Asilah Moussem founder looks at past, present and future of Moroccan festival

Asilah became one of the rare meeting places where opponents freely spoke and expressed their points of view — even in disagreement.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Immutable passion. Mohamed Benaissa, secretary-general and founder of the Asilah Forum Foundation. (Courtesy of Mohamed Benaissa)

ASILAH - The Cultural Moussem of Asilah has been an international platform for discussing current affairs since its inception four decades ago, said Mohamed Benaissa, secretary-general and founder of the Asilah Forum Foundation.

The Asilah Moussem is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a focus on Africa. Senegalese President Macky Sall led June 29’s opening of the symposium under the theme “African Integration.” The event continues through July 20.

“When we started 40 years ago, we centred our programmes on Africa. In fact, the very first cultural action of the Moussem started with the idea of creating a platform where the others from Africa, the north and the Arab World can come to see us despite Asilah’s basic infrastructure,” Benaissa said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

Benaissa, 81, served as Morocco’s foreign minister from 1999-2007. In addition to volunteering his time with the Moussem, Benaissa is mayor of Asilah.

He said it was time to “crown ourselves with Africa” as a way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Moussem, especially at a time when Moroccan King Mohammed VI has been committed to bolstering ties with African countries as part of Morocco’s south-south cooperation strategy.

“The issue of the African integration has been important since the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 but very few major achievements have been realised. It is time for Africa to come together,” Benaissa said.

Benaissa recalled several striking moments that have marked the Moussem, including the visit in 1981 of Senegalese President Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was welcomed with lit candles by Asilah inhabitants.

He cited then Crown Prince’s Mohammed VI’s visit marking the beginning of construction of the finishing harbour in 1986 as he showed an aerial picture of the small northern town in the 1960s — mostly empty land beside the little medina.

Another event that drew attention was the meeting of Martin Indyk, former US assistant secretary of state, with Sayeed Ata’ollah Muhajirani, former Iranian minister of guidance, in 2002 despite the political crisis between Washington and Tehran.

“The two politicians met in my home and shook hands with smiles. It was on the front page of Alsharq Al-Awsat newspaper,” Benaissa said.

The Asilah Forum Foundation has tackled crucial issues, which were sometimes sensitive because of the Moroccan government’s policy.

King Mohammed VI and his father, King Hassan II, encouraged Benaissa to discuss thorny political issues and invite Marxists, communists and Arab nationalists even when they were fighting monarchies in the Arab world.

“In 1981, late King Hassan II told me this: Do you know a famous park in London? I immediately knew he was referring to the Hyde Park speakers’ corner. He said: Let Asilah become Morocco’s speakers’ corner,” explained Benaissa.

That was during the peak of the Cold War and there were tensions between the political left and right in Morocco and the Western Sahara armed conflict. Several Arab countries were ruled by military regimes.

“I have always opted for the topics of the moment. In the beginning of the 1980s, it was the beginning of globalisation. Its translation didn’t even exist in Arabic. The debate about globalisation triggered the national media’s interest when it took place in Asilah,” he said.

Asilah became one of the rare meeting places where opponents freely spoke and expressed their points of view — even in disagreement.

“Asilah has contributed to improving Morocco’s image in the international scene besides becoming a gateway to building bridges between peoples and civilisations and a platform of cultural dialogue,” Benaissa said.

Benaissa used his communication skills and media contacts from when he worked at the United Nations to lure the international media to report on the Moussem since its first year.

“In 1978, the festival featured in the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais and so on,” he proudly said.

However, Benaissa said the Moussem had and was still facing many challenges and obstacles throughout its existence.

“Politicians and political parties believed it was a prefabricated event by the system because it was drawing high-calibre international policymakers and politicians. Luckily the Moussem had King Mohammed VI’s umbrella as a shield to continue,” he said.

Benaissa emphasised the Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ financial support to improve the town’s infrastructure.

“The United Arab Emirates was, in particular, predominant in improving Asilah’s cultural and social infrastructure,” he said.

The UAE helped fund the building of a museum and art academy, which will open next summer. Kuwait built Dar Al-Sabah solidarity centre to help the needy and those with special needs and is still funding it.

Benaissa insisted that the projects were run by the GCC states themselves “to the last penny” since his foundation did not have the expertise to handle such activities.

“People have begun to realise what a cultural event can do to help improve their lives,” he said, citing examples of job creations and fighting illiteracy.

Benaissa said the biggest obstacle that the Moussem faced — and continues to have to deal with — is financing, hoping that the Moroccan government and the GCC members would devote an endowment or a fund to help keep the sponsor-free Moussem running.

Benaissa said he was not thinking of retiring despite voluntarily running the festival.

“If I retire, I die,” he said. “I’m not getting any salary from the Moussem. My state pension is more than enough for me.”

Benaissa said he hoped his legacy would be carried on by the “sons of Asilah,” who have been involved in the Moussem since their childhood under a board of trustees that he was planning to create.