They say that every city has a personality. New York is loud, crass, the city that never sleeps. Paris is romantic, nostalgic, the city of lights and love. Humans breathe life into a city and the city emanates the life its people have given to it. So what’s the personality of Rabat, my city? This question doesn’t have one clear answer. From what I observed in Rabat, there are at least four different personalities that have evolved and molded together to form the city as I know today.
There’s Chellah, an ancient roman city. This sight is the first remnant of civilization in Rabat. While today Chellah lies in ruins and the government has converted it into a historical site, its history is that which marks the debut of permanent settlement in the Rabat area. Walking around Chellah in present day, it’s hard not to imagine that a woman, or a child, or a Roman soldier has also walked along the same path centuries ago.
What I think of next when I think of Rabat is the Kasbah of the Udayas and the old medina. The Kasbah is a walled city that sits along the Atlantic Ocean. It was built during one of the first dynasties of Morocco. Walking through the Kasbah, with its pristine white and sea blue houses and the sound of waves crashing in the distance, it’s impossible not to think of the place as a sort of refuge to the people living during the dynasty’s reign. Walled to protect its people from war, pirates, and conflict, the Kasbah represents a tumultuous period of Rabat’s history. Like the Kasbah, the old medina of Rabat is a walled city. Upon entry, every product imaginable is at your fingertips, as long as you’re willing to haggle for it. Soaps, perfumes, clothes, carpets, lighting fixtures, leather products, and artisan goods are available at the shops of the medina. Street food is always beings sold, and the smell of roasting chick peas and chestnuts fills the air. The old medina is the heart of every city in Morocco- the point from which the rest of the city grows. It represents the evolution of this century old city and Morocco’s uncanny ability to safeguard its culture and tradition as it evolves over time.
The Ville Nouvelle, or the new city is yet another part of Rabat that forms its personality. The Ville Nouvelle was built as a separate entity to the city by the French during colonization. It’s wide streets and terraces mark a change from the winding streets of the old medina, but it nevertheless has become a part of the city itself. The Ville Nouvelle reflects the values of a European city- shops with mannequins displayed in the windows and clothes being sold at fixed prices from European and American brands, cafes with large terraces ripe for people-watching. French is the language of menus and billboards. Walking around the Ville Nouvelle, it’s hard not to think about the impact of colonization on the country and the way in which it continues to impact the city during the postcolonial era.
The Ville Nouvelle was built as a separate entity from the medina of Rabat, destined to be a place exclusively for French citizens that came to live in Morocco during colonialization. However, since independence, Moroccans have reclaimed this neighborhood as their own and continue to expand the city around it. This reclamation of a place once built to exclude them is a huge part of how I see the personality of Rabat and other Moroccan cities. Morocco is place where cultures collide- African, Arab, Mediterranean, European. These identities express themselves in different parts of Rabat- Chellah, the Kasbah, the Old Medina, the Ville Nouvelle, and the growth of the city since independence. It’s the ability of Rabat to claim each of these identities as its own, to mold them and form them in its own way, that culminates in a multi-faceted Rabat personality.