I’m doing something a little different in this week’s blog. I’m having a guest blogger who is letting me take extracts from his excellent paper “A Feminist Reading of the Moroccan Film Casanegra”, Younnes Abeddour from Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah University’s Cultural Studies Master’s Programme in Fes, Morocco. Thus, the first part of the blog will be devoted to a brief synopsis of the film Casanegra, the second part to Younnes’ writing, and the third part of the blog will contain my final comments. This is an experiment, and I hope it works for everyone!
Casanegra is a Moroccan feature film released in 2008, written and directed by Nour Eddine Lakhmari which I was only able to see in 20 parts on YouTube, so the screening experience was not optimal, but at least the film is available with subtitles to interested persons! Of course one can also download the film from numerous, and I mean numerous, sites. The film-noir rendering of the life of two main protagonists, Adil and Karim, takes us on an underworld adventure through the underbelly of the main city in Morocco, Casablanca, which in this film is pejoratively renamed Casanegra (the black city), in reference to the lack of opportunity or hope for many of its denizens (represented by Adil and Karim), particularly youth of today. So as not to “spill the beans” too much about the film, let’s say that Adil and Karim are petty crooks trying to make a little money with petty crime but it leads to Adil’s frustration because he wishes to escape Morocco and go to his uncle abroad where life will offer him more opportunity—which he sees is impossible for him in Morocco. Karim falls in love from afar with a wealthy woman antique shop owner, but eventually recognizes that he cannot have a real relationship with her due to his poor status. This eventually pushes both young men to engage in a “deal” with Zrirek, a hard-core criminal, that will earn them the money to realize their dreams—Adil to leave Morocco and Karim to be able to court the wealthier woman and get out of petty crimes, he hopes. Adil is gung-ho, while Karim is more hesitant, because he realizes that getting in league with Zrirek could be a long-term problem rather than a short-term solution. But he’s already tried getting a “real” job cleaning fish all day for a wealthy man who profits from paying only 50 dirhams a day to his workers, which is a pittance. His father, now rather decrepit and unable to talk or take care of himself, had done this job for decades to support his family—and look where it got him! So Karim finally agrees to work with Zrirek, which makes Adil happy because whereas Adil has the enthusiasm, Karim is the “heavy”, the fighter, the one who gets things done. Zrirek has all the self confidence of the bully who always gets his way through violence, but has a special job which he wants the young men to pull off, but first they have to “prove” themselves by a smaller job—getting some money owed Zrirek by a gay cross-dresser and in the process, Adil secretly comes across a huge bundle of money which he conceals from even Karim—seeing it as his “get out of Morocco” money. However, having a little money in their pockets for the moment, Adil goes home where he finds his mother beat half-to-death yet again by an abusive step-father, and instead of using his money on himself he gives it to her to escape to her village and family to get away from the man who might just kill her one of these days. Karim, in the meantime, having previously met the antique shop owner and ingratiated himself to her, spies her going into a nightclub where he follows, dances with her and ends up having a fling. But the next day, she finds out that he’s nothing but a street hustler, and she in essence flees from him. Both have lost their temporary solution to their dreams, so again they turn to Zrirek. Having proven themselves, the time comes for the big job, drugging a racehorse to fix a race, which they totally botch due to bickering like brothers until the horse escapes and the whole project is ruined. The end of the film, as the beginning, finds them running as the police pursue.
So I’ve not wanted to go into too many details so as to not ruin the experience of the film for those who’ve not seen it, which I imagine is most people, so I encourage you to take a look. The film is well crafted, with a mix between pathos, humor, violence, and romance. And the film says a lot about Moroccan society, at least a certain segment of social ills and realities, which I and Youness discuss below. Whereas Youness discusses the women in the film, I will later discuss issues of poverty, crime, alcohol, sexual differences and emigration.
Casanegra is a Moroccan film directed by Nour Eddine Lakhmari, it has represented Morocco widely in many festivals and obtained many Awards. The movie is seen as a “success” though it has been greatly criticized for the uncomfortable “street” language used in it. Others, however, agreed that this is the Moroccan reality, the daily language that we usually hear in the streets, so nothing new.
The film is given an ironical title: Casanegra which literally means the black house; it gives a pejorative image of Casablanca, the real name of the city which literally means the white house. It is an alternative cinema, for the center of the film are marginalized characters. Much space is devoted to the people who are put in the periphery, which empowers them and gives them an opportunity to express themselves and tell their untold, stories. We see Casablanca city through their eyes and hard circumstances, what probably makes it a black place. Interestingly, most of the scenes are shot in the dark, at night, a technique used by the director to reflect the characters’ interior anxieties.
Casanegra reflects reality, the Moroccan reality with all its contradictions. It deals with different social issues such as: poverty, social hierarchy, prostitution, homosexuality, drugs and violence. The dramatic story revolves around two ordinary young men who are put in the margin of the society. Adil suffers from his violent stepfather, who always beats his mother. This pushes Adil to stick to his dream, manifested in a postcard, and eventually plans to leave his “Casanegra”. Karim is a little more optimistic; he is more concerned with his family and falls in love with a woman, but later he suffers from love deception. Nevertheless, what unifies Adil and Karim is their attempts to do the impossible through all the means to better their social life.
Nabila (I will use the name she is given on the movie’s profile: Nabila, though she was only once referred to as Nabila by her friend) represents a modernized icon in the Moroccan society. The criteria of her modernized character are: speaking French, driving a car, wearing western clothes, going to the night club, smoking, and the fact that she is a divorced woman. To what extent does her modern and liberated life empower (or disempowers) her as a woman? And has she succeeded in creating a Third Space between tradition and modernity, Morocco and the West?
The woman in the store is westernized; there is almost nothing about her that reveals her Moroccan identity. Perhaps, this is the reason why she remained unnamed throughout the two hours movie. She has a confused Moroccan identity with a Western one; she is a ‘neither-nor’ character. This inbetweeness creates a kind of ambivalence in her personality; she is torn between two different worlds. She lives a librated western life in a Muslim country, attempting to live the West in the East, (that is, if we regard Morocco as an Eastern country, geographically speaking.) The West is mainly a modern secular world and Morocco is a Muslim society. She is flowing back and forth between two different worlds trying to create a Third Space. The woman working in the store is a westernized character par excellence, but since she lives in Morocco, so somehow she managed to live a Third Space.
Some Moroccan women take the journey of modernization, and eventually, start to criticize and be ashamed of their own culture and identity. They observe their society from dual positions: being superior looking down upon their own culture from Western lenses and being in an inferior position vis-à-vis the West. Returning to Nabila, her mimic of the West is manifested in the use of the French language and her Western clothes. Adil was making fun at his friend Karim asking him to “teach some Arabic” to her; because she uses mostly French, the language of the West. Actually, pretending to look modernized (in certain cases even superior) is the reason why some people prefer to speak French, or at least code mix French and Arabic.
Interestingly, the woman in the store is usually looked at from the outside speaking to her clients. Her voice is not heard. She is the subject of the man’s gaze and surveillance. Karim is attracted to her beauty; he sees her only as a body, as a woman who should submit to him and to his desire. He does not care about the social “hierarchy” between them although his friend, Adil, keeps advising him not to have a relationship with this woman, but he ignores him.
Nevertheless, Nabila seems to represent the bright side of Casablanca. She is an optimistic character. We never hear her saying Casanegra. Unlike Adil who is always screaming Casanegra which he has been using throughout the movie. This could be explained that she is living a happy luxurious life, away from the “dirt” of Casanegra whereas Karim and Adil’s life is full of unhappy events that cause them to see Casablanca through their hard circumstances. Basically, the choice of such linguistic forms reflects their psychological interior anxiety. And it could be seen as a disempowerment for them, a failure to face life so they escape in drugs and drinking alcohol for instance.
Karim at night goes with Adil to a corner in a very high building in the center of Casablanca, Adil screams “Casanegra”. Afterwards, Karim goes with Nabila to the same corner in the very high building, she was climbing even higher, wearing very tight clothes showing freedom, and she screams Casablanca with a very loud voice, trying to make herself heard; or as if she is trying to change the “black” reality of Casablanca. She calls for change, a change that “everyone is afraid of” according to Mernissi; probably because it is a change that seeks to decentre those who are already in the centre.
As stated before, Nabila goes to the night club with her friends. What is worth mentioning is the song she is dancing on with Karim in the night club; an optimistic song by Oum, a Moroccan westernized singer who sings in English. The song is entitled Hamdoulah (Thanks God in Arabic). The refrain goes as follows: “hamdoulah, for blessing my face, blessing my soul, giving me a piece of mind …When I’m feeling down, when I smile giving me strength, this is my dancing”. The song reflects the mood of the Moroccan woman living freedom.
The woman or chikha working in [Zrirek’s] night club is also portrayed as a, somehow, librated character, yet in a Moroccan traditional way in comparison to the Nabila. Chikha or chikhat (plural) are the kind of women who sing and dance in night clubs, some even smoke and drink alcohol, the case in the movie. But generally they have a bad reputation within the Moroccan society, therefore they are not respected. They are the type of women who are only for temporal fun, extremely objectified.
The language and taboo words the chikha in Casanegra uses as well as her actions (smoking and drinking alcohol) reveal her carelessness of what people think of her as a woman, a Moroccan woman. She has thrown values and social norms aside ignoring the extremely cultural power of hchouma [shame]. This latter seems to be a block of the freedom of Moroccan women. So by rejecting it they are free, at least from their perspective. She is defending chikhat when Adil criticizes them, so she seems proud of herself and profession. She is defined in the movie in relation to her profession.
She is a tough woman and very responsible as Zrirek says that “without her the night club wouldn’t keep going.” This might be motivated by having interest in the club for she will be the wife of the owner, Zrirek. Thus, is she really liberated? Or enslaved by man?
Ironically, the name of the night club where she works is: au Tout va bien (where everything is okay). It implies that outside is “Casanegra” and inside, the night club, everything is okay. Everyone escapes inside and forgets about the troubles of “Casanegra” by drinking, smoking, dancing and having fun.
In au tout va bien night club, a chikha is singing “kill me kill me, and close the door on me, till al Harizi (the man) comes and opens the door for me” (my translation), this indicates that even some Moroccan popular songs give power to men. They show how women are so dependent on men, and importantly the woman who is singing it, as if she is unconsciously disempowering herself.
Let’s not forget that the chikha remains throughout the movie inside her limited sphere, the night club; we never see her outside. So, is she herself escaping a bitter reality outside? Is she hiding inside the walls of “au tout va bien” and giving the illusion that she is all right? Would she be careless and not affected by hchouma when having a direct encounter with the society outside?
The actor who presented the chikha character is highly criticized; because women are usually expected to speak a good selective language and to behave in a certain way. The Moroccan audience seems shocked to see such behaviors on the Moroccan Cinema screen. The movie Casanegra is mostly watched individually; it is not a family movie. There is a great use of taboo words. The director explained this unexpected use of “street language” that it is the language of the ‘real’ Morocco, the language that we are confronted with in our daily life. He states that “we watch western movie which are full of worse insults and behaviors, still we like them and we don’t complain.” (In an interview with him in Mubachara ma’akum on 2m). The question that imposes itself here is, knowing that the scenarist and director of the movie is a Moroccan man who has lived in Norway for 20 years: Is the movie Casanegra itself a mimic of the west? In a Moroccan program where he was interviewed about Casanegra, he said that he was “disturbed by the postcards that represent Morocco in a folkloric way;” therefore, he wanted to show the ‘real’ Morocco, from his own perspective. Then, to what extent has he succeeded in representing the ‘real’ Morocco in the film?
In the movie, the mother of Adil is represented as a weak woman, victimized and silenced, we rarely hear her voice. Her first husband died, Adil’s father, and she got married again. Perhaps because she couldn’t resist living alone as a widow in the Moroccan society, so she got married seeking protection of man. This reminds me of a pertinent Moroccan proverb which states that “the shadow of a man is better than the shadow of a wall”, but is not the shadow of a wall better than the shadowing shadow of a man! Some men are in the family just the ‘present-absent’ subjects.
She is leading a miserable life with her second husband who mistreats her and uses her. She is a working woman; he beats her and takes the money she earns in order to buy alcohol. He treats her as a piece of furniture. He is much trivialized as a character; he cares about his little TV more than anything else; he threatens Adil to “cut him into pieces if he touches his TV.”
The woman, on the other hand, is very much victimized; portrayed as helpless. All she can do is cry. Her screaming seems not to be an act of rebellion but an act of defeat; when she couldn’t stand her husband beating her son, Adil. She is generally silent and when the violence causes silence, (one) must be mistaken. So who is to be blame here? The woman who submits to her husband and hopeless before him or the man who resorts to his physical strength to silence and domesticate the woman?
Adil is ready to do anything to defend his mother. While her husband is beating her, Adil defends his mother and hit his step-father with a chair on the head, which causes the fall of the authoritative aggressive man. However, and unexpectedly, the woman is yelling at her son who was trying to help her from the hands of her savage man. Naively, she is reminding her son not to “forget this man is my husband” and asking him to go away. As if it is her husband’s right to beat her, something expected and taken for granted. Probably, this is the reason why his violence is not resisted and fought against.
Adil encourages his mother to resist, and to go to declare all what her husband does to her in the police station. However, she is too vulnerable and frightened to suit her husband, though she admits that “she couldn’t resist (him) more.” Adil suggests that she goes to Taounat (A small town near Fez city) to his grandmother, and he finally could convince her. He provides her with all the money he has earned (or stolen). But she remains hesitative and anxious not to be called a “maskhouta” (Moroccan Arabic which means a naughty woman) in her village; for this is the second husband she escapes from. Actually her first husband died, as if it is her fault and she is the one to blame. She is afraid of the return, returning ‘home’. Her family will not understand her suffering and will only criticize and blame her for leaving her husband behind. Why is it a shame for a woman, but never for the man, to get divorce in the Moroccan society?
She is afraid to escape or get divorce from her husband. It is very likely that the audience would have been complaining or wondering why did she have to stay with him and stand all his dehumanizing? The wife usually sacrifices her life for the sake of her children, but this woman has no children with this husband. Is it because of a financial need of man? But she is the one who provides him with money, not the other way around; or perhaps an emotional attachment? The fear from the society and all their surface judgments could be another reason why she had to endure. When she has left, her husband asks Adil about her, and Adil replied him saying that “he brought shame to men.”
Society and the social norms have always preached that women’s space is limited in the domestic sphere: the house, it goes even further: kitchen. Besides, woman is expected to be dependent on man, simply because it is the man who is the lord of the house and the means of providence of the whole family. So everyone is under his mercy. In [Karim’s family], however, the standardized traditional spaces are somehow reversed, though the woman remains in the house – kitchen throughout the movie. Yet, it is the woman who is the lady of the house; her husband is very sick and the elder son, Karim, is not capable enough to take the family’s responsibility.
According to the Moroccan standards at least, she is an ideal Moroccan woman. She portrays a good image of a mother as well as a wife. Her husband is so sick, almost disable, and she has three children, among them Karim her elder son. She succeeds in doing her ‘duty’ as a woman in raising a good family.
Usually she gives advice to her son Karim and has authority over him in the kitchen where her voice can “be heard more easily (…) because under the patriarchal division of labor this is the space in which she [as a woman] has the greatest authority.” (Blunt, Alison. Writing Women and Space: colonial and postcolonial geographies. P: 2. 1994.) She encourages her son to get the job by el-Hajj [cleaning fish] to help supporting the family.
A woman taking responsibility in the family is not an easy task. Yet it is common in some Moroccan families. We often hear in the Moroccan society statements like: “a woman with no man is worth nothing.” But in Casanegra we see that the woman is almost everything and the other way around “a man with no woman is worth nothing.”
Karim is aware of the importance of educating girls. He brings an English dictionary to his sister because she needs it for school. Although he was made fun of when was seen with a book in his hands, he didn’t care. He did the impossible to bring the book to his sister. Importantly, it is a dictionary; a book which she would use to explain some complicated terms and concepts. Dictionary is the symbol of knowledge and learning, not any regular book. Likewise, he cares for the education of his little brother; he asks him whether he has gone to school that day. Karim is helping his sister and brother to learn and study, the thing that he seems to have been deprived of and missed.
The mother of Karim has a strong personality, unlike the mother of Adil who is completely submissive. She cares for her family. She cares for the reputation of her family. She does not have a narrow vision. She gives advice to her son. She questions the money that her son gives her; she does not accept whatever is given to her though there is a financial need in the family. Karim kissed her head showing respect; she is like a saint. She is rarely seen in the movie, yet she occupies an extremely important role.
She is not simply a passive woman in her kitchen cooking. She interacts and takes part in her family; she asks about her children and cares about their education, she makes decisions. When she is talking about her son’s friends, Adil, she addresses Karim saying “and you call (Adil) a friend”, this shows that she is not ignorant. She examines the friends of her children. She doesn’t believe the lies of Karim. She has a strong opinion. As a caring mother, she confirms the quote that “while men are concerned with an ‘ethic of justice’, women are more centered on an ‘ethics of care’.” (Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. P. 288) This is not the traditionally known “male-headed” family where there is “mastery” and “superiority”. But I would rather say a “female-headed” family.
As a conclusion of the second part; both women are unnamed. They are different women. One is submissive to her husband and not able to challenge him. The other is capable to take care of the whole family and take part in decision-making and lead a challenging life.
In the conclusion of my analysis of the Casanegra and the representation of women, I conclude that we cannot generalize and universalize Moroccan women experiences and differences. There are different categories of women: Nabila who is leading a Western life and independent from men, Chikha who ignores the society and its power, the good mother and wife who serves her family, and the woman who is re-married.
The women in the film are somehow empowered, Nabila has the power to control the fate of the man, while chikha intrudes the male space. The mother of Karim is not a passive woman who obeys men, but she controls the family. And the mother of Adil, who might look a victim, the fact that she left her husband behind reveals her power. The prostitute, who is defending the homosexual, is very important as well; she sees it as her duty to help the ‘man’. Although the movie has no feminist agenda, but it suggests reconsidering and revising the idea of the passive woman, the woman who is imprisoned in her house, or veil and is disempowered by men.
Of course it comes as no surprise that in a huge city such as Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco, there is a majority population living in poverty. While the film does not take us into bidonvilles where the poverty is greatest, we are exposed to an average poverty where families live in apartments, Adil’s step-father even has a car, Karim has his own room in their apartment, and the families just try to get-by but aren’t out begging or anything drastic. This is the majority poverty. The reality of Morocco in the late 1990s when I did research for my book What Moroccan Cinema? A Historical and Critical Study 1956-2006 was that youth unemployment was over 40% while total employment was approximately 30%, and this was pre-recession years! Perhaps fathers have worked to raise families, but the growing children don’t want those same jobs or can’t even find regular work. While there are jobs for those less educated (not university), working as a clerk, or in a café as a server, or working in a shop or selling goods on the street, or other less than minimum wage employment, many youth do not see these activities as either remunerative (they aren’t) or worthy of their time (they aren’t) and thus eschew such work if they can. Such work is hard, time consuming, and as in the case of Karim taking a day’s work cleaning fish in the factory where his father used to work, he would earn just 50 dirhams a day, a pittance. He can earn more selling cigarettes detail, that means having young kids on the street selling cigarettes one by one instead of whole packs—many people can afford to just buy a single cigarette or two at a time. There is a whole generation of youth who have gone through the school system but don’t find jobs available, not to mention the plethora of university-educated youth who also don’t find employment and who have held strikes and sit-ins repeatedly over time to demonstrate to the government their displeasure at being the educated unemployed. Of course most jobs don’t have “worker’s compensation” or “unemployment compensation” or any other social services attached. This is still a society where many just struggle to get by, except as is shown that there are indeed the wealthy criminal sector and the wealthy “we don’t know how” sector, such as the antique shop owner. There is a huge discrepancy between the ultra-wealthy and the average poor, and while there is a middle class in Morocco it is not very large in comparison to the middle class in developed countries, as Morocco would still be considered a “developing” country. Zrirek drives a new Mercedes and owns a nightclub, whereas the antique shop owner can afford to go for a night out with girlfriends to an expensive bar/dance club with other wealthy patrons. The antique shop owner rejects Karim in the film just because he is not also wealthy, which shows the filmmaker’s perception that there is no “mixing” between the classes except for the criminal wealthy.
And yes, there is crime, a lot of crime, in developing countries, and especially in large cities such as Casablanca and in this particular film. While the film does not take us particularly into the world of hashish or drugs per se, they are shown to exist—there’s a lot of smoking going on and the gay cross-dresser has cocaine, along with much alcohol drinking, though drinking is only a crime during Ramadan. Adil’s crimes are to steal pocketbooks and bank cards or more overt criminal acts, while Karim is more covert, to have kids sell cigarettes detail on the streets, which the government is trying to also make illegal but it is a practice that has gone on for decades so it is hard to control. Other criminal acts shown are prostitution on the street, both male gay and female, in one short scene, just to remind us it exists in this film, though in Morocco in general it is a very large problem, at least female prostitution. Interestingly, these prostitutes are the typical “on the street” type, but in Zrirek’s nightclub, where one would expect to have numerous female prostitutes visible, there were none—which to me destroyed the “reality” of the nightclub scenes. Youness mentions the bar woman, and there’s a singer as well, who would represent prostitutes in the bar scene, or loose women, but normally there would be numerous women servicing the clientele! Zrirek seems to be a “money-lender’ among other things, several scenes show him trying to get his money violently from those who “owe” him. There is gambling, as we would surmise by the necessity to “fix” the horse race. Very few films tackle sexual differences, and this film does so only obliquely again, by having one of Zrirek’s customers be a cross-dressing gay man, who is of course reviled by Adil and Karim, as well as by showing one gay male street prostitute. I can’t say these additions really add anything to the film, except to show the diversity of the “underworld” of Casablanca. So, in addition to being criticized for using vulgar street language, the film was also criticized for showing the seedy underbelly of Casablanca, which of course is what in part made it hugely popular among audiences!
Another area of particular interest in the film is Adil’s dream of emigrating abroad to escape the lack of opportunities in Morocco. While in Adil’s case he is trying to earn big bucks to pay for fake visas and papers to emigrate, yearly we hear of hundreds of Moroccans who brave the Straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea in small boats trying to get to the European continent where even menial undocumented labor is seen as more remunerative and worthwhile than staying in Morocco. Sadly, every year we also learn of many who die in the attempt at the boat crossings. It is interesting that the filmmaker, Lakhmari, has Adil focus on the fake papers, rather than an undocumented voyage. It is much more costly, and Karim warns Adil that it is most likely a scam, but Adil is undeterred and willing to do any seedy job offered by Zrirek in hopes of earning the money. He not only dreams of emigrating, but of marrying a foreign woman, which we see in a drug induced hallucination one night. One alternate method of escaping Morocco popular among youth both male and female is to marry a foreigner, which such a scene alludes to but does not delve into directly.
In conclusion, as both Youness and I have sought to show, Casanegra does focus on the darker side of life in Casablanca, from lost dreams and hopes, to lost opportunities. While several of the women’s representations are strong, one shows that perhaps intervention of a man is necessary to help them break from abuse by another man. Yet, in the darkness of the story, there are hopes, as Adil’s mother does escape, perhaps Karim’s sister and brother will have more opportunities through education, and Adil and Karim are not yet caught by the police, they are in the process of escaping as the film ends. Perhaps there is hope, perhaps not. Lakhmari leaves us wondering.