Of all the gin joints to open: Rick's in Casablanca

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The Independent Online

There's a new gin joint in town, and now everybody comes to Rick's. In homage to the 1942 movie Casablanca, a former US diplomat has spent two years and invested $1m to bring Rick's Café to Morocco's largest city.

There's a new gin joint in town, and now everybody comes to Rick's. In homage to the 1942 movie Casablanca, a former US diplomat has spent two years and invested $1m to bring Rick's Café to Morocco's largest city.

The elegant nightclub where Humphrey Bogart pined for Ingrid Bergman was just a set on a Warner Bros sound stage in California - the film crew never got anywhere near North Africa. The new Rick's has the same warm atmosphere as the Hollywood original. It's a white villa near the port, with palm trees flanking the door. Inside, there are arched passageways and hanging lamps of coloured glass.

But you won't find Sam at the piano, because the pianist is called Issam. And there's not a single photo of Bogart on the walls.

"Rick's Café is no longer just a film, it's a reality," says founder Kathy Kriger, 57, sipping a glass of Moroccan cabernet. Nearby, waiters in traditional fez caps and wide-legged pants serve customers at candlelit tables.

The elegant restaurant debuted in March and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. A typical meal costs around US$30. On Sunday nights, Kriger serves popcorn and chilli con carne to accompany screenings of Casablanca.

Kriger says she watched the classic film hundreds of times to study the atmosphere, lighting and lines: "I'm surprised my tape didn't wear out."

Having become too attached to her new home, Kriger left her job as a commercial attaché at the US consulate in Casablanca when she was supposed to transfer to Tokyo in 2002. She scouted for locations and decided to open in Casablanca's medina, a bustling labyrinth of narrow streets and shops. It took months to get the various authorisations, including a liquor licence - no small task in this mostly Muslim nation.

Kriger hoped to bring the American dream to the North African kingdom. And she hoped to be a voice of American-Moroccan dialogue. "After September 11, I realised that certain American values were no longer understood in the Muslim world," Kriger said. "I wanted to show how Americans can be: open, determined and persevering."

Many Moroccans have become resentful of US policies, especially after the Iraq war. The Moroccan government, however, is one of the United States' closest allies in the Muslim world, and the US has routinely praised Morocco for its democratic changes under King Mohammed VI.

It's also a strong ally in the war on terror and is battling its own extremist movement. A year ago, suicide bombings in Casablanca killed 33 bystanders and a dozen bombers. Most of the suspects charged in this year's 11 March train bombings, which killed 191 people in Madrid, were Moroccans.

Kriger, a native of Portland, Oregon, hopes that Rick's will prove Morocco is open to a woman entrepreneur.

"Because there has never been a Rick's Café here, I could be reasonably assured that it would succeed," she says. "It's not often you get a chance to turn myth into reality."

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