Asilah: A Little-Known Artist Haven on the Moroccan Coast

Wed, 25 July 2018

You know what to expect from a sleepy fishing town; a quintessential port, cobbled streets, whitewashed houses and seagulls screeching overhead.

But Asilah, a town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast 31km south from Tangier, has its own unique blueprint. It’s a place where the bourgeoisie come to feast on seafood, indulge their creative streak and ponder existentialist questions. Whether you’re literary agent or prefer the canvas like Matisse (who spent time here many moons ago) this “City of Arts” has inspired plenty. In the words of American novelist John Updike, it “gives the mundane its beautiful due”.

I arrive a month into travelling around Morocco and rent a one-bedroom flat instead of a hotel in the hope of assimilating myself into local life. The crowning glory? A rooftop overlooking the 15th-century medina. Every morning, I rise early to sit and watch mothers dressed in brightly coloured djellabas doing the school run, while merchants recline in chairs and catch up on the news as they await customers. In the distance, Berber women tout flip albums of their greatest henna hits, while farmers direct donkey-pulled carts alongside.

From my perch, I can also appreciate the city’s eclectic architecture: the beautiful projecting oriel window or “mashrabiya”; ornate doors that speak of the city’s Maghreb roots; blue and green shutters that attest to Asilah being part of the Spanish Protectorate until 1956. My neighbours know each other by name and stop to exchange greetings on the street: “Alsalam ealaykum”. Cheeks are kissed and hands are placed on hearts before being extended into a handshake.

As I walked down the street in larger Moroccan cities like Marrakech and Fez, cries of “Where are you from?!” followed me through public spaces, bouncing from one souk to another much like the motorbikes that vroomed along the sidewalks. Asilah is a different story. The old town stands quiet and composed, protected by fortifications built by the Portuguese; with the walls, artisanal stalls and galleries peak out from rows of residential houses that are tinged by blue, green and pink accents.

That’s not to say I do not hear my fair share of “Welcome to Morocco, bienvenue, bienvenue!” During peak holiday period (July and August), the streets bustle as many Moroccans descend on the town to escape the heat in the south. I befriend two locals while waiting for an internet café to open. It’s a friendship grows over cups of mint tea known as “nana”, discussions about Moroccan culture and nightly games of Parchi, a pastime modelled on the medieval Indian board game of Pachisi.

Between dice rolls, my new friend Mustapha explains why I don’t see women sipping nana with us. “It’s just the way things are in the north – people are more traditional than in the south, where it can be hard to tell the difference between Moroccan and European cultures.” Instead, it’s men who gather to socialise and watch football. “It is not that women are not free”, Idris, a literature teacher born and raised in Asilah, chimes in, “it’s about what people are used to. Here, women visit each other in their homes, while men go out to cafés. Decades ago you wouldn’t see women on the streets, but things are changing – and to think that they aren’t free to come here simplifies the matter.” As I ponder gender roles and tradition – topics many small towns grapple with in the modern world – scenes I have witnessed in the past few days flash through my mind: men picking up their children from school and helping in the kitchen; women dressed in the latest fashions working in media or owning their own businesses. I take another sip of tea and watch the street lights flicker.

The next morning, while meandering through the medina’s winding streets and exploring the lived-in avenues of the new town in the light of day, I realise that street artists are the modern-day Matisses of Asilah. Colourful murals, both abstract and literal, have become part of the town’s DNA thanks to the International Cultural Moussem of Asilah, an annual art festival held in July. Credited with boosting Asilah’s income and making it the middle-class haven for artists that is today, concerts, lectures and poetry readings are all on the agenda. It began in 1978 when artist and curator Mohammed Melehi joined forces with photographer and politician Mohamed Benaïssa to invite artists from across the globe to paint on the medina’s walls. Contributing artists have included Mizue Sawano and Mohammed Baba, and I ogle each and every mural, ruminating on its meaning before moving onto the next.

Art galleries, studios and exhibition spaces fill the medina, covering everything from Arabic calligraphy to modern art. “All my designs are simple but Moroccan-inspired and compliment my art”, Tarek, owner of boutique-cum-art-studio Something Blue tells me. Dressed in linen trousers and a sky-blue shirt with his hair pulled back into a man bun, he looks just the part of a hippy artist as he discusses the inspiration behind his pieces. A kaftan in sunshine yellow with an asymmetric hem catches my eye. It’s 200 dirham (about £40), so I tell him I will give it some thought. A few steps away, an old man weathering the sun in a shirt, face-cap and faded trousers (the standard uniform for older gentlemen when not wearing a kandora) is deftly making an array of leather slippers and sandals. I realise how many items of wearable art decorate the walls of shops in the medina; woven bracelets, dyed scarves to soft babouche, the traditional Moroccan shoes.

There’s no need to be a starving artist in Asilah. From paella to tortillas and tacos, the city’s international roots are evident in a vibrant food culture in which seafood plays a starring role. A 10-minute walk from the medina, fishermen sell fresh bounty in the port as hopeful cats prowl nearby. The smell of prawns slow cooking in tagine wafts through the streets, as the sizzle and spattering of hot oil from vendors frying battered sardines mingles with the sight of whole crabs resting on beds of salad.

And then there’s the street food. Falafel is made in front of you, while msemmen – Moroccan crepes lathered in amlo, an almond and argan oil blend – are best washed down with sugarcane juice mixed with ginger and lemon. Moroccans love their sweets. From chebakia to pistachio briouates, fried doughnuts to baked pastries. Numerous times I stop to admire the vast array of treats behind glass-encased displays. My favourite is honey-glazed, amlo-dipped sfenj. The local saying goes “the sfenj bakers are worth as much as kings” – one bite of this vegan fritter and I saw why. It’s a crispy, golden delight.

I discover life outside the tourist hotspots. The busy market where makeshift stalls are circled by clucking chickens and take up the entire pavement, peddling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to flowers picked by elderly women from nearby villages who shade themselves under straw hats adorned with multicoloured pompoms. There’s another, larger flea market on the outskirts of town on Thursday. I pick up a denim Acne dress for just 20D (£4).

In Asilah, inspiration comes, sometimes quite literally, in waves. From Hemmingway to Van Gogh, artists have found the sea a worthy muse, and it is easy to understand why. There is poetry in the sight of a man shore fishing on an empty beach as the sun rises. It washes over me as I watch a group of boys cast their rods high up from the city’s accropodes, while below an old man in knee-high wellington boots digs for octopuses in the shallows. I make a solitary visit to Paradise Beach about 7km south of Asilah, and take a reflective dip in the deliciously cool waters.

For me, Updike’s words about art seem to summarise Asilah: “What art offers is space, a certain breathing room for the spirit.”

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