On the Refugee Stories That Begin Where Casablanca Ends ‹ Literary Hub


The first VCR my family ever owned came to us with a Betamax tape of a film recorded from television, commercials and all. The film was Michael Curtizs 1941 feature Casablanca. My parents assured my nine-year-old self that I would enjoy the movie about one of the greatest love stories ever told. I indeed ended up loving the film and understanding very little of it.

Over the years I have watched it countless times, and while the film was never longer than its 102-minute run, with every viewing it became increasingly complex. Casablanca may be a love story, or several love stories, but love is merely a backdrop to a much more interesting account about escape and survival. Casablanca reveals the attitudes that refugees fleeing from fascism had vis–vis racial structures brought about by centuries of conquests, occupations, and human trafficking.

The film does all this with certain Hollywood conventions, particularly its exotic setting that looks nothing like the place it is supposed to represent, given that Casablanca was shot entirely in Southern California, and leaving the fate of the world in the hands of two white and male heroes: resistance fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and American gin-joint owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart).

And yet, somehow, I remain fascinated by Casablanca, not so much because of the stories about love it may tell, but because of the many stories the film does not, cannot, or simply was not ready to tell.

Screen memories not only conceal the past; they may also provide access to it.

A voice, a path, a few images, and a map: these elements make up the opening credits of what may be the most popular story about refugees escape routes during World War II. We learn that, with the coming of the war, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon was the great embarkation point.

Yet not everybody could reach the Portuguese capital, as this entailed crossing Spain, then under Francisco Francos rule. Thus a torturous roundabout refugee trail sprang up. The trail extended from Paris to Marseille, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, by auto, or by foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. And there, the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck, might obtain an exit visa and scurry to Lisbon. But the others wait in Casablanca and wait, and wait and wait.

Refugees indeed escaped Europe via Lisbon and North Africa, yet there were many other routes, equally tortuous and roundabout. The fates of some of the fortunate, and of many of the unfortunate ones, along these routes are not always remembered, as they belong to the early history of our current political and moral failures, contained within a largely untouched archive.

My new book, Unexpected Routes: Refugee Writers in Mexico, tells some of the stories that, in a sense, begin where Casablanca ends. Shortly before the closing credits roll, Rick Blaine and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) ponder their next move: joining the resistance in the Congolese city of Brazzaville, where Charles de Gaulle had established the capital of Free France. At that point Rick voices one of the movies most quoted lines: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As the men walk into the early morning fog (an unlikely phenomenon in Morocco), their bond may have been beautiful, but it was also as uncertain as the wars outcome and their future. The films production wrapped in August of 1942, and while its opening in the United States coincided with the Allied invasion of North Africa in the same year, World War II and the massive displacements it caused were far from over.

Casablanca is a fictional account, but it has become the most recognizable screen memory of the escape and exile routes of World War II. Sigmund Freud coined the term screen memories (from, the German Deckerinnerungen) in 1899: these are recollections that take the place of other more significant and often traumatic memories.

Yet screen memories not only conceal the past; they may also provide access to it. In Michael Rothbergs words, The displacement that takes place in screen memory (indeed, all memory) functions as much to open up lines of communication with the past as to close them off. Casablancas same old story about a fight for love and glory told on screens big and small, provides an opportunity to think over those other stories of encounters and connections between individuals whose paths crossed in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (19361939) and during World War II. Not only are their stories worth knowing, telling them is part of a long-in-the-making overcoming of the twentieth century as a collective screen memory.

It all starts with the opening sequence: the film begins with a shot of a map of Africa. The story of European colonialism appears inscribed by the borders of Belgian Congo, Northern Rhodesia, Southwest Africa, and, of course, Spanish and French Morocco. At this point, the location of the films setting is marked solely with a white dot. Once the narration, voiced by Lou Marcelle, ensues, a globe that slowly turns from a view of the Pacific to Europe has taken the place of a map, as it is in Paris where the tortuous roundabout refugee route originates. The sequence also is the only one with actual footage of refugees. They are fleeing on truck beds or on foot and carrying their few belongings with them.

The name Casablanca only becomes visible on the map once its relevance as both a destination and a place of transit for displaced Europeans is evident. It is a location in French Morocco, where brave antifascist resistance fighters (and, eventually, a once-reluctant American, now cured from his cynicism) struggle against the Nazi occupation of Europe, yet never question that Morocco, too, has been occupied by a colonial power. Moreover, Moroccan subjects and local languages are conspicuously absent, in spite of the films otherwise multilingual and multinational cast, especially when it comes to supporting roles: Casablancas remarkable inclusivity as regards European refugees excludes the actual inhabitants of Casablanca itself.

The same phenomenon mirrors the ways in which displaced writers in the period often portray their places of transit and exile as well as the many locals they encountered along the way. In works they left behind (chronicles, poems, letters, fiction) they denounce the violence and cruelty that has forced them away from their homes, not always recognizing that violence and cruelty also were the fabric of the colonial and postcolonial societies that now offered them safety.

Ironically perhaps, Casablancas inaccuracies, its specific historical blunders, the unrealistic early morning fog scenes, and its Orientalist trappings and scenarios, make the film a rather genuine depiction of the contradictions that marked the experiences of refugees fleeing from fascism. In fact, Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, was a Jewish refugee from Hungary who had come to the United States in the 1920s.

Moreover, the films beautiful friendship rings true, as during the global refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s (not the first of its kind, but still the largest in numbers until the current crisis superseded it in 2016), peoples lives intersected along unexpected escape routes and in equally unexpected places. Two more aspects shown in the film also ring true.

First, escape routes were not only roundabout and tortuous, they were also very risky and required securing a long, sometimes impossible list of documents (exit visa, transit letters, safe-conduits, entrance visas, etc.) that left refugees desperate and made bribes and forgeries a necessity. To be sure, nobody would label as illegal immigrants well-known intellectuals and writers (among them philosopher Hannah Arendt) who were able to escape occupied Europe and settle elsewhere.

Yet many managed to escape from fascism because they themselves (or others on their behalf) were willing to forge documents, pay bribes, or cross borders clandestinely. Second, Casablancas North African setting also conjures up the colonial structures and respective racial hierarchies that European refugees encountered and took along with them in their imagined maps of the places where they would eventually settle. At times they challenged these structures and hierarchies as they escaped from fascism, but they also ignored or accommodated to them. Not rarely, they also supported them.

The sound of roots still reverberates in routes, perhaps as a constant reminder of the devastating effects of deracination.

Unexpected Routes chronicles the refugees attempts (not always successful) to flee and their experiences in the early years of exile, when the outcome of World War II was uncertain. Alas, their multiple losses were already hauntingly clear. Routes conjures up the similar sounding roots, thereby addressing ongoing tensions between origins and stillness (roots) and displacement and mobility (routes). Yearning for roots, for a sense of security or an inherent sense of belonging was, and is, common for people on the move.

Yet escape routes took refugees to places such as Casablanca, Martinique, Mexico City, or San Cristbal de las Casas, where stark inequalities, racial and otherwise, were a consequence of colonial rule, often justified with notions like fixed origins, static identities, and unchanging places. One of the main contradictions that this book explores is how refugees coveted a sense of rootedness, even though the world they had to flee (fascist-occupied Europe) was one where a belief in fixed, eternal, essential, and rooted national and racial identities was leading to mass death and destruction.

The cruel irony here is that deep historical endorsement of collective roots had led to routes of massive displacement, which in turn reinforced the allure of roots. Home, for sure, had its appeal, but refuge (i.e., safety) was more important, and so the comfortable and familiar became dangerous, while the new and strange provided safety. The sound of roots still reverberates in routes, perhaps as a constant reminder of the devastating effects of deracination.

The intellectuals and writers forced away from their homes in the 1930s and 1940s had to re-imagine a world where they were suddenly torn not only from land, communities, traditions, and histories, but [also] from reality itself.

Today, the numbers of displaced people (by the end of 2022, 100 million) exceed those of World War II, and the geographies and directions of refugees flight routes have shifted. Yet contemporary refugee law, as well as a more general understanding of the term refugee are drawn from massive displacements in 1930s and 1940s, making the narratives and the contradictions from this period all the more relevant for understanding the plight of the displaced in the present-day world.

The experiences of refugees in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and during World War II and those of today are by no means identical, yet forced displacement in the twentieth century provides numerous lessons for current events. Referring specifically to Jewish refugees in Portugal in the 1940s and todays refugees, Marion Kaplan addresses the shared experiences of these different communities: Despite vast differences in time, place, religion, and ethnicity, the groups share similarities, not least being forced to flee from homes and loved ones and hoping for a safe place while waiting in limbo.

Grasping the history of refugees is about more than understanding a particularity with its diverse manifestations in different decades; instead, it implies considering that refugee history is everybodys history and that the politics of moving people are central to modern history. Rather than providing a comprehensive account of all possible outcomes that the escape from fascism across the Atlantic may have had, my new book, Unexpected Routes: Refugee Writers in Mexico, examines individual stories of displacement, survival, loss, and grief, with all their idiosyncrasies and contradictions.


Excerpted fromUnexpected Routes: Refugee Writers in Mexico by Tabea Alexa Linhard. Published by Stanford University Press. Copyright 2023. All Rights Reserved.

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