Where Rabat Meets Salé

One of the loveliest urban views in the world is the panorama of Salé seen across the Bouregreg valley from Rabat. The two cities straddle the estuary, each a tumbled sugar-box of white houses, minarets and splashes of green tiled roof surrounded by dun, crenellated walls. From Rabat, across the bleak salt-flats, Salé is skirted by its vast cemetery in the foreground, a precious view of an intact mediæval townscape, rising to its ancient Grand Mosque on the summit of the hill, the Atlantic surf crashing on its headland.

Or rather, I should write was for is – because this glorious view, jealously protected, it is said, by the late king during his lifetime, is now filling up with meretricious building, shops, marinas and duplexes. Cranes jostle cranes, bulldozers roar, and vast placards proclaim: Where Rabat Meets Salé. You can’t any longer see Salé’s walls stretch unbroken along the far bank; and soon the urban sprawl of Rabat-Salé will fill the valley. Two cities of quite distinct character – Salé, the City of Saints, slightly starchy seat of learning, piety and tradition, once the financial capital of Moroccan piracy, lately in decline; and Rabat, ancient imperial city, effervescent johnnie-come-lately refuge of Spanish Muslims fleeing Philip III, capital of the Protectorate and of independent Morocco – are steadily merging. By 2020 Rabat-Salé will vie for size with Rabat’s old derby rival, Casablanca down the coast.

This is no doubt inevitable, but it is also sad. It would be churlish to rail against development – Rabat is the capital city of a growing country, and it too must grow – but the loss of something very old and irreplaceably lovely to banal commercial building is a small tragedy. How can a country like Morocco best balance past and future? What should be the relationship of its sumptuously lovely built heritage, and the need for a twenty-first century urban framework for its future development? Who, above all, is development to benefit?

The past was almost miraculously preserved by French colonial town-planning. Old and new towns were kept apart, Moroccans in the first, Europeans in the second, generally with a cordon sanitaire between the two. Writing of Rabat, Janet Abu-Lughod calls this policy ‘urban apartheid’ (Rabat: Urban Apartheid in Morocco, Princeton, 1980), and she describes the subtle mechanisms of building rules that made crossing the line, while not illegal, deliberately very difficult – for instance of external windows forbidden in the mdina and high garden walls forbidden in the nouvelle ville. Even when the mdina, its population becoming denser and poorer, spilled out of its tight confines, the physical fabric remained substantially unchanged. The French nouvelle ville, built into the fortuitously empty enceinte of Abu Yusuf Ya’qub’s magnificent pisé walls, developed as a low-rise city of green spaces and white, often art nouveau, apartment buildings. Splendid colonial set-pieces like the Bank al-Maghrib, the railway station and the post office went up along the prettily grandiose Cours Lyautey (Avenue Mohamed V), arcaded and palm-shaded as it descended the hill from palace to mdina.

What is the motor of change? Profit, certainly, is one – property prices in Rabat are rising sharply and there is much money to be made here. There is also a very real urgency to coping with the transport and housing needs of a growing city. But there is a sense too that the vast agenda of giant shopping-malls, tramways, yachting marinas and luxury housing developments is primarily serving Morocco’s wealthy. Walking around Rabat this is a constant question: how do the vast new developments fit in with – indeed how do they affect at all – the lives of Rabat’s very poor, in Takkadoum or the settlements along the escarpment above the river, like Douar Maadid, Hajja and Chella? Close to my home is a building site surrounded by hoardings proclaiming Au dela du Luxe – un Art de Vivre, which is a long way from the lives of ordinary Moroccans, for whom vivre is not so much an art as a struggle.

An interesting paper written by Amin Alsaden and published by the German Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, touches on exactly this question, identifying two fundamental themes in the handling of the built environment: on the one hand the systematic preservation of Morocco’s traditional buildings and townscapes, integrated with the royal ceremony for which they have always been a gorgeously designed backdrop; and on the other, a drive to urban modernization which successfully underpins foreign investment, but which, in allowing the rich to benefit disproportionately, also substantiates existing social structures, and at best underperforms in offering social benefits to the poor.

Looking at tradition, the writer focuses on Rabat, and particularly the Tour Hassan, where the magnificent mosque-mausoleum complex of King Mohamed V and King Hassan II sits within the precincts of Abu Yusuf’s enormous, unfinished great mosque, illustrating the seamless continuity of Morocco’s royalty with the ancient, yet incomplete, nation-building project. The monarchy’s role as both the custodian and ultimate arbiter of tradition … lends it not only renewed legitimacy, but also bestows it with the impression of permanence.

For modernity, he digs deeper. His argument is that the rash of building in progress today, of roads, railways, tramways and towers is well meshed with the preservation of tradition, indeed that this carefully calibrated formula ensures that the country is modernized without upsetting the historical landmarks that constitute the backbone of its idiosyncratic identity. Taking transport projects, he depicts what is in some ways a network of Zil-lanes across the country, toll-roads and prospective TGVs, which because of their price will be accessible largely to tourists and the rich; just as the new  tramway of Rabat-Salé is priced outside the means of the urban poor who still use bus, grand taxi or moped to cross the river. He looks at malls and housing complexes, where the luxury-driven investment climate often excludes the middle class from benefiting from, or inhabiting, these new structures.

Now I suspect that it would be just as easy to argue that this is a well-judged strategy of encouraging FDI, while accruing significant benefits to Moroccan investors and businesses too. In fact Alhaden comments tellingly that all this investment in infrastructure and buildings represents a vote of confidence in the safety of such investments, and thus in the medium-to-long term stability of Morocco’s present state. And I’m not sure that this careful blend of backward-looking and future-building is very different to other countries. After all, the City of London could be summed up by stacking alongside each other Soane’s Bank of England, Rogers’s Lloyds Building, and Foster’s Gherkin, with Crossrail running underneath. Splicing together continuity and change is the business of all governments.

The real question for any country is whether benefits are adequately spread, and social justice served. With a rising Gini Coefficient, Morocco is not always visibly doing a great deal to extend the benefits of growth to its poorer citizens. This is a problem, and planning Morocco’s future must take into account the destabilizing effect of deprivation and discontent, deftly defused in 2011, but not gone away.

Last week I watched at the Café du Film, organized by the British Council and the Goethe Institut, Faouzi Bensaidi’s film Death for Sale. Set in the grim public housing projects around Tetouan, it is a clever, touching tale of despair and dead ends. Three young men, trapped in poverty and petty crime, wander from disaster to disaster, at the mercy of corrupt police and predatory criminals nastier and bigger than themselves. Monochrome against an often richly coloured background of forest, mountain and the tumbled sugar-box of Tetouan, these friends are in constant search of escape from an utterly intractable, hopeless life. One of them tries to break out of petty crime into the criminal big time, and dies in the attempt; the second is scooped up by Islamist extremists and turned into a terrorist murderer. The third, Malik, whose love for Dounia is the central theme of the film, loves blindly and too well, and at the end, having betrayed his friends, and himself been betrayed on the threshold of escape to a new life, he climbs onto a wall, looking down into the void, all options gone. As he walks cross the street towards the wall, the camera turns over 180 degrees, and he is upside down, the world inverted, the sky below him, the earth above. There is no way out but jumping – upwards, in the overturned world he suddenly inhabits.

These are the young men and women who are going to have to share the benefits of Morocco’s development if Morocco is to fulfill its promise.


An interesting double page feature in L’Economiste this week called Marabouts, voyantes, astrologues … Le business du paranormal. It is a survey of the occult business sector in Casablanca – and what emerges is that this is a decidedly countercyclical business, flourishing as the economy slows down. Prices range from 20 dirhams for divination with molten lead, to all expenses paid trips by fortune-tellers and sorcerers to the Gulf for private consultations. In between, there is a vigorous trade in animal parts (a hyena’s brain goes for 150,000 dirhams; and the blood drained from a hoopoe – price not quoted – which has virtues for boosting the scholarly performance of children is also widely sought after). Sidi Abderrahmane, the city’s patron saint, to whose island-shrine pilgrims flock at low tide in search of enchantments, spells and divinations, evidently harbours a grudge towards the glittering new Morocco Mall a few yards away: the Mall is haunted by spirits, because it encroaches on the territory of the saint. This may of course simply be revenge for the Gini Coefficient.

As for the hoopoe’s blood, Morocco needs a great deal of it.

5 thoughts on “Where Rabat Meets Salé

    1. Dear (Riad?) Linda, I just wanted to say thank you for your faithful following of my blog and all the Likes … I am very grateful. You are very persevering to read the often (I suspect) rather dull pieces that I churn out. Best wishes, Martin (@marforioromano)

  1. Thanks to Linda Lyons for pointing me to this article. I haven’t yet visited Rabat or Salé but the questions you raise about the benefits of development are ones I have often considered as my plane drops over mushrooming developments to land at Marrakech Menara. I’m going to see Death for Sale next week and am really looking forward to Bensaïdi’s latest film. I’m going to re-post your piece on my Facebook page: FB/marocophile

    1. Ah! Marrakech! Now there’s a subject for a blog post, but I’m not quite sure where to start. One look at the great elephant’s graveyard of identical hotels beyond the walls sent me scurrying back to the mdina, where all is different and human sized. But there too, the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is quite disturbing. C’est le Maroc. Martin

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