Story and Photography by Raphaël Paul Timmons
A visit through Casablanca’s Habous Quarter shows a culinary oasis of olives and spices amid the bustle of a big city.
In the shadow of one of King Mohammed VI’s many royal palaces sits the Habous. Casablanca’s neo-medina was built by the French colonial authority in 1916, to house merchant families from other parts of Morocco. The quarter was a key part of a massive urban planning effort to separate the European and indigenous populations that were flocking to the kingdom’s new economic hub.
Today the Habous has many of the typical trappings of a modern Moroccan souk—colorful djellabas, ornate metal tea sets, leather babouches, ceramic tajines and Berber rugs. At the entrance of the medina, under arched corridors, rows of shops sell some variation of the same items. It’s late afternoon in June during Ramadan, and everyone is in a rush to get home before the evening call to prayer. Ftour, the nightly feast to break fast, starts soon, which means the women of Casablanca have a couple hours to shop, cook and get themselves soignée. It’s warm; people are hungry, dehydrated, cranky. The intentionality with which the holy month has taken a toll on the bodies around me is impressive.
Cars, scooters and pedestrians move through the busy streets in perfect chaos, seemingly synchronized in their deliberately individual movements. As one wanders slightly farther uphill into the heart of the neighborhood, tourist shops are slowly replaced by local vendors. The air gets heavier, more aromatic. The smells of sweet figs and strong citruses mix with exhaust fumes. The road and sidewalk get even more crowded to the point where there is little difference between the two. Steps become choreographed dances to avoid the person in front and anticipate the one coming after.
Whole camel heads hang on hooks at the butcher shop, meant to draw in curious tourists, but more importantly to signal to locals the sale of the meat delicacy. Despite all the bustle at 50 Rue Souk Jdid, tucked away behind a large heavy set of wooden doors is a market dedicated to the staple fruit of Moroccan cuisine.
Walking in everything else fades away, honking and yelling are replaced by the overwhelming smell of olives. Radiating from the merchant stands, the vibrant colors splash across the small square known as Le Grand Marche Des Olives du Habous (The Great Habous Olive Market). Blue plastic barrels crowning with olives are everywhere. They double as display stands and storage containers. They’re filled with oil and salt that turns the inedible freshly picked fruit into an inescapable part of Mediterranean meals. Amongst the barrels are giant rice bags filled with peppercorns, tubs of hot harissa paste and piles of lemons. Hand drawn signs display the price for a kilo of olives, between 20-30 dirhams ($2-3). The dozen or so varieties of olives dotted throughout the market have the effect of a Seurat painting, each olive a point in the image, a variation of the same palette and brush stroke, all so wonderfully unique. As a man rolls a barrel along the cobblestones, he stops to look up.
Abdullah and his large mustache greet me with a smile. The slender native of Casablanca is wearing a brown jacket and red smock topped with a hat that reads “Stay Fresh, Stay Fly.” He continues to roll his barrel to his stand, all while engaging in small talk. He explains that the market is an integral part of the neighborhood.
“Locals come here to see each other, it’s really a meeting point for many even beyond the Habous neighborhood.” As a group of tourists wander in, he goes on, “It’s one of the rare places in Casablanca where tourists and locals share the same experience, and there’s value in that...Maybe it’s an afterthought, but olives are really an essential part of Moroccan cuisine. Few and far between are the meals served in this country that either don’t have olives or olive oil as a component.”
He goes on listing the benefits of the fruit, “Your skin, your heart, your…”, not only does he work here, but he truly believes in the value of the product. It’s clear that if he could, he would offer an ample sample to drive home the point. However, it’s Ramadan, and that would be discourteous to those fasting.
“The local favorite is spiced olives. They’re incredible because not only can they be eaten as an appetizer, but they add a kick to any dish you cook them with.”
Seemingly, things haven’t changed at the market in a long time. The steady arrival of big supermarkets in Casablanca could have threatened to disturb the natural order. But this cash-only, no-frills market is doing just fine. It’s thriving in large part thanks to locals and small to medium resellers throughout Casablanca who still come for their bulk purchases.
Morocco has always been a top producer of olives, yet lags behind the top three, Spain, Italy and Greece. But as Abdullah tells me, “Great efforts have been taken to increase olive production, and we’re likely to clear two and a half tons.”
If those numbers hold true Morocco will enter the heavyweight category and push to finish as the world’s second-largest olive producer behind only Spain.
The ocean breeze is picking up, announcing the impending arrival of sunset. The vendors start to close up shop, they have to get home too. Customers sensing the urgency start to grab their final Ftour purchases—a last picture through the cracks of the large wooden doors, and a moment of reflection on the unusual calm. The bustle from this afternoon has subsided. The walk back is reminiscent of midnight treks when everyone is asleep. The difference is it’s still light out. The streets are almost deserted. The only sound is that of birds singing and dinner plates clinking, plates likely to be dripping with some form of olives.
About Raphaël Paul Timmons
Raphaël Paul Timmons is a French-American writer and photographer. A Bay Area native and alum of California State University - East Bay, he is particularly interested in issues of identity and transformation. Raphaël currently splits his time between Casablanca and Paris.
You can find some of his work, a mix of both digital and analog photography, on instagram @raph.tm .