An ancient Atlantic coastal town founded in Phoenician times but largely over- looked since its maritime importance faded, has not only raised its profile through a remarkable arts festival but is today the leading template for many festivals throughout the Mediterranean.
The defensive walls of Assilah in northern Morocco were built in the medieval period when it was a Portuguese trading post, but these days its harbour, markets, and estate agents all dance to the tune of its annual cultural moussem which over more than three decades has enabled the town to smarten itself up into an exclusive summer resort.
The highlight of the summer months are six weeks of cutting-edge debates, concerts, art workshops and cultural events ranging from exhibitions, hands-on demonstrations and embroidery classes and above all lots of good humour.
The first and most obvious benefits of the yearly gathering in northern Morocco of leading painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, philosophers and politicians is the protection and restoration of Assilah’s architectural heritage which has in turn raised the town’s cultural profile.
A winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1989 for the rehabilitation of its old medina, Assilah has continued to benefit from its old houses being renovated by those who want to be an integral part of the longest running festival in the country. The usual sprawling seaside developments have been avoided and the whole town feels part of decisions that are made thanks to a local council that encourages active participation.
It all began very modestly over three decades ago with the innovative efforts of the founding patrons of the town’s cultural association and other interested intellectuals to rid their streets and alleyways of piles of rubbish. According to the town’s mayor, Mohammed Benaissa, both then and now, the endeavours were based on confidence in the arts to raise both morale and engender civic pride.
“We invited brigades of the town’s children to come and paint the walls in vivid colours”, he explains. “Under the supervision of local artists, we also encouraged them to look at the streets in a different way and to see how hideous the rubbish made our picturesque, winding lanes.” The modest beginnings took roots and the town today is spic and span.
Walking through the old town towards the beautifully restored early 20th-century palace where many of the artistic activities take place, Mohammed Benaissa greets his townspeople like old friends – which indeed they are. The annual whitewashing of the walls paves the way for new murals to be painted, only now they are mainly done by internationally recognised artists with young Assilans working as assistants and lear ing new techniques.
“We don’t have anything other than the natural resourcefulness and the cultural imagination of our residents,” Mohammed explains. “Without exception everyone has benefitted from the festival – even down to the smallest grocery shop and the bakeries.”
Modesty prevents this leading figure from explaining that the all-important, initial vision has required years of persistence and follow-through to achieve the current success. He also plays down the impact his various government jobs and diplomatic posts have had on bringing in sponsors and large private donations for social projects in the town.
One of the most surprising, but little known facts is that the Assilah cultural association (now a foundation) has never sought to raise money through central government. From its wave-pattern paving stones to the new bus station – all has come about thanks to Mohammed Benaissa’s rise through the Moroccan political and diplomatic hierarchies and the contacts he has made throughout the world.
The likes of Kofi Annan, Leopold Senghor and Jospin de Villepin have all attended Assilah and taken part in debates and discussions. Their status not only raises the bar when it comes to the quality of thought and ideas put forward but also reinforces the idea that Assilah is a place that matters.
The Assilah effect – sustained growth without “the Torremolinos effect” of high-rise hotels and overcrowded beaches – has encouraged other cities to regard art as a way of boosting income. From Fez, with its festival of sacred music to Essaouira with its Gnawa bands and Agadir’s Timitar based on Amazigh arts, culture has come to the fore in drawing in foreign tourists who stay for the duration of the festival and might even buy a second home.
But although lots of Moroccan cities have benefit- ted from billions of dollars of investment flowing in from Dubai to construct large-scale tourist projects Assilah has side-stepped dependence on mass market tourism depending instead on gifts from Gulf countries to build a library, hospital, clinic, schools and cultural centres.
Key to Assilah taking advantage of the socio- cultural finance offered by Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds is the festival’s status as Morocco’s first non- governmental organisation (NGO) and Benaissa’s close relationship with Gulf ministers forged during his nine years as Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Af- fairs and Co-operation.
Additionally the Moroccan government’s policies have endeared it to countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, all of whom invest in profit-generating schemes in the Kingdom.
Ministers and influential policy makers from these countries have addressed international conferences held under the aegis of the Assilah festival. The intial month-long “paint-in” has transformed itself into a significant forum dealing with key questions that resonate with Africa, the Gulf, Latin America and Asia.
From immigration, investment in infrastructure, transport and alternative energy – all have been de- bated and opinions shaped in this small Atlantic town.
According to Abdulwahab Ahmed Al Bader, Direc- tor General of the Kuwaiti Development Fund, Morocco, a member of the Arab League, has a very good relationship with the Gulf Economic Countries. “It’s been an ally in foreign affairs,” he confirms. “It’s part of our duty to support a country like Morocco.” The Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development was the first to be set up shortly after its independence in 1961.
The Fund has built an old peoples home. And they are not alone. The Qatari Investment Corporation built new social housing projects and will be the guest of honour and funder of the 2013 festival.
Although the donor countries receive no direct financial benefit from their Assilah investment portfolio they have the opportunity to participate in the wide-ranging conferences and debates that shape economic, environmental and political decisions far beyond the Gulf.