In Casablanca, if the petit-taxi drivers don’t know the place, it doesn’t exist. And they don’t know the Churchill Club. Why? Because members arrive in their luxury vehicles or have their drivers drop them off. Tucked away in Ain Diab, an exclusive neighborhood close to the ocean, the villa that houses the Club is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding mansions. Only the potted plants outside the wall indicate something different about the place.
If the walls of the Churchill Club could talk, they would rival Scheherazade, with salacious tales of business deals, revolutionary plots, underhanded schemes, illicit trysts and older men with their “nieces.” The Club provides a venue for upper-class men to socialize, network and do business Moroccan style. A few women come to the club with their husbands, but only a handful venture here on their own. Being the only woman at the bar never bothered me.
Named after Winston Churchill, the Club made the transition from being an offshoot of the British Council to becoming a private establishment in November 1985. Technically, the Churchill Club is an English-only venue. Membership requires a signed declaration that states – in capital letters – that you and your guests promise to only speak English on the premises. At one time you actually had to pass an English test before applying for membership. Now, however, very few native-English speakers find their way to the Club, so you hear only a mixture of Arabic and French.
The Churchill Club provides a front – a place where the wealthy of Casablanca can drink, as alcohol is forbidden in Muslim Morocco. The well-to-do wouldn’t be caught dead in a public bar; nor do they want to drink in front of their families. Behind the walls of the villa, however, they freely imbibe as much as they want.
I invite you to come to the Churchill Club with me.
When the petit-taxi stops, Mustapha appears out of nowhere and opens the door, “Welcome Madam, welcome,” the only English words he knows. Mustapha epitomizes someone you want on your side. This tall, muscular Berber has dark eyes that dart everywhere: He sees all. The only thing missing is a knife between his teeth – which you have no doubt he would stick between somebody’s ribs if they crossed him. He rushes ahead to press the buzzer. The door to the Club clicks open.
The garden in the inner courtyard has a manicured look about it. Five or six tables with white plastic chairs, and umbrellas to protect against the intense Moroccan sun, circle the meeting area. People gather here for the Club’s BBQs on Friday evenings in the summer
Follow the paving stones around to the left and open the door. Step across the threshold, and, suddenly, you enter another world. Think of a dusty gentlemen’s club at the turn of the 20th century. Or the set for a Somerset Maugham film, complete with revolving ceiling fans.
Pan the large room, dotted with wooden tables and chairs, complete with a stage as a backdrop. Slightly to the right sits an old rinky-dink piano, next to two doors leading to “his” and “hers.” Then comes the corner with the library, a large bookcase that serves as a depository for expat reading castoffs – Zane Grey, Dan Brown, Agatha Christie. Continue to move your eyes until you have almost done a 360 and come to the heart of the Club – the bar.
Hassan or Haj, whoever is closer, welcomes us. After the necessary handshaking and cheek-kissing, I perch on a stool at the bar and exchange pleasantries with Absolum, as he deposits the mandatory nibbles in front of me. It is early, only 6 o’clock, and I’m the only member there.
“What would you like this evening?” I smile and cock my head to one side. Absolum goes off and opens a bottle of Sahara Reserve, a Moroccan white, and pours a sample for me to taste. “Are you going to play tonight, Madam?”
“Yes,” I say, as I pick up my glass of wine and saunter off to the piano that can’t be tuned.
Opening the ancient piano that is even older than the ceiling fans, I am greeted by orange and yellow keys that have seen better decades, and couldn’t be cleaned, no matter how hard you tried. It makes you wonder how many people tinkled these ivories. My repertoire of Beethoven and the Beatles lasts half an hour. I concentrate, oblivious to what is happening behind me. When I finish, close the piano and turn to be greeted by a round of applause. The usual suspects have drifted in.
“You play like a professional,” exclaims The Judge – which is what everyone calls him – wearing an ear-to-ear grin. I smile. His praise says more about the Moroccan level of music appreciation than it does about my elementary musical skills.
I balance on the stool next to Jalal. “How are you?” he asks, and kisses me on the cheek. Then he puts his hands on both shoulders to hold me at a distance, so he can look into my eyes as I answer. Jalal and I have a very unusual relationship for a Moroccan man and an occidental woman: We are friends. He studied in the United States, so, unlike most Arabic males, he understands – and appreciates – a platonic relationship. In another time and place, we may have been more than friends. But friendship is too valuable to spoil.
Behind us, in the corner with three sofas surrounding a massive LCD television screen, The Commander, banishes a Cuban cigar as he holds court with his followers. Attendance is compulsory.
The smell of the hamburger and chips plopped in front of the guy sitting next to me wafts over, heavy and thick with grease. I gag. The odor reminds me why hardly anyone eats at the Club, unless on the verge of starvation.
I turn back to Jalal and we solve the problems of the world. We philosophize, we debate, we gossip, we laugh. Jalal leaves, he has to get home for dinner. I talk to whoever else is at the bar and then go to pay my bill. Absolum shakes his head, “The Judge paid for your wine, Madam.” I smile, shrug my shoulders and leave a tip.
Outside, Mustapha waits at the wall with me and flags a petit-taxi. Then he opens the door and as he slams it, he reaches around through the passenger’s side window and locks the back door. Another typical evening at the Churchill Club draws to a close.
The petit-taxi pulls out into traffic and heads for Derb Omar, in the old part of the city, where I live.
The Churchill Club is at 1 Rue de la Mediterranee, Ain Diab. All petit taxi drivers know Rue de la Mediterranee, they just don’t know that number 1 is the Club.
If you want to visit the Club, you have a few choices. 1. Phone ahead – 0522-79-72-80 -- and ask Nellie (the manager) if you can come in as a visitor. 2. Just show up and act like you belong. Or, 3. say you are waiting for Jody.