Wylie on Strava, 'Precarious Modernities: Assembling State, Space and Society on the Urban Margins in Morocco'

Cristiana Strava
Diana Wylie

Cristiana Strava. Precarious Modernities: Assembling State, Space and Society on the Urban Margins in Morocco. London: Zed Books, 2021. Illustrations. xi + 203 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-23255-6

Reviewed by Diana Wylie (Boston University) Published on H-Africa (March, 2023) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58807

Living on Casablanca's Margins

What does living "precariously" mean in Casablanca? In 2014 it meant being labeled tcharmil (seeming to endanger public order) and swept up by the police, if you were an unemployed young man sporting a banda haircut and gathering with your mates on a street corner. Anthropologist Cristiana Strava witnessed this and other sorry aspects of modern urban vulnerability while conducting her doctoral dissertation fieldwork in Hay Mohammedi, a renowned working-class neighborhood on the margins of modern Morocco’s economic mecca, Casablanca. In Precarious Modernities, she shares what she learned about how its residents create a sense of place and belonging, despite the manifold insecurities of living in a quarter that is losing both industries and social services.

Inspired by the theories of Henri Lefebvre, among others, Strava shows how denizens experience their everyday space—homes, transport, maps, streets—in ways that do not fit conventional notions of modernity, even though the area is emphatically the product of modern city planning and state policies. She presents the people of Hay Mohammedi as, in fact, battered by modernity and, most recently, by neoliberal modernity. They have long been subject to the planning schemes devised by higher authorities. In the 1950s, the French protectorate government rapidly and belatedly built eight-meter-square trames (grids) for them to inhabit, replacing the tin shacks in the bidonvilles they had built themselves. Since the 1980s, many have been forcibly moved from these trames, which they modified creatively over time, to high-rise buildings even farther from the city center.

Strava’s study may be read as a cautionary tale about the perils of top-down modernization. The neoliberal city, she has written elsewhere, is not a fait accompli but an unfinished and unstable project that needs to be critiqued.[1] People who believe themselves to be well disposed to the poor should not be oblivious to the realities of the daily lives, needs, and aspirations of those who must live on the margins. Her book thus aims to “destabilize” the modernizing discourses of heritage activists, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, and local elites (p. 5).

Hay Mohammedi has been, Strava notes, successively a colonial laboratory, militarized in the postcolonial period, and a testing ground for new projects of social management and control, and is now a home for neoliberal projects and actors.The neighborhood serves her well as an emblem of “urban marginality and historical effervescence,” because it was both a major site of working-class mobilization and the location of a notorious underground detention center, Derb Moulay Cherif, where activists were tortured early in the reign of Hassan II (p. 32) . Strava writes that the quarter has suffered “trauma,” because its residents are aware of this history of state violence. They continue to sustain different kinds of “wounds” when old buildings crumble, trash is not collected, and old drains make the air stink.

Strava burrowed into the everyday experiences of Hay Mohammedi’s residents by inventively focusing on their use of various spaces: maps (both authoritative and affective), the streets, the design of their homes, the tramway. Her sixteen-month-long fieldwork and her command of Moroccan Arabic—leading to close relationships with about twenty key informants—allowed her to gain detailed insights into, say, the way a visit to the public bath can generate a sense of well-being or how poor people actually experience the elegant tramway.

Strava uses more-or-less familiar shorthand designations—neoliberalism, deindustrialization, financialization, “enclavization”—to illuminate the historical processes that have brought about this precarity and the “spatialization” of class. These ongoing processes have shifted how the Moroccan state and international actors define their objective: away from “social justice” toward the more anodyne “human rights” and, worse, “responsibilization.” One concrete result of this new definition, she laments, is that Moroccan authorities, NGOS, and local elites now prefer programs training entrepreneurs to ones subsidizing food.

Naming complex processes with a single word like “neoliberalism” means that readers will have to go elsewhere to find answers to the following questions about the root causes of urban precarity: Exactly which social supports were defunded in the 1980s? How is the Moroccan government subsidizing a real estate boom? What is Mohammed VI doing to make Morocco the region’s political and economic powerhouse? And how are Casablanca’s margins “crucial” for the consolidation of inequality in contemporary Morocco (p. 3)? “Participatory, deep structural reforms” could revitalize Hay Mohammedi, Strava writes, but it is beyond the scope of her book to suggest what they might be. One cannot help but wonder what would be a viable “political” means for addressing the precarity of lower-class youth, as opposed to the “apolitical” gestures she targets for criticism, as I discuss below (p. 81) .

Her goal “to destabilize powerful discourses” may have led her to undervalue in this book the ameliorative initiatives she has praised elsewhere in a number of excellent publications (p. 5). Two examples come to mind: community-based art programs and the tramway. First, she refers to a street-arts (rap and break dancing) program rather dismissively as “superficial” and “pacification by ‘artification’” (p. 90). Yet elsewhere she has acknowledged that community-based arts may enhance the daily lives of youth: even more, artistic practice can have “crucial transformative power.”[2] Second, she stresses how alien the tramway is to the manners and means of the residents of Hay Mohammedi, whereas in an article she argues that locals embraced it as a “veiled form of reparations” and thus moved closer to formulating claims for social justice.[3] To these examples, I will add two more that I have witnessed. In describing a board game designed to teach children of Hay Mohammedi about the history of their neighborhood, Strava observed that the effort resulted in a “hegemonic account of the recent past” (p. 68). Yet the game may actually also have stimulated children to hear debates and think about the past for the first time. Finally, when a group of architectural enthusiasts included Hay Mohammedi on a tour of the entire city, they may have been breaking down middle-class ignorance rather than simply indulging in a “performative gesture” of inclusion (p. 150).[4]

In this book and her published articles and essays, Strava reveals important aspects of how neoliberalism is actually “lived”: she paints a sympathetic portrait of youth who, because they are products of “decades of eroded education and employment,” cannot achieve the tempting, consumerist promises of globalization (p. 98). Taken as a whole, her work poses deep questions about the global context within which these urban youth and their elders must forge their way: What is actually the aftermath and afterlife of modernism? What are the new urban commons in these increasingly unequal times? How can urban space serve the common good? As urbanization and social inequality surge ahead in the twenty-first century, Strava’s finely observed case study of Hay Mohammedi provokes profound questions that pertain everywhere.


[1]. Cristiana Strava, “Dissenting Poses: Marginal Youth, Viral Aesthetics, and Affective Politics in Neoliberal Morocco,” Focaal: European Journal of Anthropology 92 (2022): 64-81.

[2]. Cristiana Strava, “Activating the Margins through Art: An Ethnographic Perspective on the Work of l’Atelier de l’observatoire,” in Le Musée Collectif, un musée citoyen pour la ville de Casablanca, ed. l’Observatoire (Casablanca: l’Observatoire, 2022), 116.

[3]. Cristiana Strava, “A Tramway Called Atonement: Genealogies of Infrastructure and Emerging Political Imaginaries in Contemporary Casablanca,” Middle East: Topics & Arguments 10 (2018): 22-29.

[4]. Diana Wylie, “‘Part of Who We Are’: Using Old Buildings to Foster Citizenship in North Africa (Oran, Algeria, and Casablanca, Morocco),” Buildings and Landscapes 25, no. 1 (2018): 44-63.

Citation: Diana Wylie. Review of Strava, Cristiana, Precarious Modernities: Assembling State, Space and Society on the Urban Margins in Morocco. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58807

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