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Author Fiona Valpy discovers the real Casablanca

While researching her new novel Fiona Valpy dug deep into the stories of the human rights lawyer Hélène Cazès Benatar and the singer Josephine Baker.

All I knew about Casablanca during the war years was what I’d gleaned from the famous Bogart and Bergman movie. But then an email arrived out of the blue from one of my readers which would change all of that.

It was a short message of support, saying the gentleman – a Mr Cohen – had enjoyed my books set in France during World War 2 and wished someone would write about his wife’s experiences as a refugee in Casablanca at that time.

My reply to Mr Cohen went unanswered, but my curiosity was piqued and so I began to do my own research. What I discovered was the largely untold story of thousands of refugees fleeing from Nazi-controlled Europe to North Africa to try to escape onwards to America and Britain.

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This human tide, washing up on the beaches of Morocco, comprised an extraordinary array of characters from widely differing economic and cultural backgrounds, who inspired me to write The Storyteller of Casablanca.

One of the most famous arrivals was Josephine Baker, the barrier-breaking African American singer and dancer. She made the journey to North Africa when the Nazis took control of Paris, nailing a sign to the door of the Folies Bergère which read “Access forbidden to dogs and Jews”. But Baker refused to be cowed and spent the following years using her talents as an entertainer as cover for her work as a French resistance agent, carrying messages written in invisible ink on sheets of music back and forth between Morocco and Portugal.

Her efforts provided invaluable information about conditions on the ground to the Free French under General de Gaulle and helped with the co-ordination of resistance activities in the run-up to Operation Torch – the American invasion in 1942, which established an Allied bridgehead into Europe.

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Baker refused to be cowed and spent the following years using her talents as an entertainer as cover for her work as a French resistance agent

During the remaining years of the war, Baker travelled around North Africa and Italy performing for the Allied troops and helping to raise more than 3m francs for the Free French.

She was made a sublieutenant by the women’s auxiliary wing of the French air force, was awarded the Resistance medal and the Croix de Guerre (war cross), and was made a knight of the Legion of Honour by de Gaulle.

Another inspirational woman was human rights lawyer, Hélène Cazes Bénatar. She was a pioneering figure, becoming the first female lawyer in French Morocco.

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Upon seeing the humanitarian crisis engulfing Casablanca with the arrival of the tide of refugees, she founded an assistance committee to help refugees find their way out of the hastily-established camps that had been set up to accommodate them on arrival and arrange housing for them in the city, either renting rooms or lodging with Jewish families.

The committee also offered support with the lengthy and complicated applications for visas and travel permits required for the journey out of Morocco. When officials demanded she shut down her committee, Bénatar promptly started it up again under her own name.

People queued for hours at the American Consulate, desperate to apply for visas or enquire about their application status, and the line could be 200 deep.

The Storyteller of Casablanca by Fiona Valpy is out now (Lake Union Publishing, £8.99)

The consul general, Herbert S Goold, wrote that as they waited, the refugees shared stories of encounters with the Gestapo and time spent in German concentration camps.

“There were numerous distressful scenes – fainting, hysterical weeping, and frantic men and women grovelling before the desks of the visa clerks.” But behind the scenes, the staff were also working, under cover of their official roles, to prepare for Operation Torch.

Vice-Consul Stafford Reid was one of the main agents, establishing a clandestine radio transmitter – known as Station Lincoln – in the basement of the consulate and co-ordinating a resistance network across the city.

These are just three of the extraordinary real-life characters who make an appearance in The Storyteller of Casablanca.

As I was writing the book, it heightened my awareness of the present-day refugee crisis in North Africa, as well as highlighting how our perception of refugees can change over time.

We are still witnessing history in the making as thousands of people from Sub-Saharan Africa make the desperate and dangerous journey into countries like Morocco, trying to escape from oppression, fear and trauma in their home countries and find a new future in Europe, reversing the flow of the wartime tide of refugees.

A 2020 report by the relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières on Mediterranean Search and Rescue records that during the course of 2019 there were 123,700 arrivals in Europe by sea: 27 per cent of those attempting to travel were children. It is estimated that around 1,500 people making the crossing lost their lives.

The Storyteller of Casablanca is partly told from the viewpoint of a young girl named Josie, a refugee from France. Her story unfolds with clear-eyed innocence as she tries to make sense of a world at war. It’s a story that still resonates powerfully today in so many countries, a story filled with grief but also with hope.

The Storyteller of Casablanca by Fiona Valpy is out now (Lake Union Publishing, £8.99)

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