Asilah, Hyde Park of the South

THAT'S how Mohammed Benaissa would like to describe it: a place where an individual of any religion, caste or creed, comes, produces, speaks, and participates exactly as he or she desires, with no constraints, rules or restrictions.

Of course you may well ask, where is Asilah, and who on earth is Mohammed Benaissa.

Asilah is a delightful small town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It sparkles to life in July/ August with a hugely successful cultural festival that is in its 22nd year and has come to be recognised as one of its kind on the African continent.

A town that, up to the late 1970s, did not even figure on all the maps, despite its attractive geographical location, its 15th century ramparts constructed by the Portuguese invaders, Asilah was essentially a town of fishermen, craftsmen and a small but influential Ullema. It seemed to be of no interest to anybody and was collapsing into a state of lethargy and indifference. It was dirty, unkempt and financialy neglected, situated as it was at the Northern tip of Morocco, next to Tangiers, the megapole that was under International control till the late 1970s.

It was then that with another friend, Benaissa contested the municipal elections and fought to implement a programme that could be summed up in five simple words: Art and culture for development. But they were soon to realise that to work systematically and solely with the local authorities was not going to be an easy long term solution. Two years later, they formed an apolitical, non-profit cultural body that organises an annual cultural festival called Moussem, that has infused life and passion into this sleepy little town. Pronounced differently in Arabic, this is our very own mausam. A season of celebration and culture.

The two main features that stand out in this cultural festivity are firstly the place occupied by the plastic arts and secondly the intellectual gatherings and discussion fora. They do not really overshadow the music and dance performances, workshops and poetry readings but these two aspects are certainly the most visible, long lasting and in the context of Morrocco, vitally important.

Right from the first Moussem in 1978, artists were invited to paint on the walls of the town. Year after year, these mural paintings metamorphosed the whole town into a living museum and literally brought art to the doorstep of the common man. Asilah is known today for its painted walls. Rarely if ever has a cultural campaign such as this one established the identity of a city. Everyone contributed in such a way that the traditionally white walls of the city were splashed with colour but not merely by artists from outside but by the young and old of the city itself. The painted walls also made the citizens aware of the beauty of their own city and the need to sustain it.

Over the years, one of the principal distinguishing features of Asilah was the role it played in fostering debate and discussion among all schools of thought and in many languages. Without doubt an uncommon occurrence in the Arab world.

For example, democracy is a subject that will be discussed in some depth in the coming year or two. The first seminar in the series this year "Democratisation as seen by the countries of the South", brought together a host of scholars, political figures and decision makers from Thailand to Argentina as well as an impressive array of speakers from the Arab and Muslim worlds. The importance of Arabic was driven home again and again as delegates from Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria took the floor. The young, fiery and very impressive Foreign Minister of Senegal made quite an impact with a clear, lucid and impassioned speech on the current crises African countries are going through. And of course, the articulate and erudite Benaissa himself, who is currently Morocco's Foreign Minister, after a long stint as the country's Minister of Culture, was another star speaker. Even without understanding a word of Arabic, you couldn't remain insensitive to his mastery of the language and his eloquence.

What stood out in this particular seminar or in the events organised all over the town, was not so much the importance of the delegates invited, or the performing troupes but the enthusiastic response and the constant participation of ordinary citizens.

Trendily dressed, good looking young Moroccan girls, at times with a head scarf, would sit through seminars the whole day, ask questions, discuss and debate, belying the traditional image of a closed Islamic land. Their attire, their behaviour was no different than that of any of their European counterparts.

The short Asilah experience did carry one overriding lesson. How the vision and perseverance of a few persons can transform, motivate and enthuse a whole population. It wasn't difficult to imagine what the town must have been like earlier but what it has become today is there for all to see.

Tchicaya U Tam'si, a Congolese writer and poet and a frequent visitor to Asilah till his untimely death in 1989 remained a great admirer of this township and his verses still reverberate at street corners.

"What happens when two artists, a painter and a photographer are councillors of a town? It leads to a city where art is the master of destiny and of the street. It also leads to an intense desire to make life a feast to be celebrated at all times and for any conceivable reason."


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