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Cultural Festivals in Morocco

Morocco- Mawazine Featival
Mawazine Featival. Photo Flickr

Following the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco embarked on counter-terrorism reforms in order to confront such threats. In 2011, the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, undertook political reforms meant to accommodate both Islam and democracy. Its current government, under the leadership of the Justice and Development party, is today the only  Islamist government in North Africa. Morocco’s consistent efforts to defeat terrorism resulted in the dismantling of 47 terrorist cells between 2013 and 2015, eight of them in 2015 alone. Yet, according to the latest figures from the Moroccan Interior Ministry, there are about 1350 young Moroccans fighting alongside the extremist Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, and many are fighting with affiliates of IS, al-Qaeda, and other organizations.

While the security and political measures are critically important, culture and art play an equally vital role in immunizing Moroccan society against violent extremism. Violent extremism, as demonstrated by the recent actions of IS in  Syria, Iraq, and  Libya, has declared war on culture and on any interpretation of Islam that differs from its own. Morocco’s international cultural festivals are fighting back by declaring war on intolerance and rejection of the “other,” regardless of their background, and by embracing diversity. Such festivals also combat some of the causes of violent extremism, such as the marginalization of youth, ignorance of the “other,” poverty, and unemployment.

Morocco stages more than a hundred festivals each year, encompassing all its regions and embracing all its religious and cultural diversity. Some of these festivals are global, attracting millions of tourists and the world’s finest artists. These include, for example, the Mawazine festival of Rabat, the Essaouira Gnaoua Festival, the Fès World Sacred Music Festival, and the Marrakech du Rire Comedy Festival. Such festivals not only bring together different cultures and peoples around a cultural consensus of the universality of art but also celebrate the Moroccan nature of tolerance and acceptance of the “other” that is drawn from its position as a historic meeting place of various civilizations. They are a gentle reminder of the essence of a multi-cultural and religiously diverse Moroccan society and thus constitute a defence against all forms of extremism that expound the exclusion of people for their differences.

Mawazine Rhythms of the Worlds

Since its inception in 2002, Mawazine has striven to satisfy the diverse musical tastes of its spectators by bringing together the most renowned Moroccan, Arab, and international music performers. In doing so, it portrays Morocco’s capital, Rabat, as a capital of “diversity, tolerance, and sharing.” Multiple stages and free admission to shows guarantee that the festival reaches those who are not well off.

Mounir el Majidi, the president of the Mawazine Festival, sees the festival as “a symbol of a Morocco with intrinsic values of openness, diversity, sharing, and respect for cultures. Mawazine also sends a strong message to the Moroccan youth: the cultural wealth of the Kingdom awaits them and all can benefit. Hence, they can be proud of the nation’s priceless heritage and of its principles of tolerance, which form the foundation of our past, our present and our future.”

According to, Mawazine (“Rhythyms”) is the second largest music festival in the world. In 2015, it attracted more than 2.6 million spectators, 40 million TV viewers, and 130 shows. The festival generates 3000 jobs and a 22 percent growth in tourism revenue in Rabat.

Essaouira Festival: Gnaoua and World Music

The  Essaouira Festival has taken place for 18 years and it is meant to celebrate Morocco’s African heritage and fuse its music with other styles. Gnawa (Gnaoua) music is most popular in West and North Africa. Historically, during times of slavery, Gnawa music included, among other things, the prayers of slaves seeking mercy. The style still has spiritual links, and many Gnawa enter trances to heal themselves or others. For the 250,000 people who visited the festival this year, however, Gnawa music is more about joy, colour, and “fusion” with other music and cultures captured in the lively dances of singers and spectators. The organizers of this year’s festival wanted it to counter IS’s hostility towards culture by showing another side of Muslims.

Fès’World Festival of Sacred Music

Fès is a city known for its rich cultural and religious heritage, due in large part to its history as a commercial hub for traders coming from Africa. As Abderrafia Zouitene, the president of the World Festival of Sacred Music, put it, ”this flow of both merchandise and people across the desert expanse allowed for the transmission of ideas, manuscripts, social conduct and understanding of previously unknown magnitude.” This allowed Sufi masters from across Africa to debate and share ideas. During the 21 years of its existence, the festival has embraced the spirit of dialogue of civilizations and tolerance towards other religions, beliefs, and even the various interpretations of Islam.

Marrakech du Rire, Comedy Festival

The festival Marrakech du Rire (“Marrakech of Laughter”), which brings together comedians from different backgrounds, mainly Africans and French, is now in its fifth year. In 2014, it attracted 70,000 spectators and 70 million TV viewers. Its popularity is driven by its relatively low ticket prices, its presentation in in both French and Arabic, and its use of public spaces in Marrakech for staging shows. The festival is yet another vehicle for promoting tolerance of other cultures. The jokes are often provocative, intended to defy stereotypes on religion, race, sexual orientation, and more. In Marrakech du Rire, people come to laugh at their own shortcomings and prejudices, and they leave in a spirit of joy and self-critici.

Festivals display a happy, modern Morocco in order to shape international opinion about the country and attract investors and  tourists. Some Moroccans struggle, though, to see the benefit of allocating public funds to already rich international artists. Many think the money should be spent on direct investment in the country’s developmental projects in order to affect ordinary Moroccans directly. Critics sometimes criticize sexually suggestive dances and songs, mainly from Western performers, because they conflict with Moroccan values of modesty and respect.

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