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Morocco - Once forgotten port of Assilah becomes hub for arts and culture

Two politicians help rehabilitate city and lay groundwork for annual cultural festival

The pretty, whitewashed, Spanish-style town of Assilah, 42 kilometers down the Atlantic coast from Tangiers in Morocco, never sleeps. At the same time as residents in the quiet capital of Rabat, farther south, can be found tucking into bed, Assilah is just starting to party.

For almost 30 years, the picturesque town has hosted an annual cultural festival drawing thousands of locals and tourists and during the summer, Assilah comes alive.

By day, African ministers or Middle Eastern intellectuals can be spotted attending conferences on subjects such as "Islam seen by ourselves and others."

Iraqi, Moroccan, Japanese or Spanish artists work diligently on engravings in workshops held in the handsome Raissouni Palace, built in 1909 by the pirate, Ahmad-al Raissouni. At night Flamenco dancers and Sufi musicians hold performances. Hundreds of people throng the streets, participating in the evening "paseo," a legacy left by the Spanish who held the northern portion of Morocco as their protectorate until 1956.

Restaurants such as Casa Pepe or Casa Garcia, opened by Spanish families decades ago, busily serve Moroccan and Spanish wine and Serrano ham. Tourists amble by the Cafe Bleu, a modest fisherman's cafe where writers such as Edmond al-Maleh and Juan Goytisolo used to meet.

With a population of 33,000 during the winter, Assilah swells to 130,000 during the summer months, and the town's popularity is due, in large part, to an undertaking by two men, Mohammad Benaissa and Mohammad Melehi, 27 years ago.

The 3,600-year-old town changed hands many times in the course of its history. During the 15th century Assilah was occupied by the Portuguese who built the town's fortifications and a tower that remain characteristic of the medina today.

But Assilah was not always in the limelight. It narrowly escaped becoming a forgotten, crumbling port with a rich past. Prior to 1978 the town, according to Benaissa, Morocco's foreign affairs minister and Assilah's mayor, was, "garbage strewn, the sewage a disaster, walls collapsing."

Assilah was slowly deteriorating and the medina, "was the worst possible neighborhood to be from," says Hakim Ghailan, a local Assilah artist and gallery owner.

That year, Benaissa, who had worked abroad for the United Nations, and artist Melehi, then president of the Moroccan Painter's Association, both products of the local aristocracy, decided to take action in order to save their town.

"We were lucky, as adolescents, to have had our eyes opened to other cultures," says Melehi.

Thanks to their privileged positions in Assilah society, Melehi, born in 1936, and Benaissa in 1937, had grown up mixing freely with the European and Jewish communities in the area, taking advantage of the golden age of nearby Tangiers, in the 1950s. They went abroad to study, Melehi attending art school in Italy, France and the United States, while Benaissa majored in communications in Egypt and the U.S. The two men met frequently in Assilah during the summer and discussed the distressing state of their town.

"We wanted to do something for the town and the people but realized we couldn't do much unless we were within the administration," Melehi says.

Members of the Independent Movement Party, Benaissa and Melehi ran in the local elections, overcoming a complicated web of internal politics and stigmas. Once they had been elected "we began by cleaning up the garbage," Melehi comments dryly.

Making the local population aware of their surroundings and improving their quality of life were key elements to Benaissa and Melehi's plan. In 1978 they invited 11 Moroccan artists to paint murals on the walls in the medina. This, says Melehi, "was our Trojan horse."

The operation got so much press that Assilah began to be rediscovered. Benaissa and Melehi opened their address books and from that year on there was a snowball effect. Benaissa, who had worked in Africa, brought in African intellectuals, artists and ministers. Melehi brought Alberto Moravia, Ettore Scola and other writers, filmmakers and painters from Europe.

Not only were murals painted each year by visiting artists, but symposiums on cultural issues were held, as well as concerts, films, poetry readings and open-air theater performances.

As the festival became more important, there was an influx of funds and donations, and little by little the town's infrastructure began to improve and historical buildings were renovated. By 1990 Benaissa and Melehi had won the Aga Khan Prize for Architecture and Urban Planning and the Assilah Festival had become one of the most popular in Africa, attracting participants and observers from the four corners of the world. It had also become a platform for free speech for Arab intellectuals, many of whom were living in exile.

Cherif Khaznadar, director of the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris (its mission is to introduce other cultures to the French) has collaborated with the Assilah Festival for 20 years.

"There are two elements which are characteristic of Assilah: freedom of expression in the Arab world, and the fact that it's a place where people come to re-energize," he says. "Each year we meet friends and colleagues, moreover it's always an opportunity to meet with Africans, which we don't always have."

For this year's festival Khaznadar curated a conference on music in the Islamic world: "The Islamic musical world is a great one. We need to assess this, underline it and introduce it to the rest of the world."

Participants in this year's conference agreed to hold a major congress on the subject in 2007.

The initial focus of the festival, which was art, has slowly shifted to more heavyweight conferences with a distinctly political bent to them. This change of direction in a sense, follows Benaissa's career path. He moved from local politics to the Culture Ministry, eventually taking charge, then to Washington, D.C. as Morocco's ambassador, and to his present position of Foreign Minister. Benaissa's connections are innumerable and his capacity to rustle up funds for his hometown festival impressive. The Sultanate of Oman financed the construction of the Hassan II Center where conferences are held and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia donated funds for a state of the art library and center, which opened last year. An art museum is planned for the near future.

Melehi points out that in the early stages of the project, Benaissa gained the late monarch Hassan II's blessing for the event, which gave the two men carte blanche to steer the festival in the direction they liked.

King Hassan II began sending his son and current king, Mohammad VI, to the Assilah festival when he was 12, ensuring the continuity of non-interference on the part of the government.

While the rehabilitation of Assilah is unquestionable, some people grumble about the real benefits the local population has gained from the town's boom as well as the environmental problems that come with it. (Assilah used to employ a donkey cart for garbage collection. Now, during the summer months, four trucks are used to pick up four to seven tons of garbage a day.) Certainly, July and August provide the major source of residents' income and a complete service economy has built up around the festival. Melehi admits that the initial idea of getting the community to actively participate in events did not live up to their expectations.

But Hakim Ghailan, who was a teenager when the festival began, says that an entire generation was sensitized to art. He began attending the workshops held for children each year and eventually became an artist himself. He regrets the earlier days of the festival which were financially leaner but perhaps more energetic.

"I don't know if we can continue this festival indefinitely," says Melehi. "It was a cure for our town and at least we will have left a certain infrastructure."

Melehi and others are obviously concerned with the conservative path many Muslim countries are taking. The conference on "Islam seen by our selves and others" was an opportunity for Arab and African politicians and intellectuals to voice a real cri de coeur.

"Times have changed and Morocco and the Islamic world are in a tunnel right now," says Melehi. "We're not sure what will happen but Morocco, at least, needs to move forward toward a place where there's liberty."

Assilah, where donkeys pulling rickety carts still walk through the medina and women and children bring their bread or green peppers on trays to the bakers who use wood-burning stoves, was given a new lease on life. The development of the town as well as the festival may need to change directions, but in the meantime it remains an oasis for free-thinking in the Arab world, as well as testimony to what two energetic men achieved in order to preserve a cultural heritage.

For more information on the Assilah Festival see www.c-assilah.com

Beirut,08 29 2005
Olivia Snaije
The Daily Star
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