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Colonial tourism and prostitution: the visit to Bousbir in Casablanca (1924-1955)

Jean-François Staszak
Traduction de Jean-François Staszak
Cet article est une traduction de :
Tourisme et prostitution coloniales : la visite de Bousbir à Casablanca (1924-1955) [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Turismo y prostitución coloniales: la visita a Bousbir en Casablanca (1924-1955) [es]


This article is about touristic visits to Bousbir, Casablanca’s red-light district during the French colonial period. Bousbir was a kind of erotic-exotic theme park, visited by both the local population and travelers. It was an essential stop on any visit to Casablanca, and hence to Morocco. The Bousbir touristic experience had elements, all at once, of colonial travel, excursions to red-light districts, slumming, and visits to the great works of the French Empire. The appeal of Bousbir was in making available – at the same time morally scandalous and politically admirable – the indigenous female body in an oriental setting. The history of Bousbir invites us to question the connections between tourism and prostitution, and more specifically between (neo)colonial tourism and sex tourism.

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  • 1 The principal documentary sources for Bousbir are two reports, one written by a French administrato (...)
  • 2 All translations from French are ours unless otherwise noted.

1At the beginning of the 1920s, colonial authorities in Casablanca decided to establish an unprecedented solution to the “problem of prostitution” by building a vast enclosed neighborhood dedicated to the sex trade on the outskirts of the city. Bousbir, as it is called, was the red-light district of Casablanca from 1924 to 1955 (Bernard 1935, Mathieu et Maury 1951)1. It quickly became a “world-renowned rendezvous [with a] setting so varied, so notable, it satisfies anyone seeking local color”2 (Hygiène 1937 :78).

  • 3 Scientific literature often prefers the expression “sex worker” to that of “prostitute”, judged—par (...)

2This article is about the touristic attraction that Bousbir became during the colonial period, focusing essentially on its visitors. This bias clearly does not imply that we should ignore the violence suffered by the sex workers3 who worked there. The phenomenon of Bousbir is not limited to the aspects brought up here, and invites other lines of inquiry (Maghraoui 2008, Staszak 2014, Taraud 2003, 2006).

3What part of visitors to Bousbir could be considered tourists ? This seemingly trivial question is the point of departure for this text. If it proves hard to answer, it is true that sources may be lacking, but above all it is difficult to establish criteria by which to determine if a given visitor to Bousbir was, or was not, a tourist. The person’s provenance ? Identity ? Motives ? Practices ?, Touristic practices ? And finally, what is the sense and relevance in posing this question ?

4The concern here is not to enter the debate over the definition of tourism, but rather to examine tourism at Bousbir in light of its unquestionably sexual and colonial context. This article seeks to interrogate the relations between tourism, colonialism. and sexuality. This conceptual triangle is approached from each of its sides : tourism-colonization, tourism-sexuality, colonization-sexuality (to cite but one significant reference for each of these articulations, see Zytnicki et Kazdaghli 2009, Brennan 2004, McClintock 1995). Its configuration taken as a whole however has hardly been explored : it constitutes the theoretical concern of the present text, which addresses the question of the sexual dimension of colonial tourism, and the colonial dimension of sexual tourism.

5The first part of this article briefly presents Bousbir. The second concerns tourist visitation to the district, and the third focuses on the nature of tourist practices in Bousbir. The last part draws out the lessons of colonial tourism in Bousbir so as to examine, on a critical and theoretical level, the relationships between tourism and prostitution.

Bousbir: prison and theme park

6In Morocco as in many other parts of European empires, colonial prostitution was seen as a “necessary evil” (Lauro 2005, Levine 2003, Taraud 2003). Considered the only possible answer to the sexual “needs” of the male European population—but also a source of venereal disease, moral contamination, and social ills—prostitution was not to be eradicated, but rather controlled to limit its damages.

7Casablanca was the showcase of the French empire and a site for urban experimentation (Cohen and Eleb 1998). It was logical that there colonial authorities would seek a modern and rational response to the question of prostitution (Maghraoui 2008), and to be expected that they would formulate it in spatial terms. Red-light districts existed in numerous cities of Europe and the colonies, but none had been constructed specifically for this purpose as was Bousbir.

  • 4 The number of European sex workers at Bousbir was at most 25 (Bernard 1935). During the 1950s, the (...)

8The district formed a rectangle 160 meters by 150 meters, encircled by a high, windowless wall with a single public entrance (fig. 1). The closing off of Bousbir and its placement at the edge of the built-up part of the city guaranteed good conditions for control and a measure of discretion. Between 450 and 680 women, Moors or Jews4, lived there and sold their sexual service to 1000 to 1,500 visitors per day (Bernard 1935). Bousbir included a cinema, a sauna, cabarets, restaurants, cafés, numerous boutiques, a police station and barracks, a prison, and a dispensary. The district was organized like an autonomous town but clearly had a prison-like character. The sex workers were allowed to leave the district only once a week, after receiving a permit from the police and the doctor ; 37 % of them had been brought to Bousbir after having been arrested for illicit prostitution on the streets of the city ; 70 % of Bousbir’s workers were heavily indebted to the “madam” who lodged them, so much so that they couldn’t leave the district.

Figure 1. Casablanca, aerial view of the red-light district known as Bousbir

Figure 1. Casablanca, aerial view of the red-light district known as Bousbir

Photographed by Frandrin. Author’s personal collection.

9Bousbir could be described in Foucaldian terms as a hypermodern apparatus for the exercise of biopower (Stazak 2014), yet its architecture was hardly modern. The district was conceived in a neo-Moorish style suggesting the scenery of the Thousand and One Nights. The architect, Edmond Brion, had chosen to design the buildings and urban landscape according to the orientalist taste of the visitors to the district (fig. 2).

  • 5 All witnesses attest to the visual experience; many evoke the sounds, and some the tastes and fragr (...)

10The visit to Bousbir wasn’t limited to sexual relations with the sex workers. One could (also) stroll along the streets while watching the women solicit clients ; stop at a terrace to take in the animated scene and listen to oriental music ; go to a belly dance, a strip-tease or, for the more audacious, a pornographic show ; taste the Moroccan cuisine ; admire the picturesque architecture ; purchase handcrafts or postcards. “It is a place for strolling where one can witness the most curious scenes, hear phonograph records from the Arab world, marvel at the evocative dances of the chleuhs [Berbers] or be stirred by the daughters of the Orient” (Privat 1934 :176). Bousbir offered an immersive, multi-sensorial experience5 of the exotic and erotic atmosphere of the Orient. Of course, the site was artificial, and that didn’t escape the greater part of the visitors, who nonetheless didn’t cease to extol the charms of the locale.

Figure 2. Casablanca, red-light district

Figure 2. Casablanca, red-light district

Photo Palace edition. Author’s personal collection.

11If, from the point of view of the women who worked there, Bousbir functioned as a more-or-less coercive work-camp, from the visitors’ perspective it came off as “a Magic City or Luna Park specialized in the games of the popular Venus” (Mac Orlan 1934 :44), or akin to “one of those artificial towns that one finds at some expositions” (Beauvoir 1960 :380). Bousbir “is something of a show and Coney Island combined” (De Leuuw 1951 :69).

12At the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, red-light districts and amusement parks in fact had remarkable functional, geographic and architectural similarities (Keire 2010). The red-light district of Amsterdam, De Wallen, has been equally described as a theme park, except that it was not conceived for that end, it was opened within the city, and it can be entered for free (Aalbers and Sabat 2012, Nijman 1999). Bousbir, on the contrary, was very much created for receiving its visitors, and its enclosure heightened its similarity to a theme park.

13Several visitors noted how the walls and the gate set the stage for the visit to the district, in this way creating a world apart. “Crossing the entry gate, unique and solemn […] one feels as though one has taken an enormous leap in space and even time” (Hygiène 1937 :77-78). “An enormous gate, massive and powerful […] magnificently separates Bousbir from the rest of the city, and the city of love becomes a forbidden city” (Grancher 1956 :238). Another element attests to the heterotopic character of its spaces : the names of the streets evoked the women of Marrakech, Fez or Meknès (Marrakchia, Fessia, Meknassia), pointing to the supposed places of origin of the workers who officiated there. The visitor to Bousbir in this way traveled through a microcosm of the sharifian kingdom : moving through the ensemble of the Protectorate, inspecting all its marvels.

14In these ways, Bousbir for visitors was an erotic-exotic theme park giving them access to the oriental charms of Morocco (Stazak 2014).

Who were the tourists to Bousbir?

  • 6 Bousbir is not mentioned in the Guides bleus, nor in Le Maroc, published in 1928 by the Fédération (...)

15“The red-light district of Casablanca, has often tempted the curiosity of tourists and makes for an entertaining interlude that guides will insert into their programs to break the monotony. It is in this way that buses bring waves of tourists, during cruise-ship season, armed with Kodaks” (Afrique Illustrée 29/9/1934 :11). Beyond the numerous testimonies, the touristic nature of the district is attested to by inclusion in four of the six tourist guides6 appearing between 1924 and 1955 that I have been able to consult : Casablanca et sa région, the official guide booklet of the regional tourist bureau (1934) (cf. fig. 7) ; the Guide du Maroc, of Editions Maroc-Presse (1936), the Guide Michelin dedicated to Morocco (1939, 1950) (fig.3) ; and the bilingual guide published by the Havas Marocaine bureau, Le Maroc / Morocco (1952). In parallel, some one hundred different postcards, sold individually or in sets in Casablanca and probably Bousbir, featured the district. Postcards of Bousbir were also included in booklets dedicated to Casablanca, such as a booklet of “20 detachable views”, the 20th being a view of Bousbir. The district was a stop in the tourist tour, the last but probably not the least.

16Casablanca, on account of its important port, constituted the “gateway to Morocco” (cf. fig. 7), and most visitors passed through it, having set sail from Bordeaux or Marseille. The city had some 4000 hotel rooms in 1929, that is five times more than Marrakech (Colliez 1930 :480). In 1933, 36,600 tourists disembarked in Casablanca ; ninety-five percent of these arrived on cruise ships (De Mazières 1934). To the great consternation of local authorities and businesses, they spent little time in Casablanca, which offered few attractions. Before setting off on special trains for more coveted destinations (Rabat, Marrakech) or returning to their ship, the tourists at best visited the port, the old medina (judged of little interest), the European part of the city, the new medina and, above all, Bousbir. Travel agents “regretted that they allowed tourists just a couple of hours in Casablanca, taking them immediately to lunch in Rabat and elsewhere, and that instead of having them visit the interesting sites of our city, they are happy to take them on a short tour of Bousbir and then send them in some other direction” (Annales africaines, 15/7/1933 :263).

17The tourists came to Bousbir in groups with a guide, in pairs, and rarely alone. According to the testimony of one sex worker, “the tourists, rather numerous at certain times of the year, almost never ‘go to bed’ but are content to drink mint tea and watch belly dances” (Mathieu and Maury 1951 :144). Tourists visited Bousbir as spectators. They didn’t generally come to Morocco or particularly to Bousbir to take advantage of prostitution, and they wouldn’t fall into the category of “sex tourists”, classically defined as tourists who travel in order to buy sexual services. Yet it is likely that some were situational sex-tourists, that is, travelers for whom the local situation led them to take up offers of prostitution (O’Connell Davidson 1996). In the realm of red-light districts, Bousbir in the past offered the same configuration as Amsterdam’s red-light district does today, essentially visited by curious tourists or voyeurs who want to enjoy the spectacle without necessarily going further.

Figure 3. Map of Casablanca

Figure 3. Map of Casablanca

Michelin Guide, 1949. Author’s personal collection.

18From this, a visit to Bousbir was considered harmless and acceptable as such. “There reigns an order and tranquility there that allowed [even] the visit of an eminent and virtuous member of the Académie Française” (Le Maroc / Morocco 1952 :87). Old postcards of Bousbir that I have found had been sent to a wife, a mother, a colleague or neighbor, without, in most cases it seems, causing problems, the text of the sender not even referring to the image on the other side. The logic at work was made explicit in one post card (“The Reception guard of the red-light district,” fig. 5) where the sender explained that it was sent merely “for informative purposes”, revealing a rare need for justification : “I wouldn’t want you to think that I pass my days and nights there to fill my free time. It is a veritable city of 2,000 persons which furthermore forms part of tourist routes and, as they say, to enter there isn’t to commit to anything”. By distinguishing himself from the clients of the sex workers, by appealing to the backing of the tourism operators, and by inscribing himself among the community of visitors of the same kind (“they”), the sender claims his status as a “mere” tourist, which excuses and even legitimizes his presence in Bousbir, and his choice of the postcard.

19One can distinguish four types of visitors to Bousbir in accord with their places of origin, more or less distant. The Westerners, essentially French, English or American, fresh off their cruise ships, are identified as tourists in testimonies from the period, which evoke for example the cameras with which they were equipped. If one calculates that most of the cruise passengers who disembarked in Casablanca as well as some Europeans arriving by terrestrial routes ended up in Bousbir, we can estimate that international tourists made up perhaps a tenth of the district’s frequentation. Furthermore, some travelers, coming from the Maghreb Protectorate, passed through Casablanca for pleasure or business and may have on such occasions visited Bousbir as tourists, even if they were less easily recognized as such. At times they would opt to rent a room in Bousbir rather than to stay in a hotel. Staying in Casablanca for at least several days, at times alone, they were probably more inclined to avail themselves of the offer of prostitution then the international tourists. But it was the many sailors called to port in Casablanca (the fourth-ranking port of the French Union in 1948) and above all military personnel—colonial infantry, French-organized Berber regiments (zouaves), Moroccan and Senegalese foot soldiers, indigenous cavalry (spahis), Foreign Legion, Moroccan soldiers of the French army (goumiers), etc.—posted in Casablanca or there on leave, who formed the principal clientele of the sex workers : it was precisely to satisfy their “needs,” linked to their compulsory bachelorhood, that Bousbir was created. Finally, the nearby inhabitants of Casablanca and the surrounding region, natives or not, regularly could visit Bousibir and frequent its brothels.

20One might think that there were, on the one hand, European tourists inclined toward Bousbir’s exoticism but less to the temptation of prostitution, and on the other, visitors who were more or less local and for whom exoticism was not a factor, and who came to Bousbir only for the availability of prostitution. This might be plausible if Bousbir resembled other districts of Casablanca or other red-light districts. But there is nothing of it. Bousbir was a simulacrum (Baudrillard 1981) ; the copy of something which did not exist. As an erotic-oriental theme park, the district had no match. The city brothels where European sex workers officiated were open only to clients, and did not present the same decor or ambiance as in Bousbir. The streets of Casablanca where local sex workers operated illicitly were seedy and had nothing of the color of Bousbir. Even for inhabitants of the Protectorate, Bousbir offered a special experience and its atmosphere could have considerable charm and appeal, enough to justify a visit in full view of everyone. M. Flandrin, the photographer and publisher of most of the postcards depicting Bousbir, took care to have some of these labeled in French, English, as well as Arabic (fig. 4), judging that the district constituted a spectacle and tourist attraction even for those not speaking the colonial language].

Figure 4. Casablanca, a corner of the private ward

Figure 4. Casablanca, a corner of the private ward

Photographed by Frandrin. Author’s personal collection.

21Whether one visits Euro Disney coming from Paris, Berlin or New York doesn’t have much bearing on the visit to the park. If tourism is defined as a displacement in pursuit of leisure away from the places of everyday life, all visitors to Disney are tourists, because the park is located absolutely elsewhere in an imaginary land. If one can risk the comparison, the same was true for Bousbir. The district was an everyday place only for those who worked there ; for all the visitors, Bousbir was another world. All visitors to Bousbir were more or less tourists in the sense that, crossing the entrance gate to the district, they left Casablanca, Morocco, and their real world, entering straight into an erotic, exotic, orientalist geographic imaginary, materialized in Bousbir’s architecture and incarnated in the performances of the sex workers (clothing, belly dances, etc.).

22Furthermore, the pretext of tourism provided legitimacy for some visitors who, without this justification (this cover ?), would have felt less authorized to come to Bousbir and to take advantage—to what extent ?—of the site’s attractions.

The visit to Bousbir

23Though Bousbir constituted a unique place, a visit to the district did not imply going far off the beaten track, since it made sense within a broader context of tourism and echoed well-established tourist practices (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Casablanca, Reception Guard of the red-light district

Figure 5. Casablanca, Reception Guard of the red-light district

L.M. editions. Author’s personal collection.

24The first was that of colonial tourism. Tourism to Morocco was in plain expansion during the years 1920 to 1930, and the Protectorate appeared ahead in this regard compared with other parts of the empire (Colliez 1930, De Mazières 1934, 1935, Kahn 1921, Hillali 2007, Kazdaghli 2009, Llanes 2009, Stafford 1996). “Pacification” of the territory and the strengthening of transportation infrastructure had, toward the end of the 1910s, opened the territory to international tourists, which before did not travel further than Tangier. It comprised, on the one hand, itinerant tourism which brought westerners keen on orientalism to visit the imperial cities (Marrakech, Fez, Meknès, Rabat), the Roman ruins (Volubilis), and natural features (deserts and oases, shores and mountains), and on the other hand, the tourism of passing the summer (Ifrane), or more commonly the winter (Marrakech), drawing wealthy Europeans, English or French, to make extended stays at locales known for their climate or landscape. Multiple actors were engaged in tourism development : colonial authorities (highly involved in developing tourism at the general Residency – the seat of colonial authority in Morocco – and in each of the corresponding cities), local business associations, tourist bureaus, cruise-ship and railroad companies (which organized tours and owned the principal hotels), associations such as the Touring Club de France or the Moroccan Automobile Club, the publishers of guides (Hachette, Michelin) and postcards (Flandrin in Casablanca), etc. The promotion of tourism in the colonies had economic aims, in terms of local development, but also an ideological purpose : a visit to the Empire, just like to the colonial expositions which served as substitutes, served as an “object lesson” (Furlough 2002) regarding the Empire and colonization—a much needed lesson, given that the French were poorly informed about the colonies and little inclined toward adventure. “Tourism is […] the best argument for the project of these forty years of French presence in Morocco” (Quarante ans, 1953). In 1949, 150,000 tourists visited Morocco ; in 1953 they numbered 253,000 (Stafford 1996 :35). Bousbir was among the most picturesque stops of their journey to the Protectorate.

25The second touristic context was that of visits to red-light districts. Bousbir in fact was not the only red-light district in North Africa to attract tourists. “Some [travel agencies] didn’t hesitate to point out red-light districts in their programs as one of the principal, specifically-Moroccan curiosities for any trip to the land of the Maghreb !” (Lépinay 1936 :205). Along the same lines, in the film Pépe le Moko (J. Duvivier, 1937) we follow two rich French couples venture into the casbah of Algiers to take in the spectacle of exoticism and local prostitution, which indeed served as a first-rate asset for tourism (Ferhati 2007, 2009). Beyond North Africa and the red-light districts of Algiers or of Fez, the “rue des Ouled-Naïls” in Biskra and Bou-Saâda (Ferhati 2003, 2007), several large, world-famous red-light districts were major tourist attractions on an international scale. Such was the case with Storyville, in New Orleans, between 1897 and 1917 ; Yoshiwara, in Tokyo, up until the abolition of prostitution in 1958 ; and the red-light district of Marseille, before its destruction in 1943.

  • 7 Bertrand (1931), in his plan for a red-light district in Tunis, went further, recommending that “ac (...)

26It was the combination of colonial touristic practices and visits to red-light districts, and the articulation of matrices of race and gender domination that corresponded to these, that made the bodies of indigenous women and Bousbir into tourist attractions. Conforming to an intersectional logic, the visitors to Bousbir who weren’t white males held a secondary status there. The Moroccan infantrymen or the Senegalese could only visit the district on certain days and weren’t authorized to visit the Jewish sex workers, nor the very few western sex workers. The western women who visited the district did not arrive unaccompanied, could not engage the services of the sex workers, and didn’t have the right to attend the more explicit shows. Their presence in Bousbir was considered unwholesome by those who would have preferred that tourism to Bousbir remained a homosocial activity : among the tourists, “the women were the most relentless. Curiosity ? Vice ? Both.”(Grancher 1956 :242). The presence of male visitors in Bousbir was legitimate because there they satisfied sexual “needs” ; the presence of women visitors was suspect because it reflected either an unacceptable voyeurism, for its gratuitousness, or a scandalous erotic interest, for being lesbian[7]. The guide Casablanca et sa région (1934 :10) judged the visit to Bousbir “not recommended for children or girls”.

27The matrix of class domination was also at work in Bousbir, to the extent that the women who worked there constituted an urban sub-proletariat compared to their (much) better-off clients. The element of misery points to a third interpretation of tourism at Bousbir. Just across the way from Bousbir was one of Casablanca’s large slums : Ben M’Sik, home to over 50,000 people in 1954. It was portrayed in multiple postcards (fig. 6) and constituted a tourist attraction. “Within its walls, Casablanca has so many hidden treasures eagerly sought by tourists […] There is also, very close to Casablanca, a fairy-tale city : Bidonville [shanty town]. Nowhere else can a visitor to take in such an agglomeration. Thousands and thousands of shacks made out of metal sheets coming from old cans. With regard to Bousbir, decency doesn’t allow it to be described. It is an immense temple, an entire neighborhood, where the priestesses to the god Eros are packed in” (Afrique illustrée, 17/2/1934 :32-33). P. Mac Orlan (1934 :44), visiting Bousbir, began by mentioning the panorama of Bidonville, “that capital of the ‘penniless’”. “A naked black woman, with an orange and gold head scarf, as I spotted on one of the sordid back streets of this nightmare of a town, is a rather rare spectacle that one doesn’t forget”. P. Wyndham Lewis (1932 :71), a British writer and painter, compared the two neighborhoods, even suggesting renaming Bousbir Strumpetville. In fact, Biodonville was also a site of prostitution, but it didn’t lend itself as easily as Bousbir to visits by tourists. Some visitors even came to confuse the two districts, claiming that Bidonville was “the true name of Bousbir” (Flash, 7/12/1959).

Figure 6. Casablanca, indigenous district, shantytown

Figure 6. Casablanca, indigenous district, shantytown

Alsacienne des Arts Photomécaniques. Author’s personal collection.

28Bidonville and Bousbir were considered tourist attractions along the same lines, and it was suggested to pass from one to the other, since the two neighborhoods presented spectacles of a similar nature. Slumming was a tourist practice that arose at the end of the nineteenth century, and for the wealthy residents of London or New York consisted of visiting the neighborhoods of the most impoverished classes of the city, ethnic and sexual minorities, so as to be scandalized while enjoying the spectacle of their alterity and deviance, which evidently reassured the visitors in their sense of their proper identity and the value of their norms of decency (Heap 2009, Koven 2004). This practice constitutes the third touristic context underlying visits to Bousbir : it was precisely in this vein that that the guide Casablanca et sa région (1934 :10) and the Michelin guide (1950 :103), in beautiful unanimity, recommended it to “amateur tourist”, or the “curious”, in “studies of habits and customs”. The visit to Bousbir played upon logics of attraction/repulsion, identity construction, and alterity proper to slumming. In large western cities, this practice reassured the moral and political order (in its racial, social, and sexual configurations) ; in Casablanca, it also justified the colonial order.

29The spectacle of prostitution was not only exotic and erotic, it was also moral and political. One saw at work in Bousbir a transgression of norms, if not of the law. That the sex workers there were essentially non-Europeans allowed that their “error” not be imputed to human nature (which the visitors, both men and women, would have in common with the sex workers) but rather to vice supposedly inherent to “inferior races”. Europeans (women as well as men ?) who visited Bousbir could leave there not only unsoiled but also edified : reassured in their racist and sexist prejudices, their colonial ideology, and the certainty of their inherent superiority. A visit to Bousbir formed part in this way in the object lesson of colonial tourism and justified colonization in its civilizing mission—despite the fact that it was the colonial authority that had orchestrated the red-light district.

30In parallel, multiple testimonies attest to the fascination visitors felt for the urban creation that was Bousbir : “that capital of prostitution, which is said to be unique in the world for its scope and organization” (Afrique illustrée, 29/9/1934 :11), “a red-light district unlike any other… one of the largest in the world, to begin” (Grancher 1956 :12), “the biggest sex and sin prison on the face of the earth” (True Adventure, Nov. 1957). “Bousbir is a truly unusual site, since one won’t find in Morocco, nor without doubt anywhere else in North Africa, a red-light district as sharply defined and utterly separated from the rest of the world” (Afrique illustrée, 4/10/1930). “Bousbir ! The red-light masterpiece !” (Qui ? Détective, 6/11/1947 :73). The achievement of the district evoked admiration : “nothing seemed to have been overlooked by these French experts in their zeal and desire to metamorphose the erstwhile mess into a modern town” (De Leeuw 1951 :69).

31A postcard by Flandrin (cf. fig. 1) illustrates the nature of this fascination : it shows an aerial view of the district, making it possible to appreciate its scale, surrounding wall, layout, and insertion in the urban milieu. Moreover, it was a card of this kind that served for introducing Bousbir by a passing journalist writing a book about L’Afrique galante : “Bousbir […] is now a veritable modern town […] You will be filled with wonder as you visit it with me. At the gate of Bousbir, there is a garage […] They’ve even created a dedicated bus line […] Here, take a look, these postcards were published by the great Casablanca photographer, M. Flandrin. He’s a specialist in aerial photography. He has captured Bousbir from up high from an airplane. You can see it is immense” (Salardenne 1932 :32-33). The modernity of the district, illustrated by its organized transportation and size, was the first attribute put forward to promote interest and visits, by the journalist who indeed strongly appreciated this “delicious city, so pretty and charming that all the young Arab girls of Casablanca already dream of going there to live” (idem :35). Bousbir “doesn’t have the messiness of other Mediterranean red-light districts” (Michelin guide 1950 :103) : it’s an Orient made clean and orderly.

32Other postcards depict the district in various stages of construction The majority of the postcards don’t show prostitutes identifiable as such, but rather urban or architectural views. These images show an achievement of urban planning, from which one perceives the style, uniqueness, audacity, scope, order and modernity of Bousbir—in short, its success. Bousbir counts among the extraordinary achievements of French colonization, following in the example of bridges, dams, ports, hospitals and schools, which, as manifest proof of the benefits of the French presence, participated in other ways in the colonial object lesson (fig. 7). Such a visit was especially welcome in Casablanca, “one of the most beautiful examples of French colonization” (Guide bleu 1919 :63) : “The economic capital of Morocco with its magnificent rows of stylish buildings, its avenues buzzing with activity, its port constructed where, not long ago, there extended only arid desert soil and the open ocean roared—doesn’t it embody the genius of modern civilization and France as colonizer ?” (Annuaire de l’Automobile et du tourisme au Maroc 1937 : 34). The excursion to Bousbir thus was inscribed in a fourth tourist context : that of visits to the works of colonization. It was, furthermore, due to colonial planning and control that the trip to Bousbir could be made under good conditions of comfort and security. “Bousbir is a peaceful and refined red-light district”, a “model medina” (Mac Orlan 1934 : 49, 44, 47).

Figure 7. Cover of the tourist guide Casablanca and its region, 1934.

Figure 7. Cover of the tourist guide Casablanca and its region, 1934.

Author’s personal collection.

33The Bousbir touristic experience thus concerns, all at once and not without contradictions, colonial travel, excursions to red-light districts, slumming, and visits to the great works of the French Empire. Fundamentally, the appeal of Bousbir was in making available—both morally scandalous and politically admirable—the indigenous female body. Tourism to Bousbir was essentially and inextricably colonial and sexual. The eroticization of the Empire inherent to the colonial geographic imaginary and the power imbalances which transformed indigenous women into potential prostitutes had turned the Empire, in the eyes of Westerners, into a giant brothel. As such, the visit to Bousbir was not exceptional or deviant within colonial tourist practices : it is one of the purest examples. To evoke colonial tourism when talking of Bousbir is not simply to refer its context. It is rather to emphasize that colonial ideology and colonial relations of power formed the foundation for the touristic and prostitution-related activities that took place in the district, and that the visit, in turn, served as an object lesson justifying and reproducing the colonial order.

  • 8 Letter from the president of the Council, Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Berthelot to the Res (...)

34Colonial tourism however can not be reduced to the issues of exoticism and eroticism. In the French empire, also manifest were a variety of forms of the inverse model of identity tourism based on self-segregation and the reproduction of European models of the thermal spa (Jennings 2006) or mountain resort (Jennings 2011), for which Dalat, in the high plateaus of the Annamite range in Vietnam, or Ifrane, in the mid-Atlas mountains of Morocco (established in 1929) (fig.8) are perfect examples. On an axis situating the attractiveness of a tourist site either in terms of identity or alterity, Ifrane and Bousbir would stand at each extreme, between which stood more composite examples in Morocco.

Figure 8. Ifrane, general view of the city center covered in snow, CAP

Figure 8. Ifrane, general view of the city center covered in snow, CAP

Author’s personal collection.

Tourism, prostitution and sexual tourism: the lessons of Bousbir

35Bidonville and Bousbir were toponyms designating specific districts in Casablanca : after the 1930s, and with greater success and permanence for the first, these place names acquired generic meaning, designating marginal or illegal zones of occupation and spaces of prostitutions elsewhere in the francophone world. Urban planning may have arisen in Casablanca ; that Bousbir and Bidonville would be its only memorable achievements attests to the failure of the urban project undertaken there.

36Bousbir was abundantly criticized for its inefficacy toward the fight against venereal disease, its inability to hold more than 15 % of the sex workers of Casablanca (Adam 1968 :666), and the moral and political scandal that the red-light district represented among some sectors (religious, feminist, socialist and anticolonialist), so much so that the colonial authorities closed it down in April, 1955, one year prior to the independence of Morocco. The presence of tourists in Bousbir is mentioned in so many accounts that one can suppose that it was deemed shocking, yet it was never truly denounced. Without sources, it is difficult to know what the sex workers themselves thought of them, but it is likely that the tourists, rather wealthy, constituted a significant complementary source of income for them, especially through the erotic-exotic shows. The touristic success of Bousbir doesn’t seem to have embarrassed the colonial administration. In the 1930s, when they considered establishing red-light districts similar to Bousbir elsewhere, the notion caused some concern. “It is feared […] that a project conceived […] only in the interest of material and moral hygiene, in the end would only lead to the creation of a pleasure town where Marrakech gains a few features attractive to tourists, but also an unsavory reputation”, worried higher-ups in Paris8. In Tunis, “the prostitution district ought not be […] spectacular—because it would be inappropriate to make it into an amusement”, warned an administrator who had just been in Bousbir (Bernard 1935).

  • 9 Response of Lucien Saint to the letter cited in note 8
  • 10 Idem.

37The French administration had conceived of Bousbir as an answer to a public-health problem. Just as with prostitution itself, the district was a “necessary evil”, for which they would have preferred avoiding any publicity. The touristic success of Bousbir was an inconvenient surprise : tourists spread the word about the district, and their presence belied that it wasn’t just a “model center for the prevention of venereal diseases”9. The colonial administration risked nothing less than being in the prostitution business, with the red-light district “give[ing] to hostile propaganda a formidable pretext for denouncing [its] civilizing works”10. Paradoxically, for the French authorities, it wasn’t the presence of the prostitutes but that of the tourists that made Bousbir indecent.

38It wasn’t until the 1980s and the denunciation of sex tourism, for touristic visits to red-light districts, particularly in the third world, to come under general opprobrium. The scandal of joining tourism to prostitution however had however been evoked some years before, but as a figure in the rhetoric of third-world activism. In the 1970s, “some protestors maintained that ‘tourism is prostitution’, in the metaphoric sense that poor countries are forced to sell themselves to the rich in order to survive” Graburn 1983 :441). Graburn suggested taking this idea seriously and to “pursue the analogy, in the light of the ‘patriarchy/imperialism’ analysis”. Conversely, some have pointed to the common elements between the motivations of clients of sex workers (Ryan and Kinder 1996), or the practices of the clients of strip-tease clubs (Franck 2002), and those of tourists.

39Within the framework of colonial tourism generally, and particularly the visit to Bousbir, tourism and prostitution present more than just similarities. The exoticism inherent in tourism and the exoticism inherent in prostitution are in fact inseparable in the imaginary, motivations, and practices of clients/visitors (which explains why it would be difficult to distinguish tourists among these) as well as in the performances of the sex workers of Bousbir, such as the belly dance (Staszak 2008). Prostitution that has been made “ethnic” or “folkloric” (Ferhati 2007 :33) establishes indigenous women as touristic resources by transforming their bodies into an exotic landscape. The picturesque quality of the indigenous body/landscape is attested to by its depiction in so many postcards (Alloula 1981) (fig 9 and 10) which disrobe the Moorish woman while adorning her with elements deemed oriental. In a reverse movement, the exotic landscape, particularly that of the red-light districts, was transformed into an erotic body, desirable in itself, and of which the native women were nothing more than outgrowths or substitutes, as this description by Lucienne Favre (1937 :162) attests : “The Rue-aux-filles [Street-of-the Girls] of the casbah of Algiers ! More seductive, certainly, than the girls themselves […] We end up spellbound as much by the scenery as by that which overflows and amplifies it… So much so, that the flesh offered by the women seems offered as a necessary complement, an atmospheric prop […] We want these insipid sluts, because we can’t shape that great wall, enter into that perfume, break into that nuance, be satisfied with that basin made of marble !”. The eroticism of the body extends into [the surroundings just as the exoticism of the surroundings extends to the body. It was exactly to play upon these processes by which exoticism and eroticism feed one-another that the red-light district of Casablanca was made to look like a casbah. It is by the same movement that the body and the landscape, on the one hand, and tourism and prostitution, on the other, end up converging.

40The client who engaged prostitutes in Bousbir, regardless of where he came from, was very much a (situational) sex tourist ; what is relevant is that the business of prostitution and the business of tourism were indistinguishable. As for those who visited Bousbir “only” as spectators, one cannot claim that they didn’t engage prostitutes, since it was these, made into a tourist spectacle, who were precisely the goal of his or her visit. To go to a belly dance, strip-tease, or a pornographic show, one had to pay : the performances of those who made the spectacles possible were very much a kind of sex work. In this way it seems reasonable to qualify all visitors to Bousbir not only as tourists but further as sex tourists. Bousbir furthermore perfectly fulfills the defining criteria for sexscapes, a term coined to describe the major destinations for international sex tourism (Brennan 2005).

41Concerning, or in light of Bousbir, what is the usefulness of such comparisons between tourism and prostitution, and what is the relevance of using the category “sex tourism” ?

Figure 9. Casablanca, Bousbir main square and movie theater

Figure 9. Casablanca, Bousbir main square and movie theater

La Cigogne editions. Author’s personal collection.

Figure 10. Typical scenes and people. Tea in the red-light district

Figure 10. Typical scenes and people. Tea in the red-light district

La Cicogne editions. Author’s personal collection.

42The expression “sex tourism”, which spread in the 1980s to designate and denounce a practice which had been established in earlier decades, poses several theoretical problems (Oppermann 1999, Roux 2011). To speak of sex tourism with regard to Bousbir is certainly relevant, but it doesn’t contribute much to our understanding of the site, not because the label would be anachronistic, but rather because the conceptual weaknesses of the category make it not very workable. On the other hand, to inscribe sexual tourism in a longer history of which Bousbir is one instance has heuristic value : beyond challenging the established timeline, it demonstrates that sex tourism perpetuates and reproduces an imaginary and relations of power which arose with colonization (Staszak, 2013). To say that Bousbir anticipated sexual tourism is less useful than to interrogate, in light of the district, the degree to which current sex tourism presents aspects which are (neo)colonial.

43Similarly, to consider tourism a form of prostitution doesn’t necessarily help us better understand the phenomenon of tourism. On the other hand, interpreting prostitution as a form of tourism is heuristically. To show how all visitors to Bousbir appealed to the offer of prostitution is less interesting than to analyze, by way of the case of the district, how a visit to a sex worker presents a touristic dimension. In most European countries, the majority of sex workers are immigrants. Why talk about sex tourism when it is the client who travels, but not when it is the sex worker (Oppermann 1990). The erotic appeal of the sex workers could pertain to their exoticism in Paris just as in Bousbir, for reasons which are similar and inherent to (neo)colonial ideology and relations of power. The difference is only that, in the first case, it is the sex worker who has paid the economic, symbolic, and social costs of displacement.


44Finally, what does Bousbir teach us about colonial tourism?

45First, the district confirms that colonial prostitution served as a tourist attraction. It shows that sex tourism was one form of colonial tourism, and illustrates processes of exoticization and eroticization which made certain colonies into touristic resources.

46Second, the district invites us to define colonial tourism less in terms of the source of visitors, the site itself, or the context of the visit, but rather in terms of the relations of power which structure it. The relations of power inherent to the colonial situation rest on matrices of race as well as class and gender domination. Their asymmetry constitutes both the condition and the object of the visit to Bousbir, which in turn contributes to their reproduction.

47Third, Bousbir brings to view the similarities between colonial tourism and certain current forms of prostitution and sex tourism. There we can see continuities which attest to the neocolonial impregnation of the sex trade, particularly in touristic contexts, and invite us to reconsider the chronology of sex tourism, which would prove older than is commonly recognized.

48The touristic success of Bousbir resulted from the enthusiasm of visitors for a district that so perfectly embodied their orientalist dream, through the neo-Moorish scenery constructed by E. Brion and the exotic and erotic performances of the sex workers who officiated there. It isn’t without utility at this stage to underline that, for many of these, the reality of Bousbir was probably more of a nightmare.

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1 The principal documentary sources for Bousbir are two reports, one written by a French administrator in Tunis (Bernard 1931), the other by two French doctors in Morocco (Mathieu and Maury 1951). Unless otherwise indicated, the factual information mentioned in this text comes from the latter text.

2 All translations from French are ours unless otherwise noted.

3 Scientific literature often prefers the expression “sex worker” to that of “prostitute”, judged—particularly by sex workers—to be essentialist and stigmatizing. This term however poses a problem in the case of Bousbir. The forms of coercion exercised over some of these “sex workers” leads one to think that their autonomy and freedom of choice was very limited. They could be equally qualified as sexual slaves.

4 The number of European sex workers at Bousbir was at most 25 (Bernard 1935). During the 1950s, the district no longer held any. The Jews represented no more than 5% of the sex workers. A few transvestites could be found in the district as well.

5 All witnesses attest to the visual experience; many evoke the sounds, and some the tastes and fragrances. Paradoxically, the tactile and sexual experience, strictly speaking, is raised less often.

6 Bousbir is not mentioned in the Guides bleus, nor in Le Maroc, published in 1928 by the Fédération des Syndicat d’initiative et de tourisme du Maroc (Casablanca, Imprimerie française), nor in the Guide to Morocco, published by the Moroccan Courier in Casablanca under the auspices of the Office Marocain du Tourisme in 1956 (after the closure of the district, it’s true). I’m not in a position to say why a given guide mentioned or not Bousbir.

7 Bertrand (1931), in his plan for a red-light district in Tunis, went further, recommending that “access to the district be strictly forbidden to minors of both sexes, and to all women other than the prostitutes”.

8 Letter from the president of the Council, Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Berthelot to the Resident General Lucien Saint, November 12, 1932. Diplomatic Archives of Nantes.

9 Response of Lucien Saint to the letter cited in note 8

10 Idem.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Casablanca, aerial view of the red-light district known as Bousbir
Crédits Photographed by Frandrin. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure 2. Casablanca, red-light district
Crédits Photo Palace edition. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Figure 3. Map of Casablanca
Crédits Michelin Guide, 1949. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 256k
Titre Figure 4. Casablanca, a corner of the private ward
Crédits Photographed by Frandrin. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 272k
Titre Figure 5. Casablanca, Reception Guard of the red-light district
Crédits L.M. editions. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Titre Figure 6. Casablanca, indigenous district, shantytown
Crédits Alsacienne des Arts Photomécaniques. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure 7. Cover of the tourist guide Casablanca and its region, 1934.
Crédits Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/png, 916k
Titre Figure 8. Ifrane, general view of the city center covered in snow, CAP
Crédits Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 128k
Titre Figure 9. Casablanca, Bousbir main square and movie theater
Crédits La Cigogne editions. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Titre Figure 10. Typical scenes and people. Tea in the red-light district
Crédits La Cicogne editions. Author’s personal collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 300k
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Jean-François Staszak, « Colonial tourism and prostitution: the visit to Bousbir in Casablanca (1924-1955) », Via [En ligne], 8 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2015, consulté le 14 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-François Staszak

Professor of geography, University of Geneva

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Jean-François Staszak

Professor of geography, University of Geneva

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