Monday, January 23, 2012

The Not-Very-Moroccan Mall

The construction of the Morocco Mall was a massive undertaking. The site manager, Salwa Idrissi Akhannouch, says that 100,000 people were involved in the construction and that, to date, the shopping centre has created 5,000 direct jobs and 21,000 indirect jobs. "It is something the nation can be really proud of," Akhannouch said. At the time of the opening, the outgoing Trade Minister, Ahmend Reda Chani, was also upbeat, "The mega-complex could turn Casablanca into a major shopping destination like Dubai," he said.

 After the mall was officially opened and the razzmatazz had subsided, Linda Harris, a contributor to Morocco World News, decided to take a look. Her report about the new Morocco Mall was first published by Morocco World News and is reposted with permission.

 It lit up the night in florescent colours covering the entire spectrum of the rainbow. Coming out of Casablanca in the evening, after a 15 minute drive past dark stretches of beach front on one side and walled-off slum quarters on the other, the sudden appearance of the massive Morocco Mall was truly overwhelming. I turned to my Moroccan friend, who had been kind enough to offer me a drive out, poked him in sheer exaltation and said something to the extent of “My Goodness, it is HUGE!! Look at all these lights. I can’t believe my eyes. This place looks like Shanghai!!”

My absolute surprise in the grandeur of the mall was not entirely unfounded. While Morocco is one of the more progressive counties in Africa, it is still plagued by vast poverty, run down buildings and streets in need of repair. Although new construction is happening across the country, nothing compares in scale to the mall.

As I sat in the car in front of the grand new building, I could not believe my eyes. The grounds were green with immaculate landscaping. The sidewalks were accented by decorative street lights, all of it leading towards the entrance of the giant structure. Never have I seen a place in Morocco that even remotely resembles the glow and glitter of the Morocco Mall. “They have a movie theater”, I exclaimed joyously, “and it is so clean here, so full of light. Can we go in?”

It opened the day I left Casablanca. I was told that the evening air was filled with excitement, as locals travelled to the mall to see it open. They stood, amazed, at a distance, outside barricades and looked into a Mecca of splendour and richness. The Morocco Mall is an astonishing project that has been four years and $270 million in the making. The mall features 350 stores and stretches across 24,700 acres. It has more than forty restaurants, a 1,000 square meter state-of-the-art 3D IMAX theatre, a large musical fountain and a massive fish tank with more than one million litres of water. The fish basin is a magical journey and is on display in the heart of the mall, from a glass elevator that ascends though the water.

Princess Lalla Meryem inaugurates Morocco Mall  
Morocco Mall is said to be the fifth largest mall in the world, and is expected to receive more than fifteen million visitors a year with sales approaching five billion Dirham (600 million US dollars). The project is expected to create 21,000 indirect jobs and 5,000 direct jobs (Source: AP).

I couldn’t wait to go. So when I returned to Casablanca a little more than a month later, I made a point of reserving an entire day and night to explore this amazing mall. I took a taxi from the city and arrived into an oasis of order and peace. Each entry is armed with guards and alarms, as is every flight of stairs and escalators. Almost everyone speaks French and English and is delighted to do so. The main entrance is a screening point, fully equipped with armed guards and handheld metal detectors, where some are allowed to enter, and others are not. Those who are not, are the poorly dressed, the pan-handlers, and thieves.

Leave it not to me to attempt to understand how the guards know who is who with nothing more than a glance; but they do. Some are summarily shown the door, long before they can get to it. Subsequently, the mall has a distinct feel of safety and tranquillity. Morocco’s wrestling match with a massive social and economic imbalance stays outside.

I went directly to the Starbucks coffee and ordered my usual drink. With a little explaining back and forth in English and French, I managed to get it just the way I like it; and at that, I even got service with a smile. Sure I had to pay 35 Dirham, but it tasted good, and since I make a western sized monthly income, I could afford to pay this higher than western price. Cup in hand, I walked the sizable mall. The layout is quite simple to figure out. The mall is cruise ship-shaped with an oval figure-8 walk area in three levels, with Galleries La Fayette in the middle of the ovals, and the surrounding areas filled with stores.

At the ends are the Marjane, the Adventureland Theme Park, including ice rink, and the food courts, placed beautifully with a view of the ocean. In the front is the IMAX theatre. Flowers, high-end decor and seating areas are all pleasing to the eye. As we neared midday, a melodic voice came over the speakers and started reciting Adhan. A few employees scurried off through back exit doors to attend to prayers. In the closed off sections of the mall there are prayer rooms, along with meeting rooms, six classrooms for language, cooking, beauty school, and two exhibition halls.

Critics have argued that there is little about the mall that is Moroccan. They are wrong. There is nothing about the mall that is Moroccan. Shy of the Souk, the location, and the call to prayer, there isn’t anything here that you wouldn’t find in any American or European mall. And the souk bears little to no resemblance of the souks one can find around Morocco.

(Photo: Samia Errazzouki courtesy of Al Akbar
The stores are a broad selection of western mall staples. At the bookstore play-zone, a young mother can be seen reading to her 4 year old child from a book. At the coffee shops, westerners and well dressed Moroccans are plugged into their computers and surfing the net over a cup of coffee served in paper cups. The food-court displays the familiar brands and tastes of fast food from the palates of American, French, Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, and Thai. The crowded discount chains are featuring goods made in China, the same goods as one finds at discount stores throughout the west.

In a separate section, the upscale western luxury stores are bedazzled with crystals, handsome security guards and high-end lighting, along with prices so impossibly high that even I, as a westerner, felt intimidated, and decided to remain on the outside looking in; joined at the windows by the brave few local Moroccans who had dared to enter the ‘luxury-zone’. In front of the lingerie stores, teenage boys can be seen pace back and forth, trying to look inconspicuously at the tiny silk and lace garments that are near impossible to find anywhere else in Morocco, and on benches exhausted husbands take small breaks while the wives finish shopping. All of these sights are familiar throughout malls in the west.

On the outside of the mall, along the magical musical fountain, stand rows of guards, preventing the public from coming close to the water’s edge. In the evening, faint globe lights encircling the fountain cast a romantic light over the night. The fountain is designed to play for 5 minutes every 30 minutes. Sitting outside, in the green zone, gave me pause to look at the people and reflect. Will this mall really succeed?

Although I spent more than 10 hours at the mall, I spent less than 400 Dirham, settling for two books, coffee, and a food court meal. Why? Ultimately, I couldn’t get past how western it was, so I didn’t feel like shopping. There was nothing at the mall that I would not be able to find at the mall close to my home in Europe. Nothing tempted me. And since I had packed everything I needed to wear for my trip, I found no reason to buy anything else. What is more, despite a sales event, the prices were close to double of the price I would pay at home. It struck me as foolish to spend extra and go through the hassle of packing it through the airport, just to bring home clothes and shoes that I can just as easily find on a 5 minute walk from my home.

The mall investors calculate their future success on tourists and the mall revenues are closely tied into European tourism. Thus for the mall to succeed, European tourists must not only visit the mall, they must also spend a significant chunk of their vacation money there. I don’t foresee that happening. Tourists come to Morocco for the Moroccan Experience, and much as we hate it, the haggling and dirt, stress and craziness of the souks and medina, are part of that experience. These are the stories we remember, the events that we share with people at home.

We want to drink coffee out of small glasses, say ‘Shukran’, and lay down to rest on Moroccan couches. We want to eat tagine with our fingers, and argue with vendors about a knocking a few Dirham off the price. We want to come home from our trip with exotic things that we can show our friends and family. The cheap oil-lamps, the spices, the ceramics, the traditional clothes; all of it is part of what makes a Moroccan vacation complete. And the mall can provide none of those things.

I have no doubt that I will be back at the mall on my next trip to Casablanca. Not so much for shopping but because I know that after a week of the hustle and bustle of the Moroccan streets, the mall will offer me the ability to walk around the world for a bit without getting approached which is appealing to a woman who is working in Morocco and travels alone. What is more, I am meeting friends there for coffee; Moroccan friends, who like me cannot justify shopping at the mall, but who enjoys going there to look at the stores and people and enjoy a little of the western order.

Certainly, for the vast majority of Moroccans, the mall may not be a place to preserve values and dreams of what a healthy and blossoming Morocco could be. Instead, it appears as a centre for displaying what some desires that the kingdom should be – a nation where there is a sizable divide between rich and poor, a small and envious middle class looking in without the funds to participate, and where the illiterate and poverty stricken masses are sharply stratified from the wealthy few by something as tangible as gates and armed guards. What looks like progress towards a more modern Morocco, therefore, may instead become an objective example to the world as a symbol of everything that is socially wrong in the kingdom.


1 comment:

Aycha said...

Je n'ai vraiment pas d'argent à jeter par les fenêtres et les temples modernes de la surconsommation de masse me laissent de marbre...
J'achète tout ce que je porte d'occasion aux puces (c'est beaucoup plus excitant, plus écologique et surtout pas cher du tout...)et je suis surtout un fervent défenseur du commerce de proximité: mon cordonnier, mon tailleur, mon plombier, mon épicier...etc. sont juste là dans mon quartier ou pas loin: je m'y rends à pieds !
Bonne fin de journée!