Image Africa, French colonialism, and thoughts from the backseat of a Casablanca taxi
Africa, French colonialism, and thoughts from the backseat of a Casablanca taxi (Photo: Geraint Rowland)

Africa, French colonialism, and thoughts from the backseat of a Casablanca taxi

October 12, 2017
11 mins read

Casablanca. The Moroccan economic hub was quickly awakening to yet another rainy day. Its cafes were filling up, and its streets bustled with vehicles traveling in straight lines for only as long as it takes to pass yet another vehicle.

As my taxi traverses the city streets, I see vendors setting up under an assortment of colored tarps. Fruit, spices, vegetables, newspapers. The gray morning suitably frames the always scenic city into the cinematic. “It truly is a beautiful place,” I think to myself as we pass another corner café. “Thank God I’m leaving.” Casablanca is lovely. For short visits.

Image Grand taxi in Casablanca's Centre Ville.
Grand taxi in Casablanca’s Centre Ville (Sambasoccer27).

The Careem I had arranged for the day before failed to materialize, forcing me to take a hotel taxi to the airport. Hardly a surprise, both Uber and Careem have been fraught with legal difficulties in the region. The taxi establishment predictably took an offensive approach to the emergence of the new fangled competitors, with the anticipated outcome of the government taking the side of the taxi drivers. Today Careem and Uber both operate in Morocco, but do so illegally.

I had not come to Casablanca for my health, nor the waters.

I had spent the past 24 hours on a fact finding assignment on behalf of a client in the shale oil recovery business. I spoke with local brokers about the unrealized near-Tanger shale oil potentials. The highlight of my evening was a fine Moroccan meal, the country being a port of call for any vagabonding foodie. This, I would be able to expense to my client.

With the affaires du jour being well settled, I had three hours to kill before my flight. With no luggage to check in, and my ticket printed, I had little to look forward to but an airplane seat and drinks for a near solid 8 hours travel time to Jordan. I asked the driver to take the scenic route, to pass by the medina, and the old market.

Image Casablanca taxi
[Image: No Sound Photography]

You’ll excuse me, gentlemen. Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.

With the vehicle coming to speed, my mind wakened. Racing in tandem with the disappearing side streets, I became lost in a zen like state of nothingness, contemplating everything with little structure. The mind of a passenger can take strange detours.

I stared out of the rear passenger window. We quickly passed by the cafe where I had enjoyed an espresso the day before. I watched as the local young men brazenly flirted with designer label wearing chic local women, loudly speaking French amongst each other. Casablanca is not just the Moroccan haven of commerce, but a progressive enclave in a society that often is at odds with its own destiny.

Having spent a large portion of my days in and around the Middle East, I had found something resembling a home in Amman, Jordan, some years ago. As my time in the region turned into a decade, and beyond, I came to prefer the countries that had historically fallen under the imperialistic Anglosphere mantle. The colonies and protectorates of those areas being, out of what some have referred to as a neocolonial viewpoint, less hectic, yet more productive. One gets the job done, but in an orderly fashion.

Image Casablanca, Old Medina Market (Image: Richard F. Ebert)
Casablanca, Old Medina Market (Image: Richard F. Ebert)

Morocco’s asymmetrical existence stands in stark contrast with – for me – the familiar symmetry found in the Levant. I usually find the Francosphere areas of influences far more chaotic, aimless and artistic. Francospheres are usually less developed, favoring the chaos of culture, priding themselves in cultural, rather than financial achievements. It is within these spheres that beautiful free flowing poetry is written, with the personalities thereof.

In contrast is the historical Anglospheres, where stark political dogma and the figures thereof, are created. One existence changes our perception of mankind, the other reminds us of the savagery and brutality of the human condition; the differences being quite clear in the militants that originate from each.

Francosphere militants tend more towards the complete immersion of their religion, making them less pragmatically inclined, and usually less capable fighters as a result of it. The starkness of the Anglosphere-influenced Levant, however, is where a particular brand of fierce politicized and radicalized Islam comes together in an amalgam. It often invites the pragmatic, and severest, outcomes. This is the sphere that seems the best aligned for my somewhat mercenary inclined spirit.

You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.

A Citroen 4-door sedan cuts suddenly before us, causing the driver to tap the break. A common site anywhere in the world. However, there is something unaligned with the driving here. It is less determined, more on the fly. Seemingly, to me, the driving in the traditionally Franco influenced spheres is more erratic, less aggressive, slower. Yet it is also more chaotic, and dysfunctional. You’ll usually get to where you’re going in the Franco spheres, but you’ll never know what artistic interpretations or freedoms might arise on your journey.

As such, my work in Morocco represents an abnormality; different enough to be interesting, but not interesting enough to warrant immersion further than the job requires.

Image Casablanca taxi

Maybe it would be easy to give ones heart to Morocco, but for me, my heart is my least vulnerable spot.

Moroccan politics has, however, captured a certain degree of interest within me. While it holds less than say, the politics of Qatar or Lebanon, it is still a convoluted mess of overlapping interests and geopolitical aspirations, and with the consequences thereof. Moroccan politics wants to be perceived as being different; perception playing a significant role in the Franco-Arabian sphere – ever elevated and pseudo-elegant.

This stands in variance of the more rudimentary approach found in the Levant. In the Levant, everyone is a confirmed cynic. In Morocco everyone is a hopeful cynic. This makes for a more emotional process, as is a given when one considers that the artistic soul that defines key core values of the country rules. It is at times loud, yet seeking refinement; the situation creating the standard quintessential Franco-Arabian way of rule.

(Production Photo Maroc – Photography Production Morocco – Casablanca & Marrakech Shooting Services)

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

The French realm of control in the Levant came largely as a result of the carving up of the carcass that was the postscript legacy World War I of the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, Palestine fell under British control. Lebanon, along with parts of Syria, fell to the French. Had it not been for the line of transition – the bureaucratic monster that was the Ottoman empire, to the French – the Levantian Francosphere nations would probably have fared much worse. Had it not been for the more orderly and authoritarian entity that was the Ottoman Empire’s legacy, Syria and Lebanon alike would have run the risk of becoming utterly failed states in light of the leisurely Franco styled way of governing.

The French, despite themselves, actually did a fairly decent job in Lebanon and Syria, furnishing them with the basic essentials for Western liberal democracies. This included parliaments, constitutions, national anthems, political parties, and cabinets, the core infrastructure of a functional state. By doing this, they were able to merge tribalism and authoritarianism together, and create a regional variation of the early twentieth century modern nation-state. Granted, as is the norm in the Middle East and Africa alike, the boundaries of these new states were artificial and often ignored tribal and sectarian realities on the ground.

Morocco Mapped by Air (France)

Ultimately, both the French and British committed to the same mistake, leaving before the newly created institutions could take cultural and fundamental root, and before the societies could experience the advantages of the social reforms, economics, and political advantages of the new institutions. Those left behind did the best they could with what they were left with.

Today we can see that an Iranian and Russian aligned Syria, as an institution and centralized government, has at least a whiff of potential for effective governing. Although presently, that whiff is mainly being applied to killing its own citizens in a manner that even the French – during the height of their Algerian campaign – would have deemed a bit on the aggressive side.

US supported Lebanon remains a bit of an unproven card, with its centralized government in Beirut carrying out the very essence of the Ottoman Empire’s legacy, only controlling its capital, and the main thoroughfares throughout the nation. Once one leaves Beirut and the main roads, belief in the central government quickly disintegrates in favor of proxy militias and local interests. Lebanon is otherwise one of the most impressive examples of a melting pot, blending culture, history, and convoluted politics with nuanced proxy warfares of foreign interests. However, neither Syria nor Lebanon would function today to any reasonable level without foreign interested parties.

Here’s looking at you, kid.


Morocco finds itself today in a vexing, albeit fairly predictable, situation. Due to the relative lackluster implementation of infrastructures, which is symptomatic of many of France’s former colonies, it remains dependent on foreign security, influences, and financial support.

As is the French norm, however, the local intelligence agencies are quite impressive. There are several based on the same French mold used with fear instilling success in Algeria and Tunisia. They are chiefly based on the French Direction de la Protection et de la Sécurité de la Défense, the military intelligence agency, or the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, the civilian branch intelligence agency. Since the initial days of the Global War on Terrorism, Morocco has seen the levee overflow with Western support from French, British, and American sources.

They appear to be doing a stellar job too with ensuring that the discourses within the country remain manageable. The primary intelligence agency for that is the Direction Générale de la Surveillance du Territoire, which also deals with counter-terrorism operations. A more interesting intelligence outfit, however, is the Direction Générale des études et de la Documentation, which works in close affiliation with the Royal Court. In essence, the outfit is often seen as a shadowy extension of the Royal Court. Headed by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, it has remarkably little need to document its actions. The group was widely used to reshape and influence the local waves of the Arab Spring movement in 2011. No doubt that members of these intelligence outfits have found themselves at a pivotal point, trying to decide whether a suspect committed suicide or died trying to escape.

French Foreign Legion

Between February, 2011, and April, 2012, fairly large demonstrations took place throughout the nation, and the King’s men were there to turn the dial up or down as they saw fit. The primary focus of the demonstrations was centered around demands for political reform, which included reform against police brutality, electoral fraud, political censorship and high unemployment. Fairly standard course items in other words.

Realizing the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects.

When all was said and done, the Royal Court made certain concessions; laws were changed so that the President of Morocco would be able to select his own cabinet. In addition to this, voting rights on constitutional reforms and referendums were given to the public, a constitutional reform commission was created, and parliamentary elections were announced. Pro-democracy organizations lauded the concessions, stating that they were great moves forward. Reality is, predictably, different.

The President of Morocco is selected, approved, and appointed, by the King. Constitutional reforms are introduced as the King sees fit, albeit with the risk of displays of public disapproval. The voting structure is eerily familiar with that seen in Jordan; the established government, as headed by the King, using the notion of pro-democratic reforms to appease tribal, individual, and clan interests.

These blocs remain the real power blocs in Morocco. As long as the King can control their interests, either by moving blocs against other blocs, or by controlled allowances, he can nullify any political party reforms thus ensuring his control over any reform developments.

Image Moroccan King Mohammed VI
Moroccan King Mohammed VI

Parliamentary elections are not very different from how constitutional reforms are introduced either. Certainly the will of the people has a degree of influence, but ultimately the Royal Court can create, dictate, and reshape the wishes of the people through its access to tribal councils and well placed agents. The constitutional commission is, much like the position of the President, controlled by the King. In order to procure such gainful positions the wanting individuals must make certain pledges of loyalty themselves. In addition to all this, the King remains head of the judiciary and the security forces. For most Middle East connoisseurs, this makes up for a familiar basis for the local political terrain.

Ricky, I’m going to miss you. Apparently you’re the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.

Today, Morocco continues to face spiraling unemployment rates, recently hitting the low double digits; 10.5% according to the latest studies. Along with a diminishing GDP, it maintains a continuing position as a transit and production hub for drugs and human trafficking to the West. Illiteracy continues to be a problem, which intensifies the dissimilar opportunities afforded to those in the rural areas which make up the majority of the population.

This is all too bitterly real for anyone who ventures outside of the urbanité reality, and gets a chance to glimpse the realities of the so called Casablancan dream. Tens of thousands of rural Moroccans who fled the drought-ravaged interior to find work in the city are struggling under high unemployment rates and expensive housing. Their lot in life, in the city outskirts, is to attempt to carve out a meager existence in the rapidly growing slums. These slums are home for the poor and fallen, and are rife with crime, drug use, prostitution and the brewing undercurrents of Islamism. As a result of these problems, Morocco has been unable to diminish, despite a growing domestic aversion, its dependence on US and French economic support.

Image Casablanca (Image: Frank Doorhof /
Casablanca (Image: Frank Doorhof /

The Moroccan language is another interesting thing. The Arabic language comes in many dialects and variations, and is in that regard no different than English or Swedish. But the Moroccan variation of Arabic is that of a victim, of the French colonial era. What started out as a fairly straightforward variation of the Hilalian combination of North African dialects, in the form of the larger Maghrebi Arabic dialect family, has been highly influenced through trade with the Spanish, Berber, and French. However, in the French colonial era, the French kept with their tradition; instilling a deep integration of the French language where it doesn’t just intermingle with local dialects, but seeks to corrupt and overtake them as the lingua franca.

To the contrary, the British, as part of their colonial ambitions, often learned Arabic with only minor corruptions, usually in the form of dialectical gentrifications. As such, a person who speaks the relatively conservative Yemeni Arabic dialect will find it difficult, at the best of times, to understand the pan-Moroccan dialect. The dialect is best described as a garbled, yet catchy, sing-along Arabic-French hybrid. Certainly beautiful in its own right, but painfully different for a puritan ear and difficult for an ear used to Levantine speech patterns.

We can see the same tendency today with American styled English across the Arabic speaking world, but this time with less imperialistic intent driven forethought. Whereas American English is pushed on new generations of people across the world, it is done out of the obtuseness of American arrogance and near totalitarian media rule, rather than the willful destruction of history and origin of the French colonials.

Personally, I haven’t been able to make heads or tails of the Moroccan dialect. This is something I wilfully blame the French for.

Might as well be frank, monsieur. It would take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca, and the Germans have outlawed miracles.

As my taxi pulls up in front of the airport terminal building, I am jerked back to reality. An hour of deep contemplation had passed in a Casablancan minute. I pay the driver 300 dirhams, 10 dirhams more (about $1) than the absentee Careem driver had taken me for. Hardly seems worth it, bothering with Careem, in Casablanca …

John Sjoholm, with Anthony A. LoPresti,  Lima Charlie News

John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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