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In Morocco, an Artists’ Lair With Soul (NY Times 2013)


JULY 10, 2013

TAHANAOUT, Morocco — Nestled between trees off a small road in Tahanaout, a village at the foot of the Atlas mountains, Al Maqam is an artists’ colony cum gallery, library and hotel that is unique in Morocco.

Al Maqam, which means The Place in Arabic, is the creation of the painter Mohamed Mourabiti who started it more than 10 years ago. Buying old windows and doors in flea markets, he slowly built the center, room by room, a gradual expansion that earned him the nickname Ba Hmad, from his friend the writer and painter Mahi Binebine, after a 19th-century vizir who built a network of palaces in Marrakech for his 24 concubines.

In a country largely lacking in state funding and institutions for the arts. Mr. Mourabiti’s efforts have allowed other artists to work free from financial and other constraints. “Artists come here to find inspiration and to create,” he said.

Artists in the colony work together, managing the retreat and nurturing one another. Those who live nearby come for the day; others come for weeks at a time. Those who cannot afford the €50, or $64, nightly accommodation charge pay with paintings or poems.

“I came here for three weeks nine years ago,” said Mr. Binebine, who has paintings hanging on the walls of the gallery and a bronze sculpture standing in one of the gardens. “This place attracts a lot of people because it has a soul.”

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Every day, he eats at the restaurant in between working in a large luminous studio in one of the numerous small buildings of Al Maqam. When he doesn’t feel like returning at night to Marrakech he stays in a room he reserved for the entire year.

“I used to work in town, and a lot of people would stop by to see me and interrupt my work,” he said. “Here, I am at peace.”

The colony may be peaceful, but it is far from isolated. It creates jobs in the village by exclusively using locally made or grown products. And Mr. Mourabiti, who supported his painting habit by working as a messenger boy in Casablanca after leaving school at a young age to dedicate himself to his art, has given it a strongly social conscience.

Mohamed Mourabiti's studio at Al Maqam. Photo © Aida Alami

One frequent resident, the French Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui, 31, is currently working on an awareness campaign on the plight of sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco. Ms. Alaoui, whose pictures are shown in New York, Paris and Dubai, discovered the place four years ago while working on a book of portraits of Moroccan artists.

“It’s an environment that I really like not only because of the project itself but also because the artists within the community are artists who are committed and generous,” she said. “They are some of the rare ones who talk about different topics like migration, human rights and who don’t self-censor themselves.”

Mr. Mourabiti’s friend Mr. Binebine is the author of “The Stars of Sidi Moumen,” a novel exploring the lives of the Moroccan suicide bombers who killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003.

The book was turned into a movie, “The Horses of God,” by the director Nabil Ayouche, shown at the Cannes film festival last year. Mr. Binebine and Mr. Ayouche are now creating a cultural center in Sidi Moumen, the Casablanca slum where the terrorists grew up. The center has been built and should be equipped and open within six months, they say, thanks to gifts from Sidi Moumen’s mayor, several companies and Moroccan artists who raised $240,000 through a May charity sale of 67 paintings.

“We are confident that we can help the youth of Sidi Moumen by providing access to culture, not an elitist culture but a culture of proximity, which tells their stories, their lives and allows them to showcase their talent,” the two said in a joined statement issued May 16, on the 10th anniversary of the Casablanca attack, when Mr. Ayouche’s film was shown at the cultural center to an audience that included relatives of both the victims and the bombers.

The cultural center will offer classes in music, dance, theater, film, photography and painting. It will have a movie theater, a cafe and a gallery to allow emerging artists to show their work.

“We are confident that through centers such as this one, talent will emerge in the coming years and superstars will be born, like in the suburbs in France,” the two artists added.

For Mr. Mourabiti, too, the arts are an arm in the fight against the radicalization of Morocco’s young urban poor.

“There aren’t any public gyms or swimming pools or anything for these kids to go to after school,” he said. “We also need to sensitize everybody about the importance of getting an education, otherwise there is no hope for them.”

A version of this article appears in print on July 11, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.

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