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Mohamed Benaissa becomes first SJMC alumnus to receive honorary Doctor of Laws degree

Two underreported facts about the relationship between Morocco and the United States are the following, according to Mohamed Benaissa: "Morocco was the first country in 1777 to recognize the United States as an independent nation. The first treaty that the new American republic entered into was with Morocco, in 1787." This friendship treaty has never been broken.

By Nahid Khan

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Photo by Jennifer Schultz

Mohamed Benaissa (B.S., '63), former Moroccan ambassador to the United States (1993-99) and Morocco's former minister of foreign affairs and cooperation (1999-2007), is the first SJMC alumnus to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Minnesota.

Before his ambassadorship, he was the minister of culture, a member of parliament, mayor of his hometown and editor in chief of two daily newspapers, following a communications career at the United Nations.

Benaissa attributes these accomplishments to the values of journalism, which he sought to understand when he arrived at the University of Minnesota from Morocco in the fall of 1961. Like many new students, he came with a lot of questions about life, his country and the world.

It was only five years since Morocco had won independence from French and Spanish colonial rule, and Benaissa's hometown of Asilah was in the northern zone ruled by Spain under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The colonialist mentality dominated his early education, and the nation's political independence stimulated a thirst to understand the full meaning of national emancipation through education.

"I wanted to be emancipated from prejudices and to learn to seek the truth of matters," Benaissa said during a December visit to campus to receive his honorary degree.

As an undergraduate, he wasted no time in taking every opportunity at the University and beyond to explore those issues and consider others concerning the social purposes of knowledge.

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Benaissa met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials to discuss bilateral relations and regional and international issues in 2006.
State Department photo by Michael Gross

While focusing on photojournalism and electronic journalism, Benaissa also took a minor in fine art and participated in the African-American Club. Back then, the club name referred to people interested in contemporary relations between Africa and the United States, and club members included a Macalester College student named Kofi Annan. The two later served together in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while working for the United Nations, with Benaissa initially serving in a more senior position than Annan, who later went on to become the U.N. secretary-general.

Benaissa also made the time to read everything he could find at the University library on Morocco--"things I could never find in Morocco"--and to learn as much as possible about life in America as well, from working on a farm in Janesville, Minn., to reflecting on the political events of the day. The civil rights movement had gained tremendous strength, the Cold War was at its height and the Cuban missile crisis had everyone on edge.

During a psychology class in the fall of 1963, the teacher interrupted class to announce the death of President Kennedy.

"It came as a very big shock," Benaissa recalled. "People were really moved, and it was a sad moment. Everyone went home to watch the news on TV, and the campus was dead. The University was almost closed for two days. Nobody knew what was happening, and our first thought was 'Cuba did it,' and then 'Will there be a world war?' "

International affairs animated many heated debates on campus, but Benaissa was struck by the atmosphere of freedom and peacefulness in expressing and listening to the various perspectives, and by the opportunities for him as a budding journalist to investigate facts and sources independently. As his electronic journalism skills developed, Benaissa became interested in capturing social milestones on film.

When the first McDonald's restaurant opened in the Twin Cities early in 1963, Benaissa filmed its first transaction for a class project. After graduation he moved to New York, where he spent a year making his own film, "The A-Train After Midnight." He sold the film to CBS, which used some scenes in another milestone production, the documentary titled "The History of the Negro People." During this time, he also did television work for David Brinkley at NBC while working as a press attaché for the Moroccan Mission to the United Nations in New York.

A decade-long career with the United Nations followed, beginning as a press attaché and culminating as the director of the information division of the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, where he also worked on the United Nations' 1975 World Food Conference. But throughout his globe-trotting years he had a personal deadline: to return to live in Morocco by age 40.

Arriving in his hometown of Asilah with a camera in 1976, Benaissa was shocked to discover the small town of about 10,000 was in worse shape than before he had left it in the late '50s. He dedicated his life to his town and, on the basis of his novel views about culture as the foundation for community revitalization, was elected to the city council as well as to the national parliament, and later served as the city mayor.

During this time, many of the lessons Benaissa learned from observing Minnesota's culture of volunteerism and partnerships with the private sector were put to use, and he led community efforts to raise money to restore the city's historic monuments and buildings, and to create a city library and research center. He also established an international cultural season, held every August in state-of-the art facilities, that now attracts up to 100,000 visitors, including many scholars, writers and artists from around the world.

The rehabilitation of the town's infrastructure and reinvigoration of its economy were recognized internationally in 1989 when Asilah received the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The cultural focus of his work on behalf of his town was the model for his subsequent work as Morocco's minister of culture. And his effective championing of the rich heritage of his country, as well as his extensive international experience as a communicator, led to his appointment as Morocco's ambassador to the United States followed by his service as minister of foreign affairs and cooperation.

In his acceptance speech after receiving his honorary degree, Benaissa emphasized the importance of gathering accurate information and communicating knowledge with fairness as the basis of building sound and constructive relations with others--values that he learned through his journalism education.

He credited his education at the University of Minnesota with giving him a knowledge base that he has drawn upon throughout his life and career, and that has given him an appreciation for openness and dialogue that has served him well through many changes.

"When I came to the University of Minnesota, I embarked on building a new Mohamed Benaissa," he said. "I feel great pride and joy at this recognition from the place where I was reborn."

Nahid Khan is a Ph.D. student in the SJMC. Her research focuses on American news coverage of Islam in this country and American Muslims as a religious community.