Cristiana Strava, Precarious Modernities: Assembling State, Space and Society on the Urban Margins in Morocco (Zed Books, London, 2022). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Cristiana Strava (CS): As is the case with many first monographs, this book is largely based on my PhD dissertation and the long-term ethnographic fieldwork I carried out in Morocco between 2013 and 2015 as part of my doctoral training. It is a bit of a cliché in anthropology to say that monographs are born in equal parts out of the intellectual and personal journeys of their ethnographers. But this is definitely true for me. I have always been interested in the link between the lived and built environment and in 2009 I got to travel to Morocco with the help of a Michael Rockefeller Fellowship from Harvard, where I became involved in several grassroots documentary-making projects.

It was while working with a team of young Moroccan women to compile a video of marginalized women’s life stories that I was first introduced to the criminalized and mythicized neighborhood of Hay Mohammadi—the main non-human protagonist of the book, as it were. Then, in the fated spring of 2011 I began work on a second documentary film, commissioned by an international development agency, on Morocco’s much celebrated “Cities Without Slums” project. I was starkly confronted with the disconnect between how institutional actors understood and approached urban inequality, and the everyday experiences and historical conditions of poor communities, like that of Hay Mohammadi. The PhD project, and subsequently the book, became my ethnographic attempt to connect these two realms and demystify the instrumental objectification of urban marginality in Morocco’s recent history.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CS: The book gives an account of the multiple scales at which urban planning regimes, built forms, and lived experiences of socio-economic inequality come together to produce institutional actors (state), classed places (space), and precarious people (society). As such, it is situated at the intersection of urban ethnography, Marxist geography, and studies of the (post/colonial) state in the MENA (but also further afield).

The fairly unexamined assumption that used to underwrite much work on the spatialization of socio-economic inequality is that the latter is at best an unintended consequence of “modernization” projects, or at worst, a manifestation of the so-called (and thoroughly debunked) “culture of poverty.”

Neighborhoods like the one at the heart of the book (Hay Mohammadi) are frequently perceived only through incomplete and outdated statistics, romanticized histories, policing discourses, and essentialized tropes circulated by mass media. The ethnographic material and discussions that I gather in this book aim to both broaden this picture as well as critically converse with these tropes, in order to reveal the instrumental “work” to which they are put out there in the world.

The book moves through a series of “spaces”: it begins with the “historical space” of the neighborhood’s creation during colonial times and continues through the cartographic representations that have tried to order, police, and control that space since. In response to these I offer as commentary imaginative, alternative maps hand drawn by my interlocutors, and one game board!

The text then takes the reader into the boisterous but vilified physical spaces of the street and shows how conservative discourses about “surplus leisure” and “surplus bodies” are mobilized against young, male, lower-class bodies in contemporary Morocco. It then moves into the “alternative” spaces of neighborhood NGOs where neoliberal agendas are used to “responsibilize” and tame those lower-class bodies in order to extract cheap labor power. We then enter the intimate space of the home to learn about how lower-class women deploy gendered forms of unwaged labor against “the injuries of class,” and finally conclude with a broadened view onto the state-envisioned yet unattainable urban spaces of the future.

Throughout the text I try to destabilize powerful discourses that have led to dehistoricized, depoliticized, and reified categorical terms about the lower classes and the urban geographies they inhabit. Therefore, this book is also intended as a corrective account of a largely academically ignored and politically vilified segment of Moroccan society, and its struggle for survival in an era of increased economic insecurity compounded by the ongoing neoliberalization of Moroccan society.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

CS: This is my first monograph, but during the lengthy publication process I had the chance to work on some of the material that did not make into the book and shape it into more accessible formats (short-form articlesphoto essaysblogs).

Prior to the PhD project, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork for institutions such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and their “Community Adaptation to Climate Change” agenda, and compiled working papers and technical reports while working with the German Technical Cooperation Agency and the Moroccan Ministry of Water and Energy on sustainable building practices. In some ways the book complements and critiques the kind of writing and technocratic knowledge production I was participating in at the time, and aims to correct for the distorting, de-historicizing, and depoliticizing effect that kind of writing can have.

Both before and during the research for the book, I also worked with communicating research on marginalization and urban space using different multimedia formats (podcastsmap makingsound recordingsexperimental ethnographic film), which I hope to return to again.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CS: I primarily wrote this book for readers interested in the relationship between urban space, politics, and the classed experience of everyday life in the region. My hope is that readers who are not specialists of Morocco or the Maghreb will therefore also find in it useful insights for how social and political transformations can be read through the built and lived environment. By documenting the ways in which marginalized urban communities adapt and respond to the delegitimization of social justice vocabularies and agendas, the book also has something to offer to those interested in the study of class and contestation.

It is also my hope, that by tracing not only the history behind the making of uneven social geographies but also their instrumentalization and placement at the heart of local and global forces, the book may be of use to those interested in pulling apart and remaking the legacy of spatial inequality bequeathed by colonial regimes globally. At the same time, the book can also help contextualize for scholars of postcolonial regimes the ways in which nationalist agendas drew heavily and often improved upon the militarization of space built into colonial urban planning agendas, extending this into the neoliberal era.

Finally, I also hope that the book will be read by and inform the work of researchers and practitioners in development, planning, housing, urban heritage, and architecture more broadly—and I have already gotten some encouraging reactions from people in those fields.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CS: Working in hyper-competitive neoliberal academia at the moment means there is decreasing time and funding available for sustained periods of research, even for those of us who are privileged enough to have a tenured position. This has pushed me to rethink the received orthodoxies, responsibilities, and ethics that define where, how, why, in what form, and for whom we produce knowledge.

I am thus working on a messy collection of activist, pedagogical, policy, and academic projects, in small and syncopated bursts, not unlike the patchwork model proposed by Günel, Varma, and Watanbe. To name a few, I am currently part of an exciting collaboration between Leiden University, TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Kenyan, Indonesian, and Indian partners in which we co-design digital inclusion tools for and alongside communities targeted with housing relocation across the global south. I am also involved in labor organizing and climate activism in the Netherlands, and coach a citizen science-driven course where students and city dwellers work together to address local sustainability challenges.

I continue to conduct more conventional research in Morocco where I am pursuing research on the politics of mega-infrastructure projects and the introduction of high-speed rail. I am specifically using the rail to look at the unequal distribution of risk and resources as part of the recent “green turn” in urban and infrastructural developments across North Africa. Finally, I am currently finishing work on an anarchist soup cookbook, provisionally titled Revolutionary Soups of the World Unite!


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-5)

‘We don’t need tourists to come and look at us. We need fluss (money)! Fluss’, he repeated, miming the object by rubbing his fingers together. ‘Fehemtini (do you understand me)?’ asked the man after I had explained to him why a group of about twenty onlookers gathered around a guide were craning their necks to look at his house. ‘This place is a prison. Hadshi lli bghau yshuf (Is that what they want to see)?’ and the three young men standing around him broke into embarrassed laughter. ‘A prison above ground and a prison below ground!’ he continued, visibly animated. Before I could react, he softened his tone and added: ‘I apologize, young lady. I’m talking n’importe-quoi (Fr., nonsense); I’m just a foolish old man. Forgive me.’ This scene took place during the first weekend of April 2013, as I was accompanying groups of visitors to several sites in the neighborhood of Hay Mohammadi on the outskirts of Casablanca, as part of an annual three-day event celebrating the city’s (colonial) architectural heritage. I had begun my fieldwork in the area a few months earlier, proposing to study how the inhabitants of this historically marginalized, impoverished neighborhood, targeted by state violence in the past, managed not only to secure their livelihoods, but also to create a sense of place and belonging within the walls of still-standing colonial and post-colonial housing projects originally designed with policing and social control in mind. Over the course of those first months, I often encountered such outbursts from locals, brimming with the strain of an unending daily struggle for, and attendant despair over, economic survival in a visibly precarious context. Understandably, locals were vexed by the preoccupation of outsiders with building facades and architectural details, and the (occasionally rather highbrow) cultural activities staged as part of celebrations of the neighborhood’s history and built fabric. Activists, for their part, resented being depicted as aloof outsiders, preoccupied only with aesthetic details and niche cultural topics. This did not mean that inhabitants were not aware of the cultural, historical and architectural significance of their homes and neighborhood, nor that administrators, planners and activists were wholly ignorant of and indifferent to the challenges affecting the former, as the material in this book will make amply evident. Nevertheless, overwhelmingly focused on the aesthetic and formal aspects of the neighborhood’s spaces, the retrospective gaze of heritage activists, international NGOs, government agencies and local elites overlooked, failed to address and occasionally vilified the messy contingency of everyday survival demanded in the face of growing socio-economic insecurity present on Casablanca’s margins.

This tension, between inhabitants and outside forces, pointed towards two interrelated developments that have taken place in Morocco over the past decades, and which I trace throughout this book: on the one hand, a significant and growing disconnect between networks of local as well as foreign experts and elites and the daily struggles and pragmatic preoccupations that define the lives of those inhabiting lower-class areas; on the other hand, the progressive delegitimization of social justice discourses, agendas and channels as a consequence of the growing popularity and institutionalization of neoliberal reforms and logics of ‘responsibilization’. At the same time, Moroccan urban spaces have also undergone profound and uneven transformations, transformations which have been fueled by a state-subsidized real-estate boom and royal ambitions of turning Morocco into North Africa’s emerging political and economic powerhouse. These transformations are not radically new, but part of much longer historical processes set in motion at the beginning of the twentieth century by colonial forces, and later complicated by the intersection of local politics, national dynamics, and international forces and actors during the post-colonial era. This book is my ethnographic attempt to map and disentangle, through the prism of a highly emblematic space, the web of actors and forces responsible for these changes and the ways in which they reveal crucial tensions at work in contemporary Moroccan society in a context of increasing inequality and the criminalization of the lower classes.

Anthropologists are well equipped to unpack the relationship between broad structural forces and the experience and shape of life in specific places. I count myself among the practitioners of a discipline that combines attention to subjective experiences with a conceptual proclivity towards critically deconstructing the tensions and contradictions inherent in what may seem like immutable social and political forces that structure those experiences. As a result, in this book I draw on over sixteen months of fieldwork to interrogate the logics and representations that are at the core of urban marginalization processes in Morocco. Taking as a starting point the everyday lives and spaces of Hay Mohammadi’s inhabitants, I follow their interactions with heritage activists, international development agendas and technocratic planning regimes, with the goal of picking apart and documenting how the production and reproduction of Casablanca’s margins have been crucial for the consolidation of deeply unequal social, spatial and economic orders in contemporary Morocco. The result, I hope, is an immersive account of the multiple scales and entangled actors involved in the objectification and instrumentalization of urban marginality more broadly, as part of ongoing, contingent and insufficiently critiqued processes of ‘modernization’.

Once home to North Africa’s oldest and largest slum, Hay Mohammadi (formerly known as Carrières Centrales) is a mythical place in the history of Morocco. Celebrated as a laboratory for industrial and housing innovation during the colonial period, but also famous for playing a crucial role in the anti- colonial struggle, the neighborhood fell into disfavor during the reign of the late King Hassan II (1961–1999), whose response to protest and contestation was violent repression and the creation of an infamous underground detention center in the neighborhood (the prison below ground referred to before). During this period, Casablanca and Hay Mohammadi in particular became the scene of grave human rights abuses and state violence. Union and student activists alike were forcefully disappeared, held and tortured in secret for years (El Bouih 2008). Economically, the neighborhood entered a period of decay starting in the 1980s, as the lifting of food subsidies and the liberalization of trade progressively led to massive job losses in the area. Owing to its colonial origins as an industrial quarter, the neighborhood continues to be hemmed in to this day by rail and road corridors to the south-west, and defunct industrial facilities and sprawling new peripheries to its north-east, leading many of its inhabitants to speak of a feeling of ghettoization vis-à-vis the wider city. Today, with unemployment on the rise, inhabitants have to further contend with an image of the neighborhood that is colored by such epithets as ‘open air prison’, or ‘cemented slum’ (bidonville en béton). These maligning stereotypes were particularly re-enforced after the suicide attacks of 2003 and 2007, which targeted upscale hotels, restaurants and night clubs in the city’s core. Perpetrated by small groups of un(der)employed, radicalized youth from the increasingly impoverished and disenfranchised areas east of Hay Mohammadi, the attacks heightened both state and popular discourse maligning the urban margins (cf. Cavatorta 2006).

In the contemporary Moroccan social imaginary, Casablanca as a whole is frequently associated with urban sprawl, pollution, a high degree of socio- economic decay and anomie, and at the same time a growing number of wealthy enclaves sporting names like Californie or Prestigia (Fr.), new special economic zones like the Casablanca Finance City, and economic liberalization connected to the city’s semi-official identity as Morocco’s business capital. A twenty-first- century ‘neoliberal metropolis’ in Jamal Bahmad’s formulation (2013, p. 17), the history of the city’s development is synonymous with colonial industrial expansion and the extraction of cheap labour; technocratic methods of urban planning; the managing of both rampant real-estate speculation and potentially volatile populations through a ‘militarization of urban planning’ (Écochard 1955a, Rabinow 1989, Rachik 2002). Consequently, contemporary Casablanca bears little resemblance to its Hollywood aura. The city is currently home to more than five million inhabitants living in an increasingly socially and spatially fragmented urban landscape marked by stark economic disparities (United Nations Habitat 2011, 74; cf. Haut Commissariat au Plan 2018). Like many other urban centers in the region as well as globally, the city’s growth has translated into an ever-expanding periphery, where ‘irregular’ and ‘informal’ housing frequently rubs shoulders with high-end real-estate projects.

In many ways Hay Mohammadi offers a privileged entry point into how colonial and post-colonial ideas, images and projects promoting the logics of twentieth-century ‘modernity’ have fueled profound – and profoundly unequal – social transformations, and continue to feed into new social realities, while evading critical examination.