For the past three weeks, the small town of Assilah on Morocco’s western Atlantic coast has hummed with activity as countless artists, politicians, students, teachers, visitors and thinkers have crammed the narrow streets of the old Medina and new town.
Now, the cafes are slightly quieter. The hotels no longer have a ‘no vacancy’ sign in their windows, and the locals are starting to reclaim their town and their pace of life.
As a festival, Assilah is remarkable. Despite the increasing number of arts and culture festivals all over the world, it’s difficult to find one that compares with this 32 year old Moussem in Morocco. The sheer volume of events and activities puts even the most globally-known names to shame.
Where else could you watch a multi-national team of artists paint a wall mural in the morning, watch traditional Emirati dancers in the afternoon, attend a roundtable discussion on cultural diplomacy in the evening and go to an amazing musical performance at night?
For those attending, there have been several highlights at this year’s Assilah Festival. Every year, the walls of the old Medina receive a fresh coat of white paint – creating a blank canvas for a range of international artists to fill with their work. Japanese, Emirati, German and other artists all created beautiful murals throughout the Medina, giving wandering visitors plenty of reasons to pause and take photographs.
Delegates and participants also enjoyed lively and educational discussions at the Cultural Diplomacy and Music in the World of Islam roundtables. Many of the panellists later remarked upon the quality and thoughtfulness of the questions asked and opinions offered at these sessions.
However, what stood out the most were the moments where the town and the locals really engaged with the festival. The most striking example of this was the Bait Al Oud Al Arabi and Hadra Chefchaouni concert in the Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Library late last week. Hundreds of locals, visitors and delegates packed the library for the musical performance.
The performance by Hadra Chefchaouni (http://www.youtube.com/adachatassilahart#p/u/5/p84CybGEbVU) was memorable – not only for the opportunity it afforded delegates and visitors to see this rare form of musical expression, but also for the atmosphere generated by the performers and the crowd – who were chanting, cheering and singing along until well after half past midnight when the concert ended.
And so, Assilah reverts back to being a small fishing village on the western coast of Morocco for another 11 months. The tourists who made money renting out their holiday homes and apartments here will return after the heat of August has passed. The locals, many of whom generate as much money during the three weeks of the festival as they do for the rest of the year, will get to take a breath and a break.
The only people who won’t be taking time off are Mayor Benaissa and his staff. Earlier this week, he freely admitted to being addicted to the festival. It’s easy to see why. One would suspect that there will be more than a few people flying off in all directions from Tangier, Casablanca and Marrakesh this week who will already be pencilling in the dates for the Assilah Festival in 2011. It would seem the Mayor’s addiction is contagious!