Casablanca's Derb Omar market thrives despite pressure to modernise
Text and photos by Hassan Benmehdi for Magharebia in Casablanca – 29/02/08
Located right in the centre of Casablanca, Derb Omar is the largest "shopping centre" in Morocco. Despite its 140-year history and its traditional and often archaic operating methods, it remains one of the liveliest business areas around.
In Derb Omar, the past and the present combine beautifully. The passing crowd, the shops and galleries bursting with life and the incessant comings and goings of carts create a magical atmosphere amid an indescribable cacophony of horns, shouting delivery drivers, car drivers and street vendors.
One the district's oldest veterans is Haj Abbas, now more than 85 years old. Around 1830, he said, a trader arrived from the city of Fez and opened the present market’s first stall to sell cloth.
[Hassan Benmehdi] Derb Omar market in Casablanca contains more than 2,300 shops.
[Hassan Benmehdi] Local legends say the market began in 1830 as a common place to sell cloth.
[Hassan Benmehdi] Moroccan traders are convinced that customers will prefer the quality of their goods to lower-priced equivalents from abroad.
"Our ancestors tell us that in 1907, this trader was joined by other Fassis specialising in textiles and by 1925, two-thirds of those selling cloth were originally from Fez. This explains why the area is still broadly dominated by traders from this region today, even though the activities have diversified since then," said Abbas, who owns four lorries which transport goods around this shopping centre.
After this first phase, he explained, the Amazighs who arrived from the southwest region of Morocco "discovered Derb Omar and set up shop there."
The Fassis and Amazighs came to replace the Jews and Christians who had dominated most of the trading activities in Casablanca, town planner André Adam wrote in 1968. "It was Eldorado, with huge potential for Moroccans," he said.
For many young Moroccans, the potential is still there. Cloth merchant Abdeljalil Daoued bought his premises in Derb Omar after working as an accountant in a shop in the same district for 10 years. His father always hoped to see his son own his own store in this district. "My father helped me a lot and he always told me that even though the cloth trade is not flourishing quite as it has in the past, it is still an honest job and can keep four or five families going," Daoued said.
He is finding, however, that business in Derb Omar has changed a lot. Cutthroat competition is eating more and more into profit margins. "At the moment, to become rich takes more than simply owning premises in Derb Omar. You also have to find good merchandise at a good price, seek out good suppliers, and put the message over to prospective customers," he said.
"This really is a full-time job which you have to carry out rigorously, without making the tiniest error," concluded Abdeljalil.
Another issue facing Derb Omar aspirants is that traders do not trust unfamiliar faces in their midst. Cheques and other methods of payment are rarely accepted, and then with great difficulty, for only word of mouth, good faith, honour and a good reputation are likely to make merchants solvent and credible.
David, a Moroccan Jewish trader, says the system of trade which is specific to Derb Omar leaves little room for modern payment practices: "Here, it is human relationships and customs which take precedence over cheques, bills and trading effects," he said. But Derb Omar’s own particular way of doing business is gradually disappearing. In addition to their customers having a good reputation, many traders demand legal and financial guarantees.
While Haj Bensalem, a trader in Derb Omar for more than 40 years, agrees that business in Derb Omar is no longer what it used to be, he notes that Derb Omar’s success is in the strong links forged between suppliers, wholesalers and customers.
Moreover, if the modern distribution system which is undergoing rapid development in Morocco has only partly managed to take hold of the national market, he says it is due to the formal and informal working practices of Derb Omar. Ethnic and family ties, control of distribution by small commercial units and deliveries by lorry give a closeness and flexibility to Derb Omar’s unique business model which modern distribution cannot push aside.
Even in the absence of precise figures on Derb Omar's share of the Moroccan economy, it is clear that the district provisions all of Morocco, said Chafiq Berrada of the Casablanca Chamber of Commerce.
The market faced a challenge in recent years, however. In 2000, Chinese traders started to invade Derb Omar. Arriving en masse, they specialise in almost all products, offering them at unbeatable prices. This situation has completely changed the commercial status quo in Derb Omar.
Having been threatened for some time by competition from Chinese products offered in Derb Omar, Moroccan traders now seem unfazed by their presence. "Today, Moroccans realise that quality is more important than price and Derb Omar’s customers have become more and more demanding in terms of quality," merchant Abderahim Raïs told Magharebia.
In order to protect Derb Omar from the occupation of its stores and warehouses by foreigners, traders in the village have agreed not to sell their properties to the Chinese. This way, the foreign merchants will have to remain simple tenants. "I feel it's a just war," Abderrahim Raïss said. According to statistics from the economic department of the Casa-Anfa commune, no fewer than 2,303 shops are currently trading in Derb Omar. The number of jobs created in 2007 was 7,643.
Casablanca locals see Derb Omar as part of their cultural heritage. Nationwide, it is seen as a unique success story which, down through the years, has given birth to a real economic and financial empire, becoming the main market in Morocco and one of the top melting-pots in Africa. It is on a par with the Sentier de Paris in France or even Boston’s commercial district in the United States.
Derb Omar is not a scene conjured up for tourist posters, said Haj Abbas. "It is about Moroccan families living every day in a harmonious setting composed by men and nature," he told Magharebia.
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