CASABLANCA, Morocco -- As a slightly subversive Ingrid Bergman once provoked the lounge pianist Sam to play "As Time Goes By" at Rick's Café in the movie Casablanca, so rebels the restored version of the Café in modern day Casablanca, a somewhat scruffy metropolis, in real-life 2012.
Rick's lights up as the city lumbers. Classically decorated with beautiful ceramic tiles, teak and palm fronds jutting into a riad's vaulted ceiling, Rick's sparkles amid the city's soot.
What launched Rick's Café?
Capt. Renault: I've often speculated why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator's wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It's the romantic in me.
Rick: It's a combination of all three.
Renault: And what in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Casablanca is abustling, dusty business capital. There is little tourism, little fanfair.
This comes as relief after spicy Marrakesh, which draws Europeans, wealthy Emerati, rich Congolese -- and battalions of local hustlers hoping to earn a few dollars in the informal tourist trade. Even a confident explorer eschewing tour groups and chaperoned safaris may experience irritation and pangs of fear when constantly approached by those who wish to be of help in some way -- for money, bien sûr.
While Marrakesh is colorful and dramatic with its souks and bustling nightlife, Casablanca is a relief with its business focus and nonchalance.
A cappuccino costs a dollar in Casablanca; two in Marrakesh. Wifi and alcohol are everywhere in Marrakesh, harder to find in the capital to the north. Both cities are visibly Islamic, a bit of a surprise on the Atlantic Ocean a stone's throw from Europe, especially in this once grande ville where French bread, café au lait and Gauloise can be found on every block, more common than minarets.
Blessed with enough rain to produce luscious fruits and vegetables, striking geography that includes the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains, and the gorgeous North Atlantic, Morocco is a promising and interesting stop in Western North Africa after doing business in the Middle East and capitals like Cairo and Tunis.
But make no mistake: women are second class, the country is poor, and even a Hollywood fable known to all can't change the fact that the country has a long way to go to sit comfortably in the Second World, not to mention the First.
Corruption in this strategic outpost at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Africa is allegedly widespread.
Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
Employee of Rick's: [hands Renault money] Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Oh, thank you, very much. Everybody out at once!
On a long walk from a downtown hotel to the train station, an American in Casablanca paid 7 Dirhams, or less than 90 cents, for a café au lait at a regular café occupied solely by men, the typical clientele. It was far enough off the tourist track that the waiter looked anxiously at her -- either surprised to see a woman sit with the men, or simply hoping that they both spoke enough French to get the deal done. The café au lait was delicious. The waiter looked relieved.
Creature comforts abound for those who can afford it. The beautiful Hyatt at $300 a night offers cold Heinekens at about $9. The bar is elegant and friendly -- recalling the glamour of times gone by, and the Wifi is the best in Morocco -- even better, it's free.
But trying to blend in with the regular Tareks, Daouds, and Hashims of this country -- or even their upper-class brethren -- reveals a landscape of challenges.
With per capita income of about $5,100, ranking Morocco ahead of Guatemala and Syria but behind Armenia, Georgia and Swaziland, Moroccans still look to Mother France for ideas and most foreign investment. A recent visit to Casablanca including investors and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault once again declared the nations' joint commitment to amitié and future prosperity.
This arrangement isn't so bad for France. While Morocco imports over $6 billion in French goods annually, France imports $4.2 billion of Moroccan goods in return. The Hexagon thus runs close to a 50% trade surplus with its old colonial ami.
To mark the occasion of the new vows of friendship last week, the government popped champagne corks as the first-ever commuter tram (manufactured in France) started running in the capital. It is suddenly the most sophisticated public transport system in Africa. Even the popular, western-educated King Mohammed VI, whose portrait perches in many shops, was there to wave and take a spin to recognize this success of French-Moroccan cooperation.
Before she came down with a stomach virus last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also supposed to be in Morocco for meetings with foreign ministers regarding Syria. Watching local women camouflaged under veils and occupying few high-ranking positions in the government and private sectors, one is reminded of the critical work Sec. Clinton has done across the globe to lift women to greater levels of education, equality and influence.
No matter how much she has done for women and America, the Secretary -- and perhaps future President -- needs to do more. The future of women worldwide -- and the related peaceful coexistence between the Muslim and Western worlds, depends on it.
Rick: If that plane leaves the ground and you're not on it, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We'll always have Paris. We didn't have it before...we'd...we'd lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you ...
Rick: And you never will. But I've got a job to do too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now. Here's looking at you, kid.
Here's looking at you, Madame Secretary, and a country with a gin-joint named Rick's.
KABUL, Afghanistan--At first, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, seems like a postcard out of the 1980's Soviet bloc, complete with rutted, dusty roads, hungry people and air you can chew on. On your drive from the airport at dusk, coming from gleaming capitals further west, you can barely see a speck of color. There is little neon and in some shops barely a lightbulb on display. There is soot. It crunches under your feet in most rooms where you walk.
Kabul, a short flight from Dubai, makes the Emerati business capital look like the Taj Mahal. But Dubai and Doha ARE the Taj Mahals of the Middle East, and they are quickly offering a bridge between savvy global business leaders and the opportunities of Afghanistan and Southwest Asia.
At stake: an untapped, youth-dominated market of 30 million with a huge pent-up appetite for US brands and culture.
Admission: in the middle of a business leaders' introductory dinner hosted by US officials on a recent trade mission in Kabul to bring US franchise brands to Afghanistan, a full-throated description of the great business opportunities in Kabul was underway when the power went out in the hotel and the restaurant went pitch black. Only visible were the delicate flickers of sterno candles under the mutton at the buffet.
An American executive, unruffled, fumbled with his cell phone and lit it to frame the visitors' faces in a blue glow. But the speaker didn't even pause, he just kept talking about the great business opportunities to be discovered nearby. It was just another dinner in the capital of Kabul.
There is no alcohol legally sold here but one can get it served undercover in pretty tea pots at restaurants. With the added effort involved, it quickly became the best tea I ever tried.
In Dubai and across the Middle East, the soft drinks are extra sweet, even Coke and Pepsi. If you don't like the taste, wait a minute. It's a sugar rush while someone tracks down your illegal beer -- I mean, tea.
But things are changing fast in Kabul. Wall Street Journal and Economist reporters lead safe and comfortable lives and are impressed at the rapid pace of progress in Kabul.
As a 2014 deadline approaches to turn over security to the Afghan government, investors are moving in, seeing unprecedented and unlimited opportunity in this untapped market imprisoned until now by 30 years of war. Young people have the latest Samsung or iPhone and would look chic walking down an East Village street.
"My message to business leaders is, I think you should see it for yourself," said Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl, the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan deputy commander, speaking to business and government leaders gathered for a meeting of the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) in Kabul. He described a recent six-mile hike up a beautiful mountain on the outskirts of Kabul in which neither he nor his fellow hiker -- the Mayor of Kabul -- brought any protective gear or security detail.
Did I mention, the place has the geographical bone structure of Switzerland?
This month, US franchise leaders from RadioShack, Hertz, Tutor Doctor and AlphaGraphics, organized by the International Franchise Association, met with Afghan business leaders on a trade mission -- and were impressed, as reported by Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
On the flight from Dubai over Afghanistan's Himalayan-style peaks, one could be forgiven for thinking, "a good rocket-launcher could probably hit us from there, and there, and there!"
But the fabled "corkscrew" landing at the airport turned out to be a glide --no big drama save for a passenger jet with half of its tail shot off along the runway.
Afghanistan is a four-dimensional crossword puzzle locked inside an ancient civilization scarred and pock-marked by decades of marauders' bullets and mines.
But as young person after young person asked the franchise delegation when McDonald's and KFC would arrive -- one couldn't help but pray for the moment when Afghan youth, like young people all over the planet, get to feel like global citizens by munching on french fries and drinking a Coke at McDonald's.
With American franchise leaders boldly doing well by doing good in this critical global focal point, a Masala Big Mac in Kabul might not be too far away.
Beth Solomon is founder of The Georgetown Dish and Vice President of Strategic Initiatives & Industry Relations of the International Franchise Association.
On Veterans Day, you might not think of going to a franchise business in Georgetown like Johnny Rockets, Subway, Five Guys, The UPS Store, or Fitness Together to honor our nation's veterans.
But this industry, led by the International Franchise Association (IFA) (for whom I work), has been engaged in a campaign to honor our nation's veterans not just with gratitude, but with opportunity.
IFA's new video, From Honor to Owner, is a moving new film highlighting the Operation Enduring Opportunity campaign. SSG Shilo Harris (U.S. Army, Ret.), pictured above, was struck by an IED in Iraq and burned on 35% percent of his body, yet he now is leading the way to rebuild our civilian economy by becoming a WIN Home Inspection franchise owner. To see Shilo's story and watch the video, click here.
Also, a new report shows over 64,000 veterans, military spouses and wounded warriors have started careers in franchising, including 4,314 new veteran franchise business owners, since 2011 through Operation Enduring Opportunity, a campaign of IFA's VetFran Strategic Initiative.
Johnny Rockets, Subway, The UPS Store and Fitness Together are all involved in the campaign. The UPS Store, taking the lead, has given away nearly 20 franchises to military veterans. U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy veteran Wade Franklin will open a UPS Store in Clarendon early next year.
These results are a great step forward toward IFA's goal of hiring as team members and recruiting as franchise business owners 75,000 veterans and military spouses, plus 5,000 wounded warriors by the end of 2014. But with unemployment rates for veterans ages 18-24 stuck at 24.8%, everyone must keep up the momentum to enable those who have served and sacrificed to fulfill their dreams and find meaningful career opportunities here at home.
You can view or download a copy of the report here: 2012 Veterans in Franchising: A Progress Report.
First Lady Michelle Obama, through her courageous efforts, has ensured that veterans have been welcomed home to a grateful nation, unlike after wars past. But Veterans Day, as we recognize the sacrifice and service of our men and women in uniform, let us join her in supporting those who are fighting for our veterans.