Assilah in the Press

Mint Tea in the Medina


The Hindu, September 5, 2010

The drive from Casablanca to Assilah is confusing; nothing to see on the way really except for occasional towns and hamlets. Also the monsoon hasn't yet arrived so the landscape is very dry. Somewhat like a train ride from Jaipur to Sri Ganganagar. But after a four-hour drive you begin to feel the sea breeze and the coastline starts to appear. Assilah is a fortified town on the northwest tip of the Atlantic coast of Morocco, about 50 km from the better-known Tangier. It is now becoming a popular seaside resort with modern holiday apartment complexes on the coast road.

History, revealed

Story goes that this town was founded by the Phoenicians around 1500 B.C. It was a prosperous trading post until a group of pirates ransacked the place, turning it into a hideout in the early 1900s. The town suffered decades of decline and had fallen into disrepair. It wasn't until the late 1970s when Mohamed Benaïssa, the Culture Minister of

Invited to sing at the International Arts Festival in Morocco Vidya Shah returns with a vivid account of her experience.Morocco, who was later elected mayor of the town cleaned up Assilah, restoring many of its historic buildings, including the Raissouni Palace, now a concert hall, and the Al-Kamra Tower citadel in the Medina. He also brought together a group of artists, invited them to culturally refresh the town with their ideas and creative inputs. This was really the beginning of the Assilah festival, one that has emerged and established itself as a popular International festival for over thirty years now.

As in most towns in Northern Africa, life in Assilah revolves around the Medina. It is a bit of a maze, but since it is a small town it is difficult to really get lost in — one street eventually leads you to where you need to go. The shops sell everything from antique turquoise, coral and silver jewellery to hand woven Berber rugs. Hotels and vehicles aren't allowed inside the rampart walls making it a lovely walk through its cobbled streets. And around this time of the year the town is particularly alive and buzzing because of the Festival.

This Assilah International Festival established in 1978, is an annual cultural extravaganza that takes place in the month of July/August. Both studio and performing artists from all over the world, journalists, writers, painters, musicians and dancers gather here imparting the setting with colour, exuberance and dynamism. Over the last three decades, the event has promoted cultural dialogue, exchange and solidarity. It hosts more than 100,000 visitors. There is a performance a day from across the world open for general public which included this year contemporary dance from Portugal, Jordanian trio on the Lute, an Andalusian Ensemble from Tangier and my music from India, making the spread vibrant. Of course now every city in Morocco boasts of an annual Cultural festival, the most well known being the Fez Spiritual music Festival.

Farid Belkaiah a well-known artist in Morocco informs me that the festival has grown considerably in content and numbers over the years. Where it began with artists, it now is much more encompassing and brings together major global figures from the world of culture, politics, diplomacy as well as the arts, including journalists, writers, painters, musicians and dancers to meet, share ideas and collaborate. Belkaiah who works with Henna, was most amazed at the “orange” beard of my accompanist Khan Sahib and incidentally has had the pleasure of listening to and knowing Pt.Ravi Shankar from the 70's.

Land of music

Hamza Abdaless studying Business Studies, my transportation coordinator at the Festival over a cup of the famous Moroccan mint tea, tells me in great detail about the different kinds of music that comes from this beautiful country - Chaabi, Rai Andaloussie, Arabic, Gnawa, Berber, Reggada to name a few. He is embarrassed about the “Pop” music blaring out of the shops in the Medina that is busy, full of locals and tourists way beyond midnight. He laments about how music like the Gnawa - the slave music which came into the country in the 16 {+t} {+h} century or the Rai - which literally means an opinion, a form of protest music, somewhat akin to the Blues, lead by peasants in Algeria, subsequently banned in the country, or the rich and exuberant Berber music is getting displaced by “mindless” popular stuff!

Haj Youness, the well-known Oud player, endorses this view. Haj who has been recognized by the Smithsonian for his contributions to Moroccan music, is quite a National hero, is very popular, every one wants an autograph and a photo with this director of the Music Conservatory, and says that television reality shows on which he is also a judge are no solutions to real talent. Young musicians need training, hand-holding opportunities, or else they end up playing in nightclubs and no more. A story only too familiar to the Indian terra, a refrain that is also very much a symptom of the satellite television in the globalised world.

But in my travels through this town and then to Casablanca, Marrakesh and Rabat, the one thing that did become apparent, repeatedly is that Morocco is a unique cultural fusion of Middle Eastern, European, and African influences. You can have the opportunity to experience life in a Muslim country while exploring the distinct society and traditions of the Maghreb and the French culture as well. To venture in and out of shops in Morocco is a pleasure for the eye and the mind as diverse colours converge into moments of shopping, eating, and entertainment. A mélange of the traditional and the modern is very visible within different societies and towns in Morocco.

 Whether sitting at a café in Casablanca enjoying a croissant and tea, or visiting Marakkesh, wandering through the medina's looking at apricots and prunes, or sitting at the train station in Rabat looking at a woman sweeping the platforms at ten in the night, every experience in Morocco makes one reflect on how irrational stereotypes can be. It is the simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of different cultures that makes the country even more fascinating. A young boy who sells me a little pellet of Indigo rummages through a pile of used plastic bags looking for the one that will be just enough for the portion I have bought. A young woman dressed in a pair of shorts and short top on Casa's Corniche Beach walks along with a more conventionally attired young girl in a Djellaba or a Gandora, this co-existence of modernity and tradition seems to be the face of Moroccan nationalism.

Assilah is a case of political will in moving culture from a softer focus to an issue of cultural diplomacy between communities and countries, leaving me a craving for such approaches here – creating an international platform for not only performance, but on deliberating how culture can become a powerful vehicle to centre-stage syncretism in the sub-continent. Only I wish the wonderful people didn't call out to me on the streets as “Namaste Shah Rukh Khan”!

The Coast is Clear in Asilah, Morocco

September 10, 2008 - by Gisela Williams

Published by CNN Travel 

Drive south from Tangier along the Moroccan coast to the port town of Asilah and here's what you'll see on the 30-mile journey: fields of deep-purple and mustard-yellow wildflowers, wide stretches of pristine beach and cement trucks idling in front of the occasional makeshift construction site. It doesn't take a fortune teller to predict that, in a few years, this dramatic coastline will be the next French Riviera.

Behind the 15th-century walls that surround Asilah, children chase each other through the car-free alleyways, past homes decorated with murals by artists from Egypt, Italy, Japan and the U.S. This isn't a scene you'd expect to find in a town that was on the verge of collapse not too long ago.

Founded by the Phoenicians around 1500 B.C., Asilah was a prosperous trading post until a group of pirates ransacked the place, turning it into a hideout in the early 1900s. The town suffered decades of decline and had fallen into disrepair by the time Mohamed Benaïssa was elected mayor in 1983.

With some funding from Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia and other investors -- it always helps to have wealthy friends -- Benaïssa cleaned up Asilah, restoring many of its historic buildings, including the Raissouni Palace (rue Ahmed el Mansour and rue Ben Marzouck, from $7), now a concert hall, and the Al-Kamra Tower citadel (place Abdellah Guennoun, free) in the medina.

He also built the Hassan II International Meeting Center (place Abdellah Guennoun, 011-212/39-417-065, free), a gallery and theater, and started the Asilah Arts & Culture Forum (011-212/39-418-729,, from $7). The summer arts festival hosts more than 100,000 visitors -- some of whom are now buying or building second homes up and down Asilah's undeveloped coastline.

The off-season in Asilah, between November and March, is much more laid-back. Each day begins like the last: Muezzins signal the call for prayer from the minarets of several mosques around town, while families gather for breakfast on rooftop terraces.

Hotels aren't allowed inside the rampart walls, so renting a private house is often the best option. There are more than 40 rentals available through Homelidays, such as Dar Malak, a three-bedroom waterfront house with stained-glass windows and an electric-blue terrace.

In the center of the medina, American expat Edward Brown's spacious three-bedroom house, Dar es Salam, is staffed by an English-speaking housekeeper who'll cook traditional meals for guests. "I've been all over Morocco, but I chose Asilah because the town has an innocence you won't find elsewhere," Brown says. "The people are kind and friendly, and there's an authentic cozy-village-by-the-sea ambience."

As in most towns in northern Africa, life revolves around the medina. Asilah's is a bit of a maze, but it's too small to really get lost in -- one street will eventually lead you to where you need to go. The shops sell everything from antique turquoise-and-coral jewelry to handwoven Berber rugs.

At Candela (rue Sidi M Barek), sparkly leather slippers for men and women are stacked precariously next to candles carved with Arabic phrases and letters. Near the northern end of the medina, Bazar Atlas (rue Tijara), owned by Bachir el Gaabouri for almost 15 years, stocks hand-painted ceramics, such as individual couscous serving bowls and tagines of all shapes and sizes.

When it comes to eating out, there aren't too many options in Asilah. Two excellent seafood restaurants are just outside the medina. People have been known to drive all the way from Tangier to Casa Garcia (rue Moulay Hassan Ben el Mehdi, 011-212/39-417-465, fish plate $18) for the mixed-fish platter, which includes whitefish, swordfish, crispy sardines, squid and king prawns.

At the two-story Restaurante Oceano Casa Pepe (place Zalaka, 011-212/39-417-395, from $11), with a terrace that overlooks the garden, the tapas-size fish dishes come with a stack of fresh tortillas. Both restaurants can get busy on the weekends, so you're smart to make reservations a couple of days in advance.

Part of the beauty of Asilah is that there really isn't all that much to do, which is just fine with the locals. People-watching at Cafe Al Madina (place Abdellah Guennoun), a coffeehouse with outdoor seating on the main square in the medina, is one popular way to while away an afternoon over café con leche. Another is to stroll along the endless beach, usually empty except for the occasional group of kids playing soccer on the sand. If you start walking early in the morning, you can make it all the way to Tangier.

Asilah, Hyde Park of the South


The Hindu, India's National Newspaper, April 2000

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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