Culture Diplomacy and Moussems

Slide1 There should be a comma or two in the above title, adding an element of clarity to this post about the annual cultural Moussem of Assilah, an event which requires no invitation to attend, but just try to find out anything about it without traveling to Assilah.  No website (or rather, one that hopelessly jams up), and an impressively thick program that is glossily printed but contains no specific timing or venue information.  However, persistent conference-seekers will be rewarded by Moroccan hospitality – show up, and you will be fed!

Assilah is a northern Moroccan town on the Atlantic coast, its ancient Portuguese fortifications charmingly preserved for the mostly Moroccan and European tourists who come every summer. A few years ago, the New York Times had a nice piece on the town.

Thanks to native son Mohamed Benaissa, Morocco’s former Ambassador to the United States, Assilah has been attracting a more serious crowd every summer for the last 32 years.  Resurrecting the term moussem (traditional festival honoring a local "saint" or marabout) and applying it to a series of conferences, lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions – and hosting it in a town without the name recognition (or the climate) of a Davos or an Aspen – is no mean feat.  But Benaissa has been pulling it off, year after year.

It helps to have been Morocco’s Minister of Culture and Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Those connections showed in the recent colloquium on Diplomacy and Culture, which was chaired by Dominique de Villepin, Jacques Chirac’s Prime Minister who, as France’s foreign minister, famously resisted George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  De Villepin, known for his eloquence in his native language, was born in Morocco when it was still a French protectorate.

Neither de Villepin nor the other panelists – serving Moroccan ministers, academics, former foreign ministers of Senegal and Mexico – were going to let the audience forget that moment of glory when people of conscience attempted to halt the march to war.  Eventually the subject did turn to the cultural aspects of diplomacy, but let’s say that former ambassador Cynthia Schneider’s role as the sole American on the panel was not without its challenges.

Schneider on the dais (and me on Moroccan radio) made the same point: the United States, though a major producer and exporter of “culture,” is not equipped to “do culture” in the way that, say, France is.  We have no Ministry of Culture.  Nor do we have a Ministry of Information, but that is a matter for other fora.

That said, there is no lack of private institutions, often aided by the State Department’s ECA, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which try to fill the gap at the cabinet level.  Maybe that’s just as well, for how many Americans could agree on what constitutes American culture, let alone how to represent it abroad?  After all, aren’t the Culture Wars still raging in the homeland?

In Assilah, Moussem impresario Benaissa contents himself with sketching the outlines of important questions, then magically pulling together A-teams of international experts who descend upon Tangier’s hotels for the 30-mile trek down to Assilah.  His dynamism and boosterism is augmented this year by financial assistance from the United Arab Emirates.

In Diplomacy and Culture, it is good to remember, money helps.

Gerald Loftus

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