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The Treasure of Asilah - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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‘Man’s value is measured by his deeds,’ according to the old saying. And this is still valid today for individuals and communities alike.

This old saying crossed my mind as I walked through the alleys of Asilah, a Moroccan city located on the coast of the great Atlantic Ocean, also known as the Sea of Darkness.

I explored the city where Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper took part in the 30th anniversary of the Asilah Cultural Festival, which coincided with the paper’s own 30th anniversary.

Mohammed Benaissa, the mayor of Asilah and the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs accompanied us through the clean and narrow streets of the city decorated with its whitewashed walls and blue windows and doors that overlook the vast blue ocean.

As we walked, he spoke about each painting that we came across. Each one had been drawn by a male or female artist either from the east or the west who, with his or her paintbrush, not only recreated images of the city but also captured the city’s inspiration and its people.

There is an old school and a studio where an old French artist is meeting a female Japanese artist along with a light-bearded Moroccan painter who smiles gently. There is also the Palace of Culture where conferences and meetings are held.

We asked Binaissa about the studio, its staff and how these artists are drawn here. As he joked with one of them, he said, “We cover half of the cost of their plane tickets and we pay for their accommodation and food while the management of the Asilah Forum would take four pieces of artwork and then would break their moulds.” As he spoke, he smiled with satisfaction for accomplishing this unique intermarriage between business and culture in its most beautiful form.

Men and women, young and old occupy the corridors of the old Palace of Culture and the Hassan II Center for International Meetings. They assist in various fields as part of the festival. I was informed that most of them are residents of Asilah. For 30 days, they are preoccupied with the longest Arab cultural art festival – the Asilah Festival.

The focus here is the manner in which certain values of this calm city were transformed into a source of economic development by relying on culture and art. Together they formed a source of progress, enlightenment and culture, or literature or art that transformed into economic engines even though many believe that these activities do not yield wealth but are merely hobbies for pure mental or spiritual contentment. For this reason the organizers of the Asilah Festival repeatedly stated that “culture serves development.”

The Asilah Festival has transformed every part of the city into a source of commercial profit. The Palace of Culture, a Moroccan architectural masterpiece, has transformed from ruins of a palace built in the early 20th century belonging to a Moroccan revolutionary called Ahmed al Raissouni who many believed was a pirate, into a tourist and cultural hub.

The Hassan II Center for International Meetings, which used to serve as a warehouse storing cereal crops and was also used as stables according to one of the festival organisers, has become a popular place to hold lectures and symposiums in every discipline from media to politics, literature and cinema, and a meeting place for various civilizations and where scores of intellectuals, politicians, media figures and artists deliver lectures.

How many visitors arrange to spend the summer in Asilah every year? How many investors want to build a lucrative project in this city, in fact how many donors rather than beneficiaries want to support this trend of strengthening the cultural value and beauty of the city? How many men and women are working in this city as a result of the festival? How many young men and women have benefited from visitors to the city and gained expertise or educational or practical advice that has changed the direction of their lives?

Asilah, a small city that sits on the Atlantic coast, has put all of its own merits into action and exerted every effort in order to strengthen the role of the city and to raise the level of development by making the most of its unique elements; art, beauty and serenity. This tranquillity characterizes the city’s inhabitants who welcome visitors generously and genuinely and are fully aware of their city’s worth. I did not see one child or youth vandalizing the numerous paintings that beautify the alleyways of Asilah in any way.

If Asilah has achieved all of this even though culture in our Arab world is usually non-profitable then what about bigger and richer cities? Why haven’t other places in the Arab world that are relatively more advantaged within or outside of the context of culture and art achieved what Asilah has achieved?

For example, what if cultural development spread in every country according to the value of its cities and regions? For example, there could be cultural activities in the mountainous and coastal regions of Syria such as Tartous and Latakia and in other cities, whilst Tadmor and the Syrian and Arab Peninsula could offer desert tourism. Moreover, an all-inclusive industry could be established around the ancient monumental cities of Syria such as the Romanian, Turkish and Islamic cities and others. With regards to historical tourism in Jordan for example there is the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, where it is believed that Jesus was baptized, and Petra as well as the Islamic monuments such as the ruins of Maarakat Muat and so on.

I am aware of the fact that tourism does exist in these areas however what I am describing is not a passing visit at one point or another; I mean a complete ‘institution’ that is capable of transforming the merits of a location and population into a rich source of economic and humanitarian development i.e. transforming a location into a culture and an economy in itself.

Let us move away from the context of culture, monuments and arts and look at another field; what if the particular strong points of places like Mahd ad Dahab and Sukhaibrat in Saudi Arabia for example were revolutionized with complete industries, societies and support services for the gold mining industry. And in Jizan, southern Saudi Arabia, a fishing industry could be established and the advantages of the region could be utilised as part of a marine fishing industry. In addition, the agricultural production of Tihamah could be utilized.

Moreover strategic partnerships could be established as was the case with the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) that is based in eastern Saudi Arabia and that established an integral society based on the petrochemical industry. It is a similar case for the metal industries as Saudi Arabia possesses important locations and wealth in this regard to the extent that it has established a metallurgical company by royal decree. All of this will contribute to unleashing potential and reviving society through economic development. This will strengthen individual initiative and the industrious spirit away from the framework of the traditional joint community that kills or weakens individual spirit, which constitutes the basis of modern economic revival in terms of the role of human labour.

There is good in every place. Every location has its own treasures even if it appears to be void of life’s essentials. Whoever digs deeper will find the treasure and launch the process of potential development and build upon the human element first and foremost.

This is the prevailing ‘spirit’ of Saudi planning sponsored by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz.

According to the history of the Moroccan city of Asilah, the Normans invaded its shores in search of hidden treasure and money. When the Berbers heard about this they headed for the city and settled there and would hold a market three times a year. This market was visited by people from Al Andalus and other countries and it was gradually built up until the city became inhabited. Yet the hidden treasure was never found.

The Berbers and Normans failed to recognise the treasure that they were in search of in Asilah; it was discovered by some of Asilah’s own residents some thirty years ago led by Mohammed Binaissa. Asilah’s hidden treasure emerged and shone in the form of art and culture but who can see that?

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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