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From Rags to Riches: Take a tour of Asilah, Morocco and see the transformation

We took the train south of Tangiers to Asilah on Morocco's Atlantic coast. It is a slow, friendly village with a pleasant climate, centuries-old buildings, good food and excellent beaches. From the train station, we took a donkey cart, which let us off at Paradise Beach. And paradise it is! The cliffs of this ancient walled town provide a beautiful, wide panoramic view with powerful waves crashing on the rocks below. Once a run-down, rat-infested village, Asilah's 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 (then president of the Moroccan Painters Association), the group felt that if Asilah became the hub of worthwhile, cultural activity, with support from the local inhabitants, the government would 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 Asilah, and Mohammed Melehi 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 involved the local people and asked for their cooperation to conserve time and energy. Today, after centuries of virtual anonymity, Asilah is becoming a model for third world development. Over 500 local school children are intimately involved in helping to keep the beaches clean. Residents also supply either materials or labor whenever work needs to be done. Mohammed Benaissa, 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. Asilah has a permanent population of approximately 20,000, and becomes the site of an annual August festival. Artists, writers, poets, musicians and guests from around the world come to partake of its "Festival of Three Worlds," an Arab and African artistic and cultural event.

But, Mohammed Benaissa did not stop there. He began to raise private funding and mobilized corporate assistance to realize his vision of architectural harmony. The tenacity of those visionaries and volunteers connected with the project has led to the restoration of almost 60% of Asilah's buildings. 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. There is ongoing maintenance involving 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 low-income families. Often, they will live with relatives during the summer months, renting out their own homes. This creates a welcome boost to their income, and also provides much-needed accommodation for the influx of visitors to the town. The extension of telephone, telex and fax facilities, and a model sewerage system, has contributed to the growth of tourism. And it makes it a lot easier to keep in contact! The old harbor is being rebuilt to serve as a commercial port and marina. Asilah's future as one of Morocco's important tourist resorts now seems assured.

Vocabulary Box

Anonymity - The quality or state of being unknown or obscure

Tenacity - not easily pulled apart; persistent in maintaining or adhering to something valued or habitual

Influx- To flow in

Eradicate- To wipe out

Tourism is not the only viable asset to Asilah! Earlier this month Mohammed Benaissa, as Morocco's ambassador to the United States, organized a symposium on relations between the Arab world and the United States in Asilah. Let's face it, these two groups are not known for their friendly relations. This is exactly why Benaissa chose to create the symposium! "Ever since the end of the Cold War and Persian Gulf war, the gap in comprehension between the Arabs and the United States is getting wider," said Benaissa. He vigorously defended the conference as the first in what he hopes will be a regular exchange between Arab and American intellectuals to help demolish mutually destructive stereotypes.

"We are now entering into a new era, a new world order, if you will, in which the United States is the dominant force and Israel is inescapably part of the equation. There is new technology, the globalization of communication and economies, a whole new system of values. The Arabs have a very bad image in the United States. Unless we come together and understand one another, we Arabs are in danger of becoming marginalized."

If anyone has the energy and credibility to build bridges of understanding, it is the 56-year-old Benaissa, an energetic businessman, former minister of culture and close confidant of Morocco's King Hassan. No such cultural sharing was seen at Asilah, however. Arab and American participants hurled accusations at one another across the conference table. The Americans condemned the Arabs for not raising their voices against terrorism; the Arabs challenged the Americans' definition of terror itself. The Americans assailed growing Islamic violence in Arab countries; the Arabs accused the Americans of making the violence possible by funding and training Islamic militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Despite their differences, Benaissa feels the conference was a success. "The more people talk and get to know one another, the more familiar our cultures become," he said. His next project is to turn a sprawling palace in Asilah into an institute of American studies, where visiting U.S. academics, government officials, members of Congress and artists will participate in two-week seminars to teach Arabs the way the United States really works. "Our misunderstandings didn't begin in a day and they won't be eradicated in a day," said Benaissa. "But this is a start. Besides, we have no choice, do we?"


Abeja - Abeja's camera visits Volubilis
Jasmine - Fes: A Medieval Town of Fairytales
Kavitha - Beauty is Only Skin Deep: Kavitha and Abeja Discover Meknes's Tortured Past
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- She's Making a Difference

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