Alongside its wealth and its prestige developments – notably the Hassan II Mosque – Casablanca has had a reputation for extreme poverty, prostitution, crime, social unrest and the bidonvilles (shanty towns) which you will see on both sides of the train track as you come into town. In fact, the French word bidonville – literally “tin-can town” – was coined in Casablanca in the 1920s, when construction workers on a building project in the Roches Noires district, east of the port area, knocked up some temporary accommodation next to their main quarry. Over the decades, other migrant workers followed suit, and the bidonvilles escalated, partly from the sheer number of migrants – over a million in the 1960s – and partly because few of them intended to stay permanently. Most sent back their earnings to their families in the country, meaning to rejoin them as soon as they had raised sufficient funds for a business at home.
The pattern is now much more towards permanent settlement, and this, together with a strict control of migration and a limited number of self-help programmes, has eased and cleared many of the worst slums. Also, bidonville dwellers have been accorded increasing respect during recent years. They cannot be evicted if they have lived in a property over two years, and after ten years they acquire title to the land and building, which can be used as collateral at the bank for loans. The dread of every bidonville family is to be evicted and put in a high-rise block, regarded as the lowest of the low on the housing ladder.
The problem of a concentrated urban poor, however, is more enduring and represents, as it did for the French, an intermittent threat to government stability. Through the 1940s and 1950s Casa was the main centre of anti-French rioting, and post-independence it was the city’s working class that formed the base of Ben Barka’s Socialist Party. There have been strikes here sporadically in subsequent decades, and on several occasions they precipitated rioting, most violently in the food strikes of 1982. More recently, the bidonvilles also proved a fertile recruiting ground for jihadi extremists – one bidonville, Sidi Moumen, was home to perpetrators of bomb attacks in Casablanca in 2003, and Madrid the following year, and also to a suicide bomber who blew himself up in a Casablanca internet café in 2007.