, named Dar Khalifa, which means the Caliph's House, had endless courtyards filled with birdsong and exotic trees, whose fronds threw shade over the whitewashed walls.

It had dozens of rooms, carved cedar-wood doors, patios and stables, a giant swimming pool, and even a tennis court. The Caliph's House came with a legion of ancestral guardians - caretakers whose families have worked here for generations. As soon as I stepped across the threshold, I knew that it had to become ours. And with time it did. But from the first night we slept there, we found ourselves hounded by problems, the kind of which a quiet London life never knows.

The house had been empty for almost a decade, and a full renovation was needed. But the guardians didn't seem at all bothered by the damp rot, the dirt, and the total lack of sanitation. They had more pressing worries in mind. Osman, their leader, informed us that the house was not empty, that it had never been empty. Far from it, he said that each room was filled top to bottom with an invisible legion of jinn. Before we could even begin the renovation work, we were cajoled with threats of impending danger into holding a grand exorcism to placate the wrath of the spirits. If I were anywhere else, I wouldn't have a clue how or where to find exorcists. But in some ways Morocco is a land of magic and the mysterious, and talk of the supernatural is never far away.

So locating an exorcist or, to be more accurate, the 24 exorcists we finally hired, was dead simple. I found them in the ancient imperial city of Mèknes. They were from a brotherhood called Aissawa, and boasted that they could suck the spirits from the walls and swallow them. They sounded like a Moroccan Ghostbusters, and that's exactly what they were. A week after meeting them, the brotherhood arrived on the back of a cement lorry, and they stayed through days and nights. Their work involved dousing the house in blood and milk, disembowelling a mangy-looking goat, and rocking our new home to its foundations with the boom-boom-boom of drums. The exorcism was only the beginning on a long journey, a process of renovation and of discovery. When it was at an end, and the house had been certified squeaky clean and jinn-free, we could begin the business of renovation.

We made use of traditional Moroccan crafts, hiring an army of artisans. Some of them set about creating fabulous mosaic fountains, while others plastered the walls in tadelakt, a kind of Venetian plaster made from marble dust and eggs. Another team built me a cedar wood library, while still more laid floors with terracotta tiles. They lived in the grand salon, and slept there in rows. As the renovations continued, I found myself constantly mesmerised by the level of Moroccans' artisanal expertise. While in the West we like to use power tools to save time, we do so in place of skill. Here in Morocco the simplest tools are used. But in the hands of a master there is no limit to the wonders that even a simple hammer can create.

As the weeks turned into months, I found myself exploring Casablanca, the sprawling metropolis that lay the other side of the shantytown. It's a city that is misunderstood by almost everyone, except by those who live here. To occidental ears, its name is inextricably linked to those of Bogart and Bergman, and to the abiding image of Rick's Cafe, of Sam at his piano and the words "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss?". The truth is very different. Casablanca was essentially built by the French, beginning early in the 20th century. There's almost nothing predating the colonial arrival, save for a Portuguese fortress, now a fancy restaurant called Sqala. Casablanca was an opportunity for the French to showcase their latest Art Deco style. The city was the first in the world to be designed from the air, and the grand palm-lined boulevards attest to the French skill in urban planning.

Walk the length of Boulevard Mohammed V, and you find yourself marvelling at some of the most magnificent Art Deco buildings in existence anywhere in the world. It's easy to imagine the sound of Parisian stilettos strutting over the flagstones, or the sight of the shop windows filled with the latest fashions, and with delicacies from France. But in the half century since the end of the Protectorate, downtown Casablanca has been dealt a terrible blow. The buildings are shabby now, but they are still jewels, each one, awaiting someone with vision to come and spruce them up. I spend every spare moment traipsing down the little lanes behind the old Central Market. There's a wonderful bustle, a sense of history mixed with fantasy. It's a place where you feel that dreams can come true. My favourite spot in Casablanca to while away the hours is Cafe France, at the far end of the great boulevard.

A wonderful aspect of Moroccan life is that there's no shame in sitting in a cafe all day, drinking espresso as strong as crude oil. In Europe I always got the feeling that spending one's days over coffee and newspapers was a pursuit for a man with no life, like watching daytime television. The very thought of it filled me with guilt. But in Casablanca, sitting around from morning till night in a cafe is a key part of life. Nearby Cafe France, on a small street, across from the historic Rialto Cinema, I first met a man called Mustapha Hakim. He sits in a pool of yellowy morning sunlight, reading the newspaper and dreaming of the day when he can retire. The cavernous space behind him is filled with dusty bolts of cloth that never seem to sell. A week's growth of white beard concealing his cheeks, he smiles, the wry smile of a man who has a wisdom gleaned from a shrewd observance of life.

"I've seen everything,"he says, swishing a fly away from his face. "Believe me my friend. I've seen the French worship this city, and I have seen them abandon it. I've seen wealth, and poverty and everything that divides the two. I have wept in joy at the thought of the future, and I have also wept tears of grief at the idea of the years which lie ahead." Mustapha Hakim suddenly seems very serious. He turns to look at me squarely, his eyes burning into my own. "Next week", he says, the furrows of his forehead deepening a little more than usual, "I will pull down that metal blind, and I am going to leave this shop, where I have spent the 50 best years of my life. And I am never going to open it again." "What will you do?" I ask softly.

Mustapha Hakim thinks for a moment, scratches a fingernail down the length of his aquiline nose. "I shall begin to live," he says. Next door to the old cloth merchant is a junk shop packed floor to ceiling with odds and ends pilfered from, or left by, the French. The extraordinary thing about it all is that it comes from a precise slice of the 20th century - most of it from between the wars, before the francophone colonies were lost. Each week, I spend a great deal of time roaming through Casablanca's immense junk yards, where real treasures can be found. Not far from our house, there's an area called Hay Hasseni. It's not very fancy at all, and is the kind of place where you can get great bargains. There's a sprawling food market, with fruit and vegetables and meat. The stalls overflow with fresh oranges, melons and coriander, fenugreek and mint. It's a side of Morocco that hasn't changed in centuries. Indeed, the fact that the country's formal supermarkets are almost empty, suggests that Moroccans prefer market life. But it's the area behind the fruit and vegetable souq that sets my heart racing most of all.

In something that bears a close resemblance to the end of the world, every twisted piece of scrap metal, old bath tub, third-hand sheet of tin, or kitchen sink, is stacked neatly waiting for the right person to come along and snap it up. I have found that in the junk yard a little patience goes a long way. I turn up every week. Nowadays, everyone knows the sort of thing I'm looking for. They keep things for me. Yesterday someone offered me a magnificent old jukebox from the 1950s, a billiard table with the original moss-green felt, an Art Nouveau tea set and a grand piano made in Paris by Erard back in 1921. There are camel saddles as well, and carved Berber doors, grandfather clocks and aspidistra stands, portholes from ocean liners, torn old paperbacks, toy trains and ships' chests that smell of the sea. Casablanca has a prim new area too. It's where the rich go shopping and where traffic is torturous, a gridlocked cacophony of hooting. It's called Maarif and is something of an obsession to the nouveau riche. Its cafes overflow with those beautiful people, all of them bedecked in jewels, their eyes masked in the latest lunettes de soleil. Perhaps it is because we live in a shantytown, albeit in a home touched by paradise, but I feel out of place in its world. But there is one part of fashionable Maarif that I adore.

It's the old Stade Velodrome, designed as a cycle racetrack eight decades ago. These days you never hear the sound of cyclists though. That's because each night as darkness falls the greyhound races are held. It's a far cry from going to the dogs East End style, and has an ambience that's impossible to accurately describe. There is the smell of black tobacco, the sound of crisp betting slips, and the buzz of anticipation: all against the wild frenzied backdrop of the dogs writhing in their cages, waiting anxiously for the starting gun. Most days when the sun is shining, and there's a rustle of the wind in the eucalyptus tress, I sit here in my library and congratulate myself. I'm smug at having escaped the English rain, and the grey winter days when there's no hope of warmth or blue skies.

But most of all, I look out at the courtyard where the tortoises amble about searching for shade, and I listen to the sounds of the shantytown. I can hear them now - the man selling fish from a barrow, encircled by cats, and the braying of the donkeys and the cackle of geese. It's a blazing backdrop of cultural colour. And, as my senses take it in, I say a little prayer, hoping that none of it will ever change.

Tahir Shah is the author of The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca and In Arabian Nights