Asilah, Morocco’s cultural hub on the Atlantic

Friday 26/02/2016
Spanish flamenco dancer Luisa Palicio Martin performs during the Asilah International Cultural Festival.

Casablanca - Asilah, a little-known town on the North At­lantic coast before the late 1970s, has become one of the more popular stops in northern Morocco.
Asilah dates back almost 35 centuries and is rich in history. The small fishing village has been home to Phoenicians, Carthagin­ians, Romans, Portuguese and Ar­abs over that period.
The fortified walls that encircle Asilah’s old town bear longstand­ing witness to Portuguese architec­tural grandeur, giving it a unique charm.
Asilah underwent an artistic rev­olution in 1978 thanks to former foreign minister Mohamed Benais­sa and artist and curator Mohamed Melehi, who were behind the idea of asking local artists to paint on the town’s worn-out walls. Since then, Asilah has become one of the North African region’s cultural hubs and host to Morocco’s most visited summer-long arts festivals.
Each year, the International Cul­tural Moussem of Asilah attracts thousands of people from around the world. In late July, the quiet town is visited by scores of artists and holidaymakers, packing hotels and other available lodging. Those unable to find a place to stay of­ten end up in Tangier, 46km away from Asilah, and commute to the festival.
Dubbed one of the cleanest cities in Morocco, Asilah dazzles with its blend of authenticity and moder­nity. Its Borj El Kamra is one of its most visible monuments.
The old medina painted blue and white has been gentrified. Moroccan and European investors bought houses and turned them into riads. During the festival, the medina turns into an art gallery. Artists showcase their works in the Pasha Raissouli Palace, which was built in 1909.
Artists who are not officially part of the festival exhibit works on the streets and buildings’ walls. There are also many small galleries to wander into along the narrow streets of the medina.
Born and bred in Asilah, artist El Omrani Lhaddadi owns a tiny gal­lery filled with unusual paintings, all in blue and white. Lhaddadi says the choice of colours reflects the nature of Asilah as a coastal town. The 48-year-old artist, who was inspired by Morocco’s famed Farid Belkahia when he was young, says his paintings touch on religion, clandestine migration, life and death.
Lhaddadi recalls the days be­fore it became a major tourist destination when pottery, fishing and traditional tailoring were the businesses of Asilah. Outside the gallery stands a bookshelf hold­ing novels in different languages. Lhaddadi lends the books free of charge for up to three days to any passer-by, including tourists.
The artist, who speaks four lan­guages, uses powder in his paint­ings, whose prices vary, according to quality, from $5.20 to $20.80.
Asilah also features about a doz­en shops, some owned by foreign­ers, offering Berber throws, carpets and slippers, mosaic tables and ceiling lamps among other items.
The most eye-catching attrac­tions in the medina are the wide ancient wooden doors of the hous­es. They have been well-preserved and their shape varies from one house to another with knockers still used on some, a sign of au­thenticity resisting technology.
As the sun goes down, tourists, lovers and amateur photographers crowd along the western wall of the medina to take pictures of the mesmerising sunset colouring the horizon of an often cloudless sky.
A little boy is spotted taking a tray of home-made bread to a local traditional oven for baking, a rare scene in the face of modern baker­ies’ hegemony.
Youssef El Kouch’s 50-year-old traditional oven is the last one of its kind in the medina. He says his business, which he inherited from his father, thrives only during re­ligious festivities and in the sum­mer.
At night, café terraces and res­taurants are packed with tourists along the corniche, whose road turns into a walking boulevard closed to cars after sunset. The smell of freshly cooked fish per­meates the air as most restaurants specialise in seafood. Restaurant Sevilla, which is a 2-minute walk from the main medina gate, offers a variety of quality dishes from a mixture of fried seafood to paella and Moroccan tanginess, as does Casa Pepe restaurant in the heart of Zallaka Plaza.
August is the busiest month, with hotels booked months in ad­vance. Prices for fully furnished flats in the small upscale district of Asilah start from $73 during the month as demand far exceeds sup­ply.