Essaouira’s music festival builds a bridge to religious tolerance
Essaouira - To have Palestinian singer Loubna Salama and Rabbi David Menahem — both happen to be citizens of Israel and excellent singers — sharing the stage is not an everyday occurrence. But then nothing really surprises at the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques.
The festival recently marked its 15th edition in the south-western Moroccan port of Essaouira, formerly known as Mogador.
Salama, a mother of two, lives in Kafr Yasif, near Israel’s border with Lebanon. She said Palestinians were “utterly exhausted by the conflict.” Her renderings of the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum are deeply moving.
The Czech group Létajici Rabin sang Gypsy, Yiddish and Klezmer music in Russian, Yiddish and Belarusian, evoking the sorrow of people who suffered tremendous pain over the centuries and, in the case of Hungary’s Gypsies, still do.
One of the funniest songs, set to a traditional Hasidic Jewish tune composed in the late 19th century, warns young girls not to fall for immodesty and the fashions of Paris. As the lead singer of the group, Yitshok Linestki, said, with a puckish grin: “Plus ça change…”
Raymonde el-Bidaouia, a Moroccan Jewish singer whose age has not dented her sheer presence on the stage, literally set Dar Souiri on fire. This is a traditional townhouse built around a courtyard that can accommodate 350 people and lends itself perfectly to the intimate singing that is characteristic of this unusual festival. A larger forum, which can accommodate more than 1,000 spectators, was used at night.
The festival is the brainchild of André Azoulay, who has turned his historic hometown into a major venue for music festivals in Morocco. It was also a forum where Israelis and Palestinians met and bear testimony to their hopes and sufferings. Listening to Jews from Europe, Israel and Morocco exchange with Huda Arqub or Ali Abu Awwad, founder of the Taghyeer movement, is very moving.
Cynics might be quick to dismiss such encounters as contributing next to nothing to change the harshness of the life of many Palestinians, nor do they weigh much when set against the de facto alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. However, as one Palestinian woman said repeatedly: “It is so hard to be a victim.”
Listening to Jacob Ben Simon, founder of the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra, say that music allows people to dialogue may not change the face of the Middle East but, in times of rampant nationalism across the world, music keeps the embers of a more enlightened world alive.
Dar Souiri hosted a small exhibition of paintings by Vito Tongiani, one of Italy’s leading sculptors whose statue of Puccini in Lucca is famous.
He said he discovered Essaouira a few years ago and spends the winter painting there. The Portuguese 15th-century port and fort are masterpieces, unfortunately, blighted by an ill-conceived restoration that does the Moroccan authorities in charge of historic buildings no credit.
Rebuilt on a grid pattern by a disciple of Vauban, Théodore Cornut, on the orders of Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah in the late 18th century, wrapped in fortifications that are being restored with great care, Essaouira, which means “the well-designed” in Berber, has long boasted an important Jewish community.
It was for long Morocco’s main port on the Atlantic and was the site for consuls from Denmark, France and Portugal. Orson Welles shot his famous “Othello” there in the 1950s and deserves a sculpture by Tongiani to consolidate the town’s place on the international map. Musicians such as Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix discovered its charms, which are preserved in no mean part because strong winds, except in October, limit the number of visitors.
Azoulay has been an adviser to kings Hassan II and Mohammed VI. He has been involved in foreign investment, finance and Middle Eastern affairs for both.
The festival is very much his brainchild and one of its most interesting features is that it acts as an incubator for young local musical talent. To listen to Nouhaila El Kalai and Shalom Ivry is fascinating. The grace of the first and the very powerful voice of the second are witnessing young people who are budding great singers.
Essaouira bears witness to the fact that hope springs eternal. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the Middle East, notably with regards to Palestinians and Israelis.
The only other place in the region where such a dialogue happens is in Tunisia, where the pilgrimage to the oldest synagogue in Africa, the Ghriba on the island of Djerba, reminds us that Muslims and Jews shared a common culture for centuries.
Those Israeli and Arab politicians who wish to erase history would do well to remember that the future cannot be built by cutting the roots of the past, that those responsible for the Holocaust were European Christians. A visit to the next Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques could do them no harm.