Morocco Tour Guide: Asilah

Morocco Tour Guide: Asilah Last updated on Thursday 22nd April 2010

From backwater to cultural centre

The town of Asilah is situated on the north western tip of Morocco's Atlantic coast. This picturesque Andalusian town has Phoenician origins, and later became a medieval Portuguese trading post, before its fortunes declined.

Today, after centuries of virtual anonymity, Asilah thrives once more -- this time as an oasis of culture. Its prosperous harbour, bustling market and its important annual cultural pilgrimage, the moussim, have all combined to give the town a new lease of life.

Tourists are attracted throughout the year by Asilah's pleasant climate and centuries-old buildings, but for two months each summer it is the centre of one of Africa's most important artistic festivals. The annual gathering of eminent writers, poets and artists from all over the Arab and African world is also part of a wider project -- that of architectural renovation. The project was initiated some 20 years ago, and has turned Asilah into a model for third world development.

The town is surrounded by its original Portuguese defensive walls, which serve as a statement on the community's independence, but which have also had a limiting effect upon the town's growth. Construction has almost doubled in the past decade, but has included no new complexes, hotels or resort areas. Local residents have continued to construct the traditional Spanish-style homes of their ancestors. Newly-built private houses reproduce the facades of their older neighbours, usually incorporating elements salvaged from the ruins of older structures, such as doorways and arcades.

The appearance of the town's centre seems unchanged, and conceals from its 150,000 annual summer visitors the forces behind its astonishing transformation. Once a run-down, rat-infested village, with streets strewn with rubbish, its living conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that by the mid 1970s a group of local intellectuals decided to save the town. Headed by Mohammed Benaissa and Mohammed Melehi, the group felt that if Asilah became the hub of worthwhile cultural activity, with support from the local inhabitants, the government would follow suit and upgrade the infrastructure by installing better drainage and improving electrical and water supplies.

Mohammed Benaissa, now Morocco's Ambassador to the USA and also mayor of Alisah, and Mohammed Melehi (then president of the Moroccan Painters Association) first stood for election to the Municipal Council. They began by initiating a study of the ways in which the town's basic services operated. They found much wastage of time and energy, which could be mostly eliminated by involving the local people and asking for their co-operation. For example, refuse collectors using donkeys were wasting a great deal of time knocking on doors and asking for rubbish. By persuading people to put their rubbish outside on collection days, the problem was addressed in a practical manner.

Today, 500 local children compete in two groups to clean the beach. Residents also supply either materials or labour whenever work needs doing on their 'block'. Mohammed Benaissa, Asilah's mayor, believes that participation by local people leads to an increased appreciation of improvements made. He also feels very strongly that culture is an invaluable resource.

The cultural programme began in the spring of 1978, when a small group of artists were invited for the first municipal 'Paint-In'. They created large murals on the ramparts. Large groups of children joined in the painting and received prizes and gifts to foster their enthusiasm for the task. This also provided an incentive for the adults to pave the streets, using aesthetically interesting 'wave' patterns rather than the more mundane squares.

Later in the same year, writers, poets and musicians came to Asilah to participate in the first summer pilgrimage, an event which attracted about a thousand onlookers, mostly from neighbouring towns.

The modest success of this pilgrimage kindled a sense of civic pride in achievement. As increasing numbers of people attended each successive festival, the government was persuaded to instruct the appropriate agencies to help the townspeople. Mohammed Benaissa, self-styled 'professional beggar', began to raise private funding and mobilised corporate assistance to realise his vision of architectural harmony. The town's new prominence and its continued cleanliness however, is due mostly to the local people's diligence and strength of purpose.

The tenacity of those visionaries and volunteers connected with the project has led to the restoration of almost 60% of Asilah's buildings. Historical sites such as the Portuguese fortifications, the Al-Kamra Tower and the Raissouni Palace (an early 20th century structure) have all been restored and several public spaces have been re-arranged for commercial activities.

The flawless appearance and efficient functioning of the town led to its designation as a National Monument, and in 1989 it received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The ongoing maintenance programme incorporates individual houses, public buildings and mosques. Volunteers renovate the sanitary facilities of at least ten sub-standard houses each year. The occupants of these houses are mostly poor people and live with relatives during the summer months, renting out their own homes. In this way they not only receive a welcome boost to their income, but also provide much-needed accommodation for the influx of visitors to the town.

The extension of telephone, telex and fax facilities, and a model sewerage system, have all contributed to the growth of tourism. The old harbour is being rebuilt to serve as a commercial port and marina, and other improvements are in the pipeline. Asilah's future as one of Morocco's important tourist resorts now seems assured.

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