Saturday, August 28, 2004

Letter from Essaoira, Morocco

I am in Essaouira, Morocco after all!

It's incredibly beautiful here. My meeting with Andre Azoulay yesterday went well. We discussed a number of possibilities and I think the whole thing could lead to a fine article as well as to some interesting projects. It is clear to me That Azoulay knows his stuff well and is well plugged in to international intelligence services. He was aware of my writings on Jewish topics, for instance and made as the centerpiece of our discussion subjects thereby related. He saw me on the main square today and said hello, introducing me to his wife.

I also met with other old friends, Josef Sebag, the antiques merchant and Fouad, the merchant and artist.

I would like to come back this December. On thing that could bring me back is to organise a Yoga workshop here with Lucia. We could organise it through the Sofitel, this I am confident, expecially after a sucessful publication of the article with Azoulay. Spinning the articles to fit with Hungary should not be too hard.

Organising Jewish tours of Essaouira is on possibility. That could bhe done through companies already doing this Jewish tours, in conjunction with the Moroccan National Tourism board. An event could be planned in Hungary with the new Moroccan Ambassador. I could do a standard welcome to Budapest interview and then organise with him and with the Jewish community in Budapest to stage such an event that would culminate in a trip to Essaouira.

I would like very much to work to promote programs here, of the sort that relate to promoting culture, education and cross-cultural interaction and above all Peace. After publication of the articles, this can follow.

A lot of things await me in Budapest, but if I put the articles first, writing them, sponsoring them, publishing them in the papers, all should go well. Then I will be back in contact with Azoulay about other topics. The windmill project should be a fine one to start with. I will meet with Steven Anderson and Lansing about that.

Yesterday I met with Andre Azoulay, first Counselor to King Mohammed VI. What follows is a transcript of our talk.

Interview with André Azoulay – 27 August, 2004
By Jake Doyle

A: I am royal advisor to His Majesty, King of Morocco, a position I have held for 14 years. I am a member of the Royal Cabinet and do my best to serve my country, my people and my King.

Q: What does Morocco seek to offer to and gain from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe?

A: If you look at the numbers, our populations have much to offer each other. What is now on the table in terms of direct investment, trade and economy, it is very modest. This means that the potential is very high and everything is possible and everything is open. We need to foster relations with the Central and Eastern European nations that are now of course members of the European Union. We need to make these populations more familiar with Morocco and to bolster relations with the EU. We have to design a new format for our relations with the nations of this region, a new dynamic that is both bigger, faster and stable. The new entrants to the EU are assets to the Union. We needn’t view the nations of this region as competition, but on the contrary, as complementary.

We are now working to have special status with the EU. We have to be creative, we have to be imaginative, we have to be ambitious and not to be pessimistic.

Q: It was a clear indication in the mid 1980s when Morocco made its application to join the EU (then EC), that there is a strong will to build stronger ties with Europe. What could be the nature of these ties?

A: First of all, Morocco is Africa, Morocco is the Arab world and Morocco is Europe. Morocco is 14 km from the European coast in Spain. In our view, we have to break this status that limits our relations to Europe based on economy and trade with no connection to strategy and politics. We have to change it. And we have to find something that is closer to full membership, even if it is not called full membership. Even though we are now an economic partner with a free trade zone, we need in the future to have political relations, a political status, a strategic approach, a constitutional definition of our relations. Now it is called from the European side, “new neighborhood” policy. From our side it is called a strategic partnership. We have to now make it more concrete and more feasible.

Q: With regard to specific sectors of cooperation - trade, tourism, education, energy, information technology - are there any areas that Morocco is targeting in its relations with Europe, particularly the new member states?

A: The EU is now our number one partner in terms of investment, in terms of trade, in terms of funding and loans, in terms of creating new jobs. Europe is number one in the world. It will remain such; this to the benefit of the new member states. I don’t see any limits to what Europeans can do in Morocco. I hope that in the near future there will also be no limit to what Morocco will achieve with EU members in terms of investments, in terms of partnerships, in terms of free circulation of people and not only the rich. And this is the future and I’m very pleased with that. Even if now we are confronted with a very archaic and unfair perception on the part of many opinion leaders because of what is happening in the Arab and Muslim world, I think this a misconception that will not last. It is based on ignorance. We in Morocco know everything about Europe. But Europeans unfortunately don’t know a lot about what about what we have in Morocco, our history and culture. But I am sure we will find a way to solve this.

Q: Those are very heartening words, particularly your vision of the future. It has been suggested that Morocco’s culture, art and handicrafts could serve as a way to bridge the gaps between Europe and Morocco, not so much political, but rather more related to cultural interchange and tourism.

A: This is vital. This is how people will change their minds and become more aware of the reality, through culture. I don’t see any ideologies of trade or economic cooperation or the usual political gains filling the gaps of knowledge. Painting, music, cinema and other intellectual expressions can quickly change the minds of people. Personally this is my approach. I started with this and I continue to move in this direction. This is the only way. We have culture everywhere. You can create wealth by promoting culture. You can create knowledge and bring people closer to each other with culture in ways that ideology and economy could not afford to do, especially if change must come quickly. And now we have a situation of ideology against ideology. An extremist mood is creating problems, not only in the Western world, but in the Jewish world, in the Christian world. You have now this emerging picture of confrontation, of hate and of extremism. We have to act now quickly. But again it’s a challenge. We must do our best to apply culture to disarm the current mood.

If you want to ask me about my personal situation, that’s fine. I understand you’re also writing for the Jewish press?

Q: That’s correct.

A: Then please ask me about this topic because I am in a special position and I think it’s important for the world to know about it.

Q: The question I’ve wanted to ask is what was it like to grow up as a Jew in Morocco, in Essaouira?

A: I feel more than 2000 years old. As a Jew here I belong to a community that arrived long before Islam. I have complete legitimacy in this country. I would not ask charity from my Moslem colleagues. I am exactly like them, I have the same rights, the same ambitions, the same roots. More than that, I am older. In the city where we are now, this is the only such place in the Arab and Muslim world that had a Jewish majority. For a long time, Essaouira was a Jewish, Christian and Moslem city. In those days the Jewish population was between 16,000 and 30,000 and the Moslem population was between 10,000 and 12,000. This was a long time ago. It’s not the situation now. The stones, the people, the chemistry, the very special chemistry of Essaouira was created by this merging, by this physical merging. There is a mutual respect, a mutual knowledge. I will never forget when the Rabbi in my father’s time came back from Jerusalem which was then a part of Jordan with a small bag of sand and he gave the bag to my father who could not go to Jerusalem. I was born here, was educated here, as was my wife. I have been educated in this culture of respect. This city was built on respecting the dignity of others. My neighbor, my Moslem neighbor never presented any problem and always treated me as his equal. That’s why I am troubled by what is happening now in Israel and Palestine. Until the Palestinian is afforded identity and dignity, my Jewishness is weakened. It is my personal choice. I am not Jewish by my blood, I am Jewish by my brain and by my values. That’s why I think the experience we have fomented in this culture could be a good message. And as advisor to the commander of faith who is a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed and being myself Jewish I belong to a very select and snobbish club because I am the only member. There is no other Arab or Moslem country where you have a Jewish person in such a responsibility. And it’s not by accident and it’s nothing to do with my person, just a continuation of a long tradition. Our history has its black pages and white pages and rose-colored pages. But at the end of the day, it is positive. And we are keeping alive this light of hope. As the French would say, the art of the possible; what is possible to do now. And I think this is important to keep in mind and to know. You can see this in the faces of the people of Essaouira.

Q: I felt this way on my first visit to Morocco. I knew that this was the place I wanted to spend the most time on my first visit here five years ago. I met a Jewish merchant, Joseph.

A: Joseph Sebag.

Q: Yes. We had long talks. I can relate to the situation you’re describing. Relating to Arabs and Jews, if there were one bit of advice you could give to Ariel Sharon, what would it be?

A: If I were Ariel Sharon, I would decide immediately to be the first state in the world to call for a Palestinian State. And I would do the maximum to sustain, to help, support and to fund the Palestinian recovery. I would have this privilege as the Jewish State. And I am sure this electro shock will bring not only peace but reconciliation. Because peace will happen one day. But what we are trying to do is first to make possible reconciliation in the minds of the people, in the hearts of the people. Because peace is a political decision. But to have real peace is to have the people reconciled with each other.

If I were President Bush, I would do as Clinton did and make peace between Israel and Palestine my top foreign policy objective. I think the United States needs to reconsider its approach, dramatically, completely. If the United States were to support the founding of a viable Palestinian State, then they would find the world a safer place.

Q: In Budapest, Jews from around the world come to visit the old Jewish neighborhoods and synagogues. The understanding is thereby fostered that despite Holocaust and Hungary’s participation in it, Hungary remains an important center of Judaism. Could the same approach be taken with Essaouira?

A: Yes, I am sure that by showing that the normal situation here for centuries was one of mutual respect – Jews and Christians and Muslims living and working together – good neighborhoods, mutual creation of wealth. I’m sure that it could be a good showcase and it could help people to hide this temptation of following this path of exclusion and hate. We need it. We need it immediately.

We have had many music festivals recently. We have one that is very big, Ngaua Music festival that was attended by 450 000 people. We also have a classical music festival. And last year I decided to have in the Church of Essaouira, a full day of concerts with readings from the Torah, the Koran and the New Testament with a Sufi music background. The maestro was Egyptian, the pianist was Israeli and the violinist was a Palestinian. A fundamentalist tried to organize a sit-in outside the Church in protest to the event, but no one came to his protest. The concerts themselves were attended by thousands of people. The Church was full and thousands of people stood outside just to listen. And we have the last week of each September a kind of Judeo Muslim festival, called the Atlantic Andalusian festival. This we have every year with Jewish singers and Moroccan singers performing together, one sentence in Hebrew and one sentence in Arabic, based on Andalusian music. And this is something very special. People are coming from all over the world.

Q: Amazing. Is this available on CD somewhere?

A: Yeah, sure.

Q: The president of Al Akhawayne University came to Budapest about a year and a half ago and spoke at the Central European University there on an number of topics and met with the rector, an Israeli man named Yehuda Elkanin.

A: I am vice president of Al Akhawayne University and a member of the board. If an event could be organized to bring CEU students to Essaouira, I would support it.

Q: There are plans underway for a group of CEU students to come to Morocco and, with a group of Al Akhawayne students, to climb the Toubkal in support of world peace. Each student will have the opportunity to sign a document declaring that he will never go to war with another participant.

A: I don’t know if you heard about it, but there was a group of Jews and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis who together climbed Mt. Everest. I think it’s a very good idea. And maybe we have to think about what we could do in Essaouira.

Q: Are there any projects of note pertaining to energy and the environment?

A: As a matter fact, in two weeks there will be a 600m USD tender to build an off-shore wind energy facility just some hundred meters from this place. A national tender shall be launched in a short time.

Q: What could be done to follow up the recent cooperation between CEU and Al Akhawayne?

A: We don’t have a place where students from Morocco and students from the Central and East European countries could meet together, especially to educate the new generation in what they can do together, to create a kind of unity. At Al Akhawayne, we have a number of partnerships in Europe and all over the world. So I think it’s a great idea to invite East European university students and from other universities to come here, to experience the chemistry of this place, to educate people and to express some signals. It’s possible and I will support it on the board.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Morocco postponed

So the trip to Morocco I'd been planning for some time has fallen through, or so it seems. I'd been told I would go for a week and have all my expenses paid and would interview a bigwig advisor to the King and all would be swell. It seemed likely that a sexy photographer would be coming along. But then it turned out that the Moroccan tourism board would not be paying, this owing mainly to miscommunication. A try was made with the travel agent to get them to fly me for free in exchange for PR and advertising with the newspaper I write for. But as all this had to travel through intermediaries, the hoped-for result was predictably lost.

So now I'm sitting here at the newspaper writing this wondering if this is a positive use of my time. Can I think of any fond memories that come from sitting writing? A few. Fond memories of walking through the woods? Many.

Of course I have fond memories of my time in Morocco. In Essaouira by the sea, in Azrou in the mountains, in Marakech. But to go for just a week at my own expense? To miss out on work here, to miss out on money. To travel alone is great, but for a month, not a week. And things have changed. I'm with family now. My ideal trip would be to an environment where my freedom is enhanced and my responsibilities lightened. If we were to travel to as a family to France to visit Wu in her country house, for example. Or even to Israel to visit Isaac. Or to the US?

But maybe this week could be fun. It just strikes me that it would cost more than the $400 that Aziz has said. If the airfare and accomodation were to cost just that much, I would still need some spending money on the ground, say $200 to be something close to comfortable. That's $600, leaving $450 on my account. If lucky, I'll have 100 000 HUF coming from corporate communications and the newspaper. That might cover rent and bills. With more work on the way, I could drain the account and beg for cash from Mary Ellen.

Of course if I went at this stage it would be without Bianca, the photographer, which dampens things considerably. Such a project needs better planning.