The Other Gin Joint in Casablanca

Petit Poucet

Casablanca, MOROCCO

33.57° N, 7.59° W

A proper dive craves its shade. A proper dive, whether literally subterranean or figuratively a hole-in-the-wall, should offer privacy & escape from whichever fresh hells linger outside. When seeking a dive in North Africa, elbow-to-elbow with believers of one true faith or the next, the search becomes a rather desperate & righteous task. In Morocco, shade stretches far: hiding our sips of brandy, pastis or beer from the judgment of holier-than-thou passersby. When the door swings open, flooding the entrance of the bar with afternoon sun, us cave-dwelling inhabitants cringe like vampires suspecting oblivion at our backs. Daylight, as it is permitted entry, illuminates the airborne Sahara dust and willowy plumes of cigarette smoke. The intruder at the door, accompanied by the fierce flow of heat and the dull yellow of day-lit desert, is not oblivion, but rather, an American woman. Comparable to oblivion, perhaps, but Des Riley, the shatterer of shade, only brings damnation to most men; not all. At least not today. 

Vic Neverman journaling in Petit Poucet

Des enters Petit Poucet with the caution of an alley-cat sniffing the remnants of last week’s catch-of-the-day. A miniature desert sirocco gust swirls diverishly across the threshold to ripple at her summer dress until the door closes behind her. The old Moroccan men have paused their arguments to gaze at the newcomer. Des’s got a mind as sharp as a scalpel and the temper of a wet paper-bag of butcher knives, but they wouldn’t know it from what they see: her California tan, henna-dyed hair and the blue-eyes of a Nazarene. She’s anxiously chewing at the flesh around a thumbnail as she hawkishly scours the room. When she spots me at a table against the window of Petit Poucet, Des spits out her thumb and smirks.

Greetings, itchy fellow, she says, teasing, mimicking the insult comedy common along the Barbary Coast. You’re even uglier than the last time I saw you, Des says, taking a seat at my table. I say to her, you’ve been spending too much time with Moroccan mule drivers. You’re as funny as a hang-nail. Des shrugs unapologetically, hey, she says, you are the one who hired Mustafa.  

Through the darkly tinted window, I can see Mustafa yelling into his flip-phone. While the Moroccan men within the bar are wearing tattered hand-me-down business suits leftover from the dust-bowl era, Mustafa is in full djellaba, resembling a wizard in khaki-colored robes, the deep hood hanging over the back of his shoulders. His balding dome is desert-bronzed and his mustache is crisp & dark. He looks like a man in love, I tell Des, nodding at the window towards our angry driver. I wonder if he is telling his mother about you. 

You’re an asshole, Des reminds me, a little too loudly to go unnoticed. 

The kindly bow-tied bartenders and a few of the patrons turn towards our table with glares of disapproval. It is unclear if they are more disapproving of my assholiness or of the woman present. I give them a thumb’s-up and, somewhat satisfied, they return their attention to the perched television airing a tape-delayed Spanish league football match.

There is more to Morocco than can be learned watching Bogart & Bergman in Casablanca. To know Morocco (Maroc to the French and Al Mamlakah al Maghribīyah in Arabic), you need to understand the Berber peoples populating the Maghreb. The Berbers are nothing if not honorable and hospitable. Knowing this, I arrived in Casa with the intention of ingratiating myself to the meanest, foulest, most goddamn dangerous Berber I could find to get myself invited to dinner. As the guest of a Berber, once the water of the tea begins to boil, you are considered protected. Of course, there are a couple caveats, necessary etiquette to ensure your status as honored guest: do not depart without drinking at least three cups of tea, do not sit cross-legged like a dog, do not pace, do not mention Christians or Jews in the presence of true-believers, do not refrain from belching as this is the highest compliment, do not complain of dinner companions digging the fingers of their right-hand into the public pile of couscous (left-handed finger dipping would be offensive, however), and, certainly, do not make eye-contact with any Berber women. Finding the meanest, foulest, most goddamn dangerous Berber was my plan on arrival to Morocco, but unfortunately, hospitable warlords aren’t hanging around drinking nos-nos at Casa Voyageurs train station looking for swarthy, smarmy, Americans to befriend. Mustafa, though, as the next best thing, is a proper Miss Congeniality. 

Jaffe, a kindly old Moroccan in a black-tie steps out from behind the bar, excusez-moi, madame. A martini, Des orders, dirty, s’il vous plaît. Jaffe nods and departs, returning shortly with her martini of equal parts vodka and olive brine, as well as another mug of Flag Spéciale for moi. There are the customary bowls of gratis popcorn and olives, which Des quickly delights herself with. 

Have a look around, I insist. This dive’s been here for over a century. It’s fffffuckin’ glorious, a remnant from the colonial days, La Belle Époque. It mustn’t’ve changed since the last world war, maybe the first, I say to an unamused Des. This is the real Casablanca, I tell her. 

Des looks at the sweat-dampened journal open before me. Have you written more or drunk more, she asks. Yes, I answer, sipping my beer. Have you summoned the spirit of Monsieur Shampoo, she asks. Albert Camus, I correct her, one of the greatest existentialists. Mmhmm, she hums, what was so essential about his existentialism? I inhale, but not deeply, as I do not want lung cancer. Camus found meaning in the absurd; maybe I have that wrong; he found meaning in meaninglessness. Camus was an optimist and thought Sisyphus content, I tell Des as she roles an olive around the curvature of her martini glass. And he wrote here, Des asks. Maybe, I say, having another look around, as if his ghost might materialize before us. Camus frequented Petit Poucet when he was in Casa, but he spent most of his time in Algiers and France. If he didn’t write here, he at least smoked a shit-ton of cigarettes here. Speaking of meaninglessness, I ask, how was the faux Rick’s Cafe? You didn’t get your purse-strings stuck in the turnstile of the tourist trap? Des scowls, saying, it was existentially absurd and I was contented with every bit of it. Cool. 

Petit Poucet is not on any main drag for the tourist in Casa. It is in a commercial zone along Boulevard Mohammed V, which wouldn’t necessarily be notable to the outsider, except for the Neo-Moorish architecture of the surrounding buildings (“Neo-Moorish” is Art Deco meets the Moors). A little more than a mile’s hike away, within the old quarter of Ancienne Medina, is where the newly developed Rick’s Cafe exists, an exact replica of the filmset from Casablanca complete with Sam’s piano. I’m surprised Disney hasn’t seized the whole damned Old Quarter and smuggled it across the Atlantic, as the sun flies, to Orlando. For now, it remains here in Africa, behind sneeze-glass, waiting for the cruise-shippers. 

If Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, had been in Casablanca during World War II, or Bogart himself, he would have come to Petit Poucet. This place here is more realistic than the movie, I say to Des. A cinema classicist, more concerned with storytelling than historical accuracy, she responds with a zero-shit given, pfft! Fine, I say, would you be more interested if I imitated Bogart? I remember every detail, I say in mimicry, the Germans were wearing gray and you wore blue-jeans. Des laughs at the misquote, saying, you’re an idiot. And, she says, your Bogart is awful. You sound more like Bane from Batman, she says, mixed with a little Jimmy Stewart. 

I smile at her amusement. Idiot is better than asshole. This is progress. 

Mustafa has finished his phoned-in disagreement and walks through the door into Petit Poucet. He tosses his flip-phone into the hood of his djellaba and withdraws from the same pouch his pack of Marlborough cigarettes. He shuts one eye as he lights his smoke. He spies me and says, hello Ali Baba, boy prostitute. Y tu madre, Mustafa, I say. My sudden Spanish does not stump Mustafa who speaks seven languages: Arabic, Berber, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and English. His eyes bulge as he sucks on his cigarette. Mustafa claims to be an expert on American sarcasm. He says this, though he refuses to watch Seinfeld, as this is the humor of the Jew. I shake my head, then you know nothing of American sarcasm. 

Mustafa blows out a plume of smoke and says to me, my friend, Ali Baba, may God give you fever with no perspiration. 

Yeah, and may God make you a short-armed Tyrannosaurus-Rex with itchy balls, I say to him. 

Inshallah, Mustafa accepts, if God wills me to be a dinosaur, may he bless you to be this ugly for the rest of your days.

Oh yeah, I say, smiling as I have been saving my next line just for this occasion. It is too bad, Mustafa, it is illegal for me to have sex with a donkey, otherwise I’d marry your sister. 

It is not illegal, he says, blowing out smoke. Ali Baba, my leprous friend, Mustafa says, I will tell my sister about you. She will delight at your boils. 

Fucking enough, Des shouts at us. Jesus. 

Mustafa outside the Chellah

Mustafa is not smiling, but he is amused. He is not the only Moroccan who has called me Ali Baba since my arrival in Northern Africa. Berber men are mostly clean-shaven and while some might sport mustaches like Mustafa, very few are bearded. When they see a darkly-complected dude with a beard, such as myself, they think of the Thousand-And-One-Nights’ mythical hero, Ali Baba. At first, I thought the comparison deferential. After enough mockery, I realized otherwise. 

Des is hot & bothered, sitting delicately in her barstool, as if she is shoplifting a frozen lasagna. Mustafa notices the steam rising off her and says, Mademoiselle, you are more beautiful than a thousand suns over Hiroshima. Thanks, I guess, she says with a furrowed brow. I am joking, Mustafa says, you are much more cancerous. Excusez-moi, please, he says, I have to see a man about a mule, Inshallah. Mustafa leaves us for the lavatory.

I hate him, Des says at his departure. This is what the film was lacking, I tell her. Think about it: everyone in Casablanca is European. How can you have that story without one of these clever Fassi jokesters? Casablanca is already one of the greatest comedies, just imagine if you put Mustafa into the film trading one-liners with Rick and Captain Renault. Rick tells Renault, “when it comes to women, you’re a true democrat”. Mustafa would have suggested, “when it comes to donkeys, you are a true romantic. And you are very ugly.”

And that is the reason there are no Fassi in Casablanca, Des says. I don’t know about all Fassi, but if Mustafa were in Casablanca, he would have sold Victor Lazlo to the Nazis. Mustafa’s a creep. 

The storytellers of Fes consider themselves to be the cleverest men of the Maghreb, if not the world. My Marrakeshi buddy, Tariq, has a story about the Fassi. It is an hour long joke involving donkeys, as most Moroccan stories are. It starts with a clever Fassi catching himself in the mirror and thinking it a rival. He continues to one-up his reflection, feat after feat, only to be matched in-kind. Eventually, the Fassi lifts on his shoulders the entire city of Fes. Upon seeing in the mirror a city as equal in grandeur to his hometown, the Fassi dies of heartbreak. …It is funnier if you are from Marrakesh.  

Mustafa, the nastiest scoundrel Africa could conjure this side of the Atlas Mountains, returns from the bathroom, saying, Ali Baba, I will show you where the Peace Corps women wash their clothes. Let us go while there is still sun in the sky. Perhaps one will confuse you for a dog and allow you to lick her heel, he says. Inshallah. Mustafa turns towards Des and gauges her anger, oh cancerous one, you may join us. Your presence will scare away the mongrels and small children. 

Dude, I groan at Mustafa, wincing. Des is speechless, her jaw is so tightly clamped, it could’ve broken through a walnut or a thigh-bone if given the chance. Fuck this guy, Des says after unhinging her jaw, I am going home. Ali Baba, she says to me, do whatever. Des turns towards our driver to say, Mustafa, I think this is the ending of an ugly friendship. 

Oh damn, I say as she walks outside the bar. She went bizarro Casablanca. Seinfeld would’ve been impressed. 

Hey dude, I say to Mustafa, I really should walk Des home. It isn’t far to her hotel, but she has the internal compass of a crosseyed albatross. Mustafa’s brow furrows as he is trying to figure out if he is fired. Mustafa says, tomorrow we go to Fes. Rest well, Ali Baba, do not prostitute yourself to many men.

I clear my throat as I put down enough dirham to cover the bar tab. About that, I say to Mustafa, I think Des and me are going to do our own thing. We won’t need you to take us to Fes, I tell him. He’s angry. I take what’s left of my dirham and offer it to Mustafa as baksheesh along with my own cinematic farewell,  following Des’s lead, hey Mustafa, we’ll always have Paris!

Inshallah, Ali Baba, Mustafa nods. And my God bless you to live out all of the years of your miserable life.

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