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Volume 45, Number 1January/February 1994

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Common Ground

Written and photographed by Dannielle B. Hayes

Asilah clings like a stubborn white barnacle to the cliffs of Morocco. It is a town of sounds and of colors: of poetry, of staccato fingers beating on clay drums, of blinding sunwashed whiteness, of womens's tongues talking and singing. It is the sweet chanting of children, the lessons of the Qur'an echoing down blue, pink and ocher passageways. And it is the site of a confluence of cultures, where a yeasty union of music and art raises everyday life to a higher pitch.

History began in this small fishing town more than 3600 years age. Located just 42 kilometers (26 miles) south of Tangier, Asilah was commercial center at the crossroads of East and West. Strabo and Ptolemy mentioned it; so did Ibn Hawqal and al-Bakri. Its ramparts were battered by Phoenicians, Romans, Norman, Arabs, Portuguese and Spaniards, yet it remained a bastion of Arab-Islamic thought, a stronghold of Moroccan culture.

Today, a different kind of invasion takes place on these Atlantic shores. Every summer since 1978, musicians, theater groups, singers and visual artists from around the world gather in Asilah to perform, to teach and to learn from each other. The event is called Cultural Moussem of Asilah, taking its name from the French form of the Arabic world mawsim, or festive season. What was merely a small boy's dream some 50 years ago is now a prominent arts festival, attracting artists and spectators from all parts of the world.

Mohamed Benaïssa, former culture minister and now Morocco's ambassador to the United States, was the boy who had a dream for Asilah, the town of his birth. Benaïssa's studies in journalism and communications took him to the University of Cairo and the University of Minnesota. In the mid-1960's with the aid of a Rockefeller Foundation grant, he studied filmmaking in New York and worked for the Moroccan Permanent Mission to the United Nations. Soon after, he was appointed head of the UN Office of Public Information, and was later posted in Addis Ababa. He honed his communication skills further in Ghana and in Rome, as information director for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Always, however, Mohamed Benaïssa's hopes and dreams remained with Asilah.

Benaïssa returned home after a an absence of 20 years and documented with black-and-while photographs what he calls "the autobiography of the town where I was born, Asilah." The stark, beautiful images, together with poems by Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, were bound in a volume titled Grains de Peau - Grains (or Textures) of Skin. In the introduction, Benaïssa writes of his return to Asilah: "I saw the men. I saw the stones. I saw also the shadows, forms and dimensions. And I saw myself, returning as myself and into myself."

Together with his longtime friend Mohamed Melehi, a prominent Moroccan artist, Mohamed Benaïssa began to realize his dream. The two men observed that "there is no common ground where the Arab Muslim intellectual - artist, writer or poet of the Third World - can meet his counterparts from the 'other world.' This limits their communication through dialogue and an exchange of experiences that should be open, intimate and direct. There needs to be a common ground.... for much-needed horizontal and vertical communication within a human framework that includes students, teachers, workers, farmers, craftsmen, civil servants, and housewives..."

Benaïssa and Melehi selected Asilah as their common ground because it "retains the authentic look of an urban center" and because of "the simplicity of its natural surroundings," they wrote. "We wanted to establish Asilah as a....stronghold for the protection of man's dignity [and] the values of his civilization.... We also wanted to establish it as a symbol of the movement of cultural functions from capital cities to small towns....which otherwise....would remain marginal and undeveloped and would eventually decline."

Thus came about the first Cultural Moussem of Asilah, set up in July and August 1978 amid the remnants of the town's historical past. Morocco's Ministry of Culture restored a section of the city ramparts, and the luxurious Raissouni Palace was transformed into a "palace of culture," with art studios and a hall for cultural gatherings. An open-air theater was created in the old section of town within the Portuguese walls, and a gallery space spiraled inside the Portuguese keep. The entire town was scrubbed and white-washed in preparation for the event.

Eleven artists were invited to that first moussem, coming from Italy, Iraq, Japan, Latin America, Morocco, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sudan and the United States. "In the course of the cultural events, these artists and scholars contributed alongside [local] people from every social background: apprentices, fishermen, workers, tradesmen, students, children, housewives or casual passersby."

The crown prince of Morocco, government officials, university professors and journalists from Morocco and Europe also attended the first moussem. Benaïssa and Melehi succeeded in establishing what they described as "a permanent center for cultural diffusion, rich in authenticity and steeped in heritage.... where people will be able to define their distinctive features, their fundamental characteristics and their values."

Five years later, and for two years following, I was one of the artists invited to Asilah. I was told to bring with me everything I might possibly need, and more, I didn't realize that the experience I would return with was far richer than any paper, film or ink I might have taken with me. During my visits I rebuilt a darkroom, taught photography, and created a series of photo-lithographs as well as photo-collages. But it was in that first year that all my basic senses came alive, as if I were seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching for the very first time.

The elegant but crumbling Raissouni Palace was the artists' home during the festival. Sharif Raissouni himself, pasha of Asilah from the turn of the century until 1924, never lived in the palace; he was killed just after it was completed. It was rumored that the ghosts of the workmen roamed the tiled hallways at night, but I felt quite safe in "my" room, the smallest and tallest in the palace, with space only for a bed and a small table. I had only to open the narrow green shutters, and the pounding surf of the Atlantic was mine to behold. And there was the night watchman, a man who had survived eight wars; surely he would stop any ghosts in their tracks. Before daybreak, as a cock crowed in the distance, I could hear the watchman clearing his throat before intoning the call to prayer.

Work began early in the palace atelier. After a light awakening with fresh mint tea or thick black Moroccan coffee, and talk of dreams and ghosts in several different languages, the artists began working in earnest to finish their projects before the end of the moussem. Some of the Moroccan artists used the walls of Asilah as their canvas, creating large colorful works with the help of children or the occasional passerby, who stopped to hold a ladder or toss in a work of encouragement. Other artists were accomplished printmakers, etching, inking, and wiping their copper plates while waiting for their turn on the press. I preferred photo-lithographs, exposing the thin aluminum plates to the sun, and using the colors I found in the medina, or old town: a rich cobalt blue, the deep yellows of saffron and turmeric, and the oranges, browns and greens of henna. I also used ink made from burned sheep's wool that gave dense blacks, browns and blues.

Asilah itself was my palette.

Every morning too, the housekeepers arrived. I would watch them in their gold bangles and bare feet, bent double, scrubbing the intricate blue, yellow and white mosaic to greater brilliance. One afternoon, they took their tea break just outside my room. As I heard the steady beat of their plastic water-bottle drums, and the chanting and laughing became louder, I decided to join the fun. One of the women, the darkest of them all - the one the other artists feared because one of her eyes appeared to look right through you - was doing a traditional dance. She spotted me and, gently tying a scarf around me gave me my first lesson in her art. When the other women whooped and clapped, I knew that we had become friends - and that they would be willing subjects for my camera a few days later.

Sadia, the head housekeeper, was my first subject, a large woman with full lips and sad, soft eyes. When she saw her photo hanging by a clothespin in the darkroom, she let out a scream and pounded her chest. I thought she was going to kill me. Instead, she wrapped her ample arms around me, thanking me over and over in Arabic and Spanish. The next day she brought her small son to be photographed. Dressed in thick gray-flannel shorts and a black shirt, he was as frail as the swallows in the fig trees and certainly not as happy. With his mother hovering above him, however, he gave in to the camera just for an instant.

The end of the moussem came all too soon. The flood of tourists receded back to Fez, Rabat, Casablanca. The artists returned to their homes in Paris, New York, Cairo, Madrid. I decided to take a short trip to Barcelona, but returned to Asilah a few days later to thank Mohamed Benaïssa in person.

He had written in his book that, on his own return to Asilah, "I rediscovered my being, which had almost been carried off by foreign winds." As I walked up the almost-deserted main street of the town, the shoemaker from whom I'd bought my blue babouche slippers waved a hello, the baker shouted a greeting, and Sadia gave me a big hug of recognition. I had a strange feeling that I too was coming home to Asilah.

Dannielle B. Hayes is a free-lance photographer, writer, artist and publisher based in New York City.

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the January/February 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1994 images.