Literary Boroughs #1: Asilah, Morocco

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the first post on Asilah, Morocco by Lucas M. Peters. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

When thinking of what makes a “literary borough,” we think of Paris in the ’20s, quickly followed by San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s and recently, Brooklyn. What these places have in common is a sense of history, a thriving art community, a sense of social struggle, and affordability for a struggling writer (Brooklyn maybe being an exception). Asilah, Morocco, is surprisingly not unlike its “big sisters.” It is in the middle of a fascinating history, both historical and literary. Asilah has a 3,600 year history that includes some fascinating stories involving Roman, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, and French colonization, Hercules reportedly did a tour around the area and, more recently, Mohammed Choukri, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Edith Wharton, Jean Genet (buried in the nearby town of Larache), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Jimi Hendrix, Henri Matisse, and William Burroughs have all spent time around the area and found it inspiring.

Quick info:

City: Asilah, Morocco

Medina Wall

Throughout Morocco, “Asilah” (also “Assilah” or “Azilah”) is synonymous with “art.” The small town is home to over fifty resident artists. Each summer, the entire medina (or “old city”) is repainted in white and blue. Throughout July, artists from around the world cover the medina walls with murals. Paul Bowles kept a vacation house here and the actual setting for Cabeza de Lobo in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer, is Asilah. Biannually, a poetry award is given by the city in the name of Congolese poet Tchicaya U Tam’si for achievements in African Poetry. Currently, Asilah is the favorite “getaway spot” for poet Myronn Hardy.

Asila Murals

Where to find reading material:

If you want to check out a real bookstore, you take a 30 minute trip north to Tangier. Librarie des Colonnes carries a large selection of the latest books in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish and you can find authors reading from around the world. Check out

Les Colonnes (Interior)

their calendar for a list of readings: http://www.librairie-des-colonnes.com/. Page et Plume is another good option. There is a limited selection of English books, but they have a nice variety of books in French. Like many things in Morocco, book shopping becomes an all-day affair. It’s not something you take lightly. There is a gravity to shopping for books here that exists only in those places where illiteracy is still incredibly high. According to the latest UNICEF statistics, the adult illiteracy rate in Morocco is estimated at 44%.

Where to write: 

The Fishermen’s Cafe is hidden behind a grove of bamboo along the old Portuguese fortress wall. It’s the kind of place where the old men sit drinking mint tea, casually smoking kif and discussing trends in art and literature over a game of chess. This is a great place to write and channel your inner Burroughs. If you find the smell of kif a bit overwhelming, the more trafficked cafes along the main boulevard provide a nice place to jot a few notes in your journal.

Asilah Gallery

Paradise Beach about a mile and a half south of the city is a rare gem. It’s incredibly secluded (outside of August) and great place to read or write. Of course, where most writers tend to get the business of writing done is at home. Home, in this case, being a rented house in the medina, on a terrace, overlooking the old city and the Atlantic. Check out Trip Advisor for a hassle-free way to rent a house, but be sure to book far in advance for the summer.

Events/Festivals:

The biggest event in Asilah is the annual summer art festival, which starts in July and continues through August. It brings in artists from around the world. During this festival, the city transforms to a quiet oceanside town to a thriving art metropolis. In early March, there is the Festival of Creative Women and throughout the year, the Pasha Raissouni Palace hosts various artists and sponsors a large variety of events and activities.

Next post: May 22 | Portsmouth, New Hampshire…

BIO: Lucas M Peters has lived in Seattle, San Francisco, Key West, London, Paris and Prague. He currently lives in Morocco and teaches English at Al Akhawayn University. He is also pursuing an MFA at Goddard College. Follow him on Twitter @LucasMPeters.

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