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Casabarata

By way of Reda’s blog I learned that Tangier’s popular indoor flea market known as Casabarata (Spanish for “house of good deals”) had a huge fire not long ago with damages in the millions of dollars. Given the large number of shop owners who make their livelihoods there, a lot of families must have suffered a sudden plunge in fortune as a result.

Reda provides two videos, one of the fire itself, the other of its aftermath. The fire blazed out of control in the middle of the night. Reda remarks on the poverty of the resources used to fight the flames, and the undisciplined scene the next day when anyone at all could walk through the ruins. “The ‘Third World’ in all its splendor,” he says.

Apparently this is not just a tragic accident caused, for example, by bad wiring or an exploding gas cannister. Reda links to an article that quotes eyewitnesses as saying the fire broke out in three separate spots located far apart. This, plus the fact that it began at an hour when the complex is normally empty, and on a rainy night, leads people to believe that the blaze was deliberately set. Theories of arson are supported by shopkeepers who say they were approached in the preceding weeks by “known individuals” who ordered them to get out or suffer the consequences. The article continues:

    All of the people we encountered on the premises or who contacted us…have underlined, with insistence, that it is imperative to open up an official investigation into what they consider a deliberate criminal act, designed to sow disorder in the most dangerous residential and commercial zone of Tangier, especially since it has become the gathering place of various sects and groups that are often in conflict due to the divergence of their interests and orientations.

Leaving aside the riddle of the “sects and groups”—drug dealers? smugglers? religious extremists? corrupt officials?—and the reference to the neighborhood as “the most dangerous zone of Tangier,” I would like to focus on Casabarata itself. I only visited once—to search for used photo equipment—but it struck me as the essential Moroccan experience, so much so that I immediately wrote these words.

    Casabarata is a jumble of low concrete buildings tacked onto each other with no plan to speak of, a haphazard shopping complex with an even worse jumble of metal sheds running down the hill out back. In the sheds are metalworkers and woodworkers, appliance repair shops and sellers of random junk. On the inside, Casabarata is an amazing world, and I imagine it would be possible, though extremely bizarre, to pass one’s days there without ever leaving the labyrinth of shops. At one end are tailors and fabric sellers, and at the other end in more provisional quarters are second-hand clothing stands. In between are cafes where men and boys gather on benches to watch third-rate adventure movies on a big screen, along with restaurants selling baisara and couscous, and vendors of the latest digital technology such as mobile phones, cameras, satellite dishes and flat-screen TVs. Most of Casabarata is completely random. Car batteries and olives, plastic flowers and Spanish contraband, watches and spices, cleaning supplies and cheap Western clothing are all jumbled together, each little shop selling only one thing. Family men, housewives in pairs, and stray boys squeeze past each other in the narrow aisles. The shop owners exchange banter, watch little TVs, or stare stony-eyed into space.

It may seem strange, but I actually imagined bringing busloads of Japanese tourists to Casabarata. This is the Morocco they should see, the authentic Morocco people live in from day to day, not a Morocco made to order for tourism. It is places like this, in all its chaos and splendor, that make me love Morocco. The fact that it is gone, and gone brutally, says something about the contempt certain people in power feel for their less fortunate countrymen.

UPDATE: My friend Yahia lives in Tangier, so I asked him about this. He assured me that Casabarata would make a comeback.

    I asked my mother who goes near it now and then, and she said that people are putting everything back together; don’t worry! If they don’t sell their stuff there, what else would they do?

He also had this wise observation:

    It’s common sense to like things we don’t have. That’s why I think an average Moroccan prefers to go around nifty shops, while a tourist is charmed by the particular things that distinguish a country like mine (poverty and generosity, for example). Both sides want to escape what they really are in.

I agree, but can someone explain why poverty and generosity go together, and why they are the opposite of “nifty shops”? Why is it that as we gain in security and comfort, we lose our sense of solidarity with others? There are exceptions, of course. There are rich people who are simple and unpretentious. But Morocco is undeniably a poor country (or a country with a lot of poor people), and it is undeniably a place where people look out for each other.

Often those of us who have “made it” fear everything around us, especially any contact with the less fortunate. We think poor people are full of anger towards us, but maybe we are projecting our guilt? This is true on both the international and local levels. It is true for Americans looking at the Third World, and it is true for wealthy suburbanites looking at the ghetto. A simple walk on the other side of town might change our perceptions, but we are afraid to leave our towers. Why is that?

Comments

Comment from M
Time: February 11, 2007, 12:00

Where was this? Can you give the intersecting streets, or at least general area of the city? TIA.

Comment from Jill
Time: February 11, 2007, 17:03

That’s incredibly tragic – I know a guy with a “general stuff” kind of antique shop and had bought a few interesting old things there (he sold things like old lighters, flasks, and cigarette cases, as well as antique jewelry and knicknacks).

Comment from eatbees
Time: February 11, 2007, 18:25

@M — I don’t know the names of the streets around there, but my impression is that if you say “Casabarata” to any taxi driver in Tangier, he will know what you’re talking about.

Comment from xoussef
Time: February 11, 2007, 20:17

don’t worry, this kind of places, Derb Ghallef too, is a living complex adaptive system. it regenates itself Quickly. A fire can destroy it, but not enough to kill it.

Comment from sumaya
Time: September 6, 2007, 04:02

Casabarata is a place of wonders; people have built families from the money that they’ve made in casabarata. The trajedy that happened that night was more of an emotional destruction than a physical one. The people need to work together to rebuild it and make it a much stronger and abundant place.

Comment from eatbees
Time: September 6, 2007, 04:17

@sumaya — I love it too, so I hope you’re right! Tell me, have you been by there in recent times? How are things coming along?

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