The Great Olive Market

Story and Photography by Raphaël Paul Timmons

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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.


An older man walks along the arched corridors of the medina

An older man walks along the arched corridors of the medina

A local woman walks in the Habous quarter

A local woman walks in the Habous quarter

A man walks towards the Habous Mosque for afternoon prayer

A man walks towards the Habous Mosque for afternoon prayer

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.

Drivers fight through afternoon traffic in the Habous quarter

Drivers fight through afternoon traffic in the Habous quarter

A group of local men leaving afternoon prayer to return to work

A group of local men leaving afternoon prayer to return to work

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.

A traditional Berber rug shop

A traditional Berber rug shop

Colorful Moroccan djellabas sold in every medina

Colorful Moroccan djellabas sold in every medina

A baker boxes honey drizzled almond pastries

A baker boxes honey drizzled almond pastries

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. 

Two women stand outside the wooden doors of the Great Habous Olive Market

Two women stand outside the wooden doors of the Great Habous Olive Market

Camel meat, considered a delicacy in Moroccan

Camel meat, considered a delicacy in Moroccan

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.

A vendor takes a break to check his phone in front of the ubiquitous blue barrels

A vendor takes a break to check his phone in front of the ubiquitous blue barrels

Buckets filled with soaked peppers and olives

Buckets filled with soaked peppers and olives

Colorful varieties of harissa paste

Colorful varieties of harissa paste

White and black peppercorns

White and black peppercorns

Cayenne chili peppers and habanero peppers

Cayenne chili peppers and habanero peppers

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.

Abdullah, a vendor and native Casaoui

Abdullah, a vendor and native Casaoui

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“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.”

Containers of self-serve ground curcuma (turmeric) and paprika

Containers of self-serve ground curcuma (turmeric) and paprika

Ripe lemons, another staple ingredient in Moroccan cuisine

Ripe lemons, another staple ingredient in Moroccan cuisine

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. 


A young vendor scoops Castelvetrano olives from a barrel

A young vendor scoops Castelvetrano olives from a barrel

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Fragrant mounds of green and cured black olives permeate the market

Fragrant mounds of green and cured black olives permeate the market

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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.

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Habanero pepper infused Castelvetrano olives, plain Castelvetrano olives, purple Kalamata olives and herb garnished beige olives found throughout the market

Habanero pepper infused Castelvetrano olives, plain Castelvetrano olives, purple Kalamata olives and herb garnished beige olives found throughout the market

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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.

The end of the day; unattended barrels and containers seen through the cracks of the wooden doors of the Great Olive Market, a welcome sign hangs behind them

The end of the day; unattended barrels and containers seen through the cracks of the wooden doors of the Great Olive Market, a welcome sign hangs behind them

A young man walks in the empty streets of the Habous followed by a sole car in the distance

A young man walks in the empty streets of the Habous followed by a sole car in the distance



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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 .

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 .