Trapeze and aerial hoops accompanied with Moroccan chaabi (pop) hits, a ring of Moroccan scenic backdrops and art transformed a small corner of the Highland neighborhood into mini-Morocco of sorts.
The venue was the Circus Juventas arena and the transformation of the place was to host The Minnesota International Center’s annual gala benefit. This was the first time that the center held its event at the “big top” of Circus Juventas, so called because of the permanent air supported domelike structure. The center is a leading institution in the promotion of global and cultural awareness in Minnesota; notable among its activities are the foreign dignitaries it hosts. The annual gala accounts for about 20% of the center’s annual budget.
Each year MIC features a different country during its annual fundraising gala. Morocco was featured in this year’s event with that country’s ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar, serving as honorary chair of the gala. MIC’s President, Carol Engebretson Byrne, said her staff worked closely with the embassy to ensure the evening’s cultural authenticity. The choosing of Morocco was a deliberate one as MIC wanted to “celebrate a country from the Muslim world”, she said in a follow up conversation with Mshale, especially given the current misunderstanding and misperception between the West and the Muslim world. said it was an exciting time for the center to be celebrating Morocco “a country acclaimed for its rich history, fascinating culture, and colorful cuisine.”
Minnesota’s ties with Morocco span at least 30 years with one particular aspect of the relationship being the Minnesota-Morocco project which has brought over 400 Moroccan students to the University of Minnesota in its 30 year history. Ambassador Mekouar in remarks to guests emphasized not just the ties with Minnesota but the whole of the United States highlighting in particular his country’s long time foreign minister who is US educated. He called his country the “Florida of Northern Europe”, due to its close proximity to that continent. The ambassador also gave a ringing endorsement of MIC and its activities by saying “MIC is the best organization I have worked with since I arrived in the United States”. He encouraged the guests to visit his country for a unique experience adding that many of the problems that face the world today “come form misunderstanding and ignorance,” adding that more cultural and business exchanges via visits can overcome the barriers we all face.
D’Amico and Sons, a local caterer was chosen to serve up lamb tangine (Moroccan stew), chicken with preserved lemons and olives, cous cous and Gazelle Horns (Moroccan pastry). From the multiple trips guests made to the buffet, it was clear the food was delicious. MIC Executive Director at one point had to remind guests not to forget the silent auction that was happening.
Guests may have taken sometime warming up to the silent auction but the live action perked them all up. Star auctioneer and former Mrs. Minnesota, Karen Sorbo, worked the room as only an experienced auctioneer can, ratcheting up the bids in what seemed like an effortless manner, “I have got $2,000 from the gentleman over here, anyone get me $2,500?, going once, twice and sold to the gentleman in blue for $2,000”, she chanted in that melodious singsong way auctioneers engage in between bids. Items for bid ranged from visits to Morocco to a wine tasting party for six at the Canadian Consulate in Minneapolis to lunch with the likes of former vice-president Mondale and dinner with Ambassador Mekouar of Morocco at his Washington residence. Not to be outdone was Minnesota star chef and Morocco native, David Fhima, owner of fine dining high profile restaurants such as Louis XIII in Edina.
Youth performers from Circus Juventas closed out the evening with death defying jumps and stunts and juggling acts to the appreciative audience. Circus Juventas is a performing arts youth circus school and offers circus training to those aged 3 to 21. Juventas was the Roman goddess of youth who was said to have the mythical power of rejuvenation.
At the end of the evening, the fundraiser raised $160,000 for the Minnesota International Center. Carol Byrne declared the gala benefit “a huge success” and said it will serve as a springboard to the strengthening of relations between Minnesota and Morocco.
Visit the Picture Gallery for images from the MIC gala.