Pathways to Creation: Exploring Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco

All photos by ©Derek Beres “Fes, yes, that festival is for sacred music from all over the world. If you want Gnawa music, you must go to Essaouira. There you hear the best. But Fes is a very good festival.”

Author: Titus Burckhardt Book: Introduction to Sufi Doctrine US publication date: 2008-05 Publisher: World Wisdom Formats: Paperback ISBN: 1933316500 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/burckhardt-sufidoc.jpg Length: 152 Price: $17.95

Display Artist: Ali Faiz, Miguel Poveda Artist: Ali Faiz Artist: Miguel Poveda Album: Qawwali-Flamenco Label: Accords-Croises Fr. Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/q/qawwaliflamenco.jpg US Release Date: Available as import

Author: Khaled Abou El Fadl Book: The Place of Tolerance in Islam US publication date: 2002-11 Publisher: Beacon Formats: Paperback ISBN: 9780807002292 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/aboul-placeoftolerance.jpg Length: 112 Price: $15.00

Author: Paul M. Barrett Book: American Islam Subtitle: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion US publication date: 2006-12 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Formats: Hardcover ISBN: 9780374104238 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/barrett-americanislam.jpg Length: 320 Price: $25.00

The bald-headed clerk at the Virgin Records in the Casablanca airport was more than helpful—he even tore off the plastic from albums to allow me to sample. In the middle of Fes’ famous medina—the largest car-free zone in the world, at 24 kilometers and 9,400 streets large—I was able to listen to Gnawa, malhoun, Sufi and diffusion (electronica) at the 14th Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in June. But first I stopped in that store, where all the albums were bootlegged and cost 20 dirhams apiece ($2.60). I thanked the Virgin clerk and paid for two albums (a bit more at $10.92) before boarding the plane. It surprised me that during ten days of programming at the Fes Sacred World Music Festival, no Gnawa bands appeared, especially considering that Gnawa is the epitome of ritualistic music in Morocco. Yet the schedule did not lack. It featured a dizzying array of genres including the indigenous sounds of Vietnam, Tunisia, Norway, Pakistan, Belgium, America, and many more, including Morocco. The idea behind Fes is to honor and share the world’s great spiritual music traditions. When they are all presented, fans can find common links between the sacred arts of varying cultures. Celebrating its 14th anniversary, and coinciding with the 1,200-year anniversary of the City of Fes, the festival has become a pivotal destination for fans of global music. The city was founded in 808 by Idriss II, son of Morocco’s first sultan, when 800 Muslim families from Andalusia set up residence on the right bank of the Fes River. Since then it has remained a source of pride for Morocco and a disorienting mystery to the outsider. During the large part of the 20th century it underwent an identity reformation, due to its colonization by the French, and its subsequent freedom that saw both a tribal mentality cling to old rituals as well as a new fascination with Western architecture and lifestyles. It is, like most Muslim nations, steeped in religion, with the famed mosque el Qaraouiyyine in the middle; a local artisan told me there are 355 mosques in total. Surrounded by towering walls on all sides, with numerous gates (babs) serving as entry points, to descend into the medina—the word means “city”, and here refers to the older part of Fes—is to step not only back in time, but inside a cross-cultural exploration that defies much of what the Western world defines as urban. For example, knowledge of Manhattan, with its grid system and sharp right angles, has no functional use in Fes. Many streets inside the medina are slim alleyways; you must turn sideways to scoot past others. At any moment you could be confronted by a pack of children kicking deflated soccer balls, or a donkey carrying hundreds of lamb skins on his back, its leader walking behind him, shouting wildly and flailing his arms in warning. Yet if these images seem chaotic, it is anything but—there exists a rhythm that, once found, is simple to dance to. As I was warned before traveling to Morocco, it is just safer not to walk through these streets with your iPod on, lest you not hear the clap of the donkey’s hooves, or the buzz from the motor of a small scooter approaching behind you. Amidst the “primitive”, hundreds of satellite dishes sitting atop the bricks of Fes are a sight to behold. The city has been dubbed the “e-capital of Morocco,” mostly due to an initiative by the Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, which linked with Canada’s International Development Research Center to jumpstart the e-Fez Action Research Project. The medina is a surround-sense experience. Scents of freshly cooked dough and coriander are plentiful. Around another corner, however, indescribable gusts of garbage and donkey droppings invade your nostrils. The scent of leather, one of Fes’s trademark exports, is everywhere. When standing inside a carpet shop gazing down at the famous tannery, while a boisterous local explained the dying process in exchange for ten dirhams, the scent was near toxic. I couldn’t imagine working in an environment like that every day; just as that thought came to mind, I noticed a hideous cloud of black smoke arising in the distance, and was told that it is from pottery making. I found it ironic that such beautiful art is created from such a destructive and polluting process.

While these images were powerful markers of my journey, Fes is actually leading efforts in Moroccan technology. Gaze into the horizon of thousands of earth-toned buildings stacked one upon another like baffling origami and the hundreds of satellite dishes installed on their roofs—it’s as if one is looking at the set of a science fiction movie. The word “Cyber” is scrawled on walls in black ink, a stunning contrast to the buildings that house computers. Then again, I’ve grown accustomed to the word being associated with a battalion of lifeless skyscrapers currently being erected in my home of Jersey City and adjacent Manhattan: buildings that are either purely functional, or attempt to look antiquated yet fail to realize their intentions. Moroccan architecture, by contrast, is filled with warmth and color. The closest comparison I know of is the vibrant hues of Mexican folk art and dwellings, as well as the old section of Barcelona, with its equally twisting and adventurous alleys. From an aesthetic point of view, Fes is an ideal city to host an event like this festival. The historic Bab El Makina, a towering fortress that one would suspect leads into a castle of amazing riches, served as the main venue for the series of concerts. Opening night revealed an underlying tension between the soul of the city and the intentions of the producers; one that I learned has been long-standing. While the fete is promoted as a unifying force, the actual presentation hinted at the disparities of economic status that has always gripped nations.

Craig Adams on stage at Bab El Makina

Firstly, the festival—at least at the two main venues—is expensive, which is why the crowd attending is predominantly Europeans of means. Held on the grounds of the medina, few people who actually inhabit that land step inside for Fes. That first evening the feeling of economic disparity was exacerbated when the Princess arrived an hour late, holding up the show and leading an entourage onto a makeshift stage with a royal seat directly in front of the stage. Photographers such as myself were not allowed to shoot in front of that stage, for fear that we “might block her view”. (Thick men in black suits and wearing earpieces would swiftly descend upon the unlucky photographer attempting to take her photo, as well.) What took place on stage that evening was, alas, another display of over-the-top vanity. Performing alongside France’s Regional Lyrical Orchestra Avignon Provence, American gospel-opera singer Jessye Norman made a horrendous attempt to reach pitches that she inexcusably floundered. Her repertoire of Bach and Handel arias (both, clearly, composes of sacred music) was challenged by an orchestration that sounded as if it was battling with its soprano, and with all the stargazing at the royalty going on, I felt that the focus was on being at the event rather than the music, its intent, and the musicians that played it. Fortunately these displays of excess were but an isolated incident. The Princess did not return for another performance, and the music on subsequent nights improved tremendously.

The late night Sufi ritual at Dar Tazi, by Hamadcha Brotherhood

In fact on the second night, a performance that could be viewed as metaphoric of the principle of this festival took place on the same stage. Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz joined forces with American gospel singer Craig Adams. Faiz, considered the successor of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (though not by bloodline; that title goes to Nusrat’s nephew, Rahat), has picked up where the legend left off. Nusrat is considered the first to have taken qawwali out of his native land to transport this 700-year-old family craft by collaborating with Michael Brook and Eddie Vedder, allowing the sacred folk song to be tinkered with in a digital age. Faiz has continued this trend. Qawwali, which comes from the Arabic qaul, meaning “word”, was birthed in the non-orthodox strain of Islam known as Sufism. Strict Muslims believe music is distracting from the recitation of the Qu’ran (the very word means “recite”), and so Sufis, often misrepresented as the “mystical” strain of Islam, had to move around the conventional model of society, inventing such disciplines as the famous whirling dervishes of Turkey, as well as qawwali. The form shares with gospel its focus on reaching ecstatic states through the repetition of words and phrases, making Faiz’s pairing with Adams a fitting choice. Born out of the spirituals tradition, when African slaves appropriated Christian saints into their rich history of native gods and spirits, gospel’s evolution followed the performers’ secret communal meetings of voice and makeshift drums into established churches. Both traditions have to do with a “return” of sorts—for Adams, it is a music based on returning to the “Promised Land” (something he actually did this night on African soil), and for Faiz, it is the poetic withdrawal of the senses that extinguishes the adherent into the divine like a “moth into a flame”, as the famous Sufi poet Rumi expressed.

Faiz Ali Faiz Qawwali Dam Mast Qalandar Sayarts.com As an idea, the Qawwali Gospel project is an important political and cultural instrument; as a reality, the event sputtered along at times. The mere presence of Christianity and Islam on stage together, however, represented a powerful message: that despite political and social differences a common force brings us together. That fact that all the transitions between the two bands were not smooth should not fall completely on either musician. Perhaps a bit more rehearsal time would have served them well. Adams, on lead vocals and piano, performed first with his seven-piece outfit, joined by a drummer, bassist, and four back-up singers. Adams was followed by Faiz’s nine-person ensemble, which included two harmoniums and tables, while everyone in his entourage chanted and clapped. After their solo sets, the two crews returned together from backstage. Adams opened with “Amazing Grace” segueing into Faiz’s next number and the back-forth began. The marked difference between the two acts was in delivery. At its best, qawwali expresses the heart-wrenching cry of existence inconsolably wrapped within the sheer ecstasy of living. The experience is cathartic for performer and spectator alike. By diving deeply into the subconscious suffering inherent inside all of us, we bring to light what is often pushed down from our psyche. By recognizing the root of pain for what it is—something the Buddha called dukkha, and implied that all suffering is created by the human mind ignorant of the way in which the world actually works—you experience a transcendent moment of releasing emotional and psychological bondage. The ululations of Faiz’s voice, a style of singing completely foreign to Western music, represented the emotional conflicts taking place inside of a soul intent on merging with the deeper sense of mystery our religious traditions expound upon. I wish I could say the same of Adams, but any sense of torture was missing from his gospel. It was uplifting and angelic; it did nothing to dig into the depths of the human condition. For this, it sounded contrived—clean and sterile. Whereas Faiz’s pantomimes—his head bobbing up and down violently to the rhythm, the forceful slapping together of his hands—made you feel elevated and somewhat outside of yourself, Adams’s band looked like it was preparing for Showtime at the Apollo. The music felt like it was a preparation for something else, somewhere in the future, while Faiz’s unfailing sense of urgency made you feel that the revelation was at hand, this very moment. Interestingly, this well represents their respective philosophies: Sufism, which is about being fully present in the moment and staying in communion with the godhead, and Christianity, which states human existence is only a preparation for something that awaits after death. Ironically, three years prior on this very same stage, Faiz came much closer to a fusion of faiths when performing alongside flamenco singers Miguel Poveda and Juan Cortés, a.k.a. Duquende. Like gospel, flamenco began acoustically, with just voice and a style of handclaps known as palmas. In the 19th century the guitar was added to accompany dancers. A few decades into the 20th, flamenco became popularized in much the same fashion as gospel—the former, in cafes with the addition of the now ubiquitous castanets; the latter became one of the first genres to become saleable in the recording industry, forced to change format to appeal to broad audiences.

Devotion time in a mosque in Fes’ medina.

Poveda and Duquende are to flamenco what Faiz is to qawwali—no way popularizers, but serious artists who feel their respective genres should evolve to fit the dynamic of an ever-expanding global community. Their 2005 performance Qawwali Flamenco, captured on a two-disc/one-DVD set distributed by Harmonia Mundi, looks and feels completely natural. The guitars and handclaps merge effortlessly into tablas and harmonium; the call-and-response chants of both parties, although separated by language, seamlessly weave into one another. At its peak, the Qawwali Gospel performance accomplished the same. Regardless of sonic miscommunications, the open-mindedness of both Faiz and Adams must be applauded, for showing how their respective arts share the same space without friction, an obvious metaphor for the deeply troublesome religious rifts formed between said parties when Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to expand his territorial prowess. Despite minor issues the festival displayed behind the scenes — such as an incoherent media center where no one quite knew what was going on at any time, a trend that seemed to seep through every layer in the chain of command — these intentions alone would do well to be imitated around the world. By the time I left Bab El Makina to Dar-Tazi for a late-night Sufi performance, welcomed by the 75-degree evening breeze and little children trying to sell small, cracked mirrors for five dirhams, I was fully enraptured by this gathering of spirits convening for the common purpose of community.

The Market

Adeal in his shop, with a deal for you.

The first thing my hotel concierge told me, gazing at the tattoos on my arms—a collection of mythological symbols from around the world—was that the only people in Morocco with tattoos were either in the mafia or—he searched for the words in English—“you know, like in Alcatraz.” He wasn’t exaggerating. For the next week I was asked dozens of times, sometimes in French, Arabic, English and Spanish, these two things: With a raised eyebrow, “mafia”? or with a conspiratorial nod, “Ex-con?”. At times, I would smile and shake my head negatively; at others, I would play along in the game and nod in the affirmative.

Some men pulled up their sleeves in camaraderie, displaying their own bodywork, which in Morocco is more akin to branding than tattooing — the application much more harsh; the result much less artistic. Considering that I have roughly 45 hours of tattoo work on my upper body alone—and not to mention that I’m 6’ 4”, roughly half a foot taller than most men I saw in Fes—I became something of a spectacle during my walks through the medina.

Author: Paul Bowles
Book: Spider’s House
US publication date: 2006-10
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0061137030
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/bowles-spidershouse.jpg
Length: 432
Price: $14.95

Author: Paul Bowles
Book: The Sheltering Sky
US publication date: 2005-09
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 006083482X
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/bowles-shelteringsky.jpg
Length: 352
Price: $14.95

Author: Paul Bowles
Book: Spider’s House
US publication date: 2006-10
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0061137030
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/bowles-spidershouse.jpg
Length: 432
Price: $14.95

Author: Paul Bowles
Book: The Sheltering Sky
US publication date: 2005-09
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 006083482X
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/bowles-shelteringsky.jpg
Length: 352
Price: $14.95

Author: Karen Armstrong
Book: Muhammad
Subtitle: A Prophet for Our Time
US publication date: 2007-08
Publisher: HarperCollins
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780061155772
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/armstrong-muhammad.jpg
Length: 208
Price: $14.95

Author: Karen Armstrong
Book: Muhammad
Subtitle: A Prophet for Our Time
US publication date: 2007-08
Publisher: HarperCollins
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780061155772
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/armstrong-muhammad.jpg
Length: 208
Price: $14.95

The most ingenious of these curious men attempted to pull me into his shop by telling me that he had a carpet that exactly matched the pattern of the striped tiger on my upper left arm. Good try, I thought, though I had no intentions of leaving Morocco with a carpet. Still, tattooed or not, one cannot walk through the medina without purchasing fine crafts, and I readily entered into the haggling process with shop owners. They would begin by demanding prices three times the rate an ordinary citizen might pay, only to eventually get talked down to twice that. The playful nature of the process is worth the purchase alone; “200 dirhams.” “200? I’ll give you 100.” “100? It’s worth 300! I’ll take 180” … and so on.

Once inside a store—remember, this is mostly an open-air market, more like large cubbies than malls—it’s hard to get out without buying something. The tact of the salesmanship would make any desperate used car dealer blush with humility. A friend who’d been here told me to visit Hamid’s Carpet Shop and say “hello”. This I did, and not three seconds after replying to my conveyed greeting, I was holding a piece of carpet to “view the fine craftsmanship.” I told Hamid I had no interest in carpets, but was interested in some scarves like the ones he had on the wall, but I wasn’t sure about the colors or sizes—he had scarves large enough to wrap elephants inside of, and I was merely looking for neck coverings for friends. Hamid said he’d bring more scarves from the weaver in the morning; it was too late now for such business, being after 9pm. “OK, but bring a lot,” I said, as I want to buy at least 10 for friends.” Well then surely the weaver would be available – we only need go for a 15-minute walk through the dark alleys. Fellow journalist Robert Hilferty and I tripped along behind Hamid, trying to keep up.

Suddenly we were there, having no idea where “there” was: Adeal’s shop (so fitting—his name is pronounced “A Deal”). Adeal appeared, drunk and seeming just enjoyed the company of his girlfriend, but he was ripe for haggling. Back at Hamid’s shop, we were told scarves were 50 dirhams, roughly $6, a piece. According to Adeal, the cheapest was 100 dirhams, and that was “a deal”. We haggled down to 900 dirhams for11 scarves. Of course, I had no cash and they didn’t take Visa, but the butcher across the street took credit cards, although his shop was closed. Adeal took us for a ten-minute stroll wherein we dutifully followed his inebriated form to an ATM and the deal, at this late hour, was finally completed.

The many times I wandered the sections of the medina I was reminded of New York’s Canal Street, where cheap knock-offs of Adidas and Puma sit next to faux Dolce and Gabbana handbags and wallets. But here men yelled out “50 Cent” and “Eminem” as I passed, toward their hip-hop wares, pop culture’s international currency. (It was hard to walk a few blocks without eyeing a 2Pac t-shirt.) In fact, the worst performance I saw in Fez was by a six-boy group dubbed Fez City Clan, a pack of teenagers borrowing all the wrong elements of rap (showing up a half-hour late, wearing sunglasses during the evening, playing the part of the masculine fool to cheesy, generic beats, and wearing glittering New York City shirts). Still, they were trying, assembling an image from what they knew of a city and an art form and making it their own.

We somehow found ourselves outside Adeal’s shop three days after our late night purchase. He pressed a blanket on Robert, a blanket Adeal was certain he saw him eyeing during his late night visit, but alas, this deal was not to be.

A narrow passage in the Medina

Behind the Eastern Veil

Indonesia’s Panti Pusaka Budaya ensemble.

There is so much of the world to explore for those with the means. Living during a time when religious tensions are so high, I felt blessed as a westerner to be able to visit a Muslim country such as this.

I’ve studied world religions for 15 years, and refreshed myself with numerous books on Islam and North Africa before embarking on the journey. Seeing mosques in the medina from the outside (non-Muslims cannot enter most of them), I reflected on what happened during the Crusades, when Christians arrived in Jerusalem thinking they would simply take over the land. They were awestruck, even humbled, by the stunning architecture of Islam’s holy places. Indeed, my hotel lobby was more ornate and decorative than most any Manhattan building. Designs are colorful and intricately woven; yet, as tile work, they are sharply cut adornments, just as those of the West. Joseph Campbell noted that the three major Western religious traditions are very angular in their symbols (the crescent moon, the Star of David, the cross), which he related to their warlike nature. Eastern practices, he noted, were much softer and circular (think yin-yang).

Author: Karen Armstrong
Book: Islam
Subtitle: A Short History
US publication date: 2002-08
Publisher: Random House
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780812966183
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/armstrong-islam-shistory.jpg
Length: 230
Price: $14.95

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Book: Nine Parts of Desire
Subtitle: The Hidden World of Islamic Women
US publication date: 1995-12
Publisher: Knopf
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780385475778
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/brooks-nineparts.png
Length: 272
Price: $14.95

This is hardly surprising, considering that the three major Western religious traditions were inspired by one man. While cultural differences like haggling and architecture are pleasant to explore, others take a bit more work and a lot more understanding. One of the most debated traditions of recent years is hijab, generally defined as any dress code for women that conform to Islamic requirement. This code can range from a head covering that hides the hair, to the more rigorous abaya, burka and chador, all of which call for as little exposed flesh as possible. In the West this practice has become symbolic of the oppression of women throughout history, although that symbolism is not as black-and-white as is sometimes purported.

Historically, hijab—which literally translates as “curtain”—was required only of the wives of Muhammad, and it was considered an honor to wear it. It signified class status. On the night of Muhammad’s marriage to Zeinab, he became annoyed when a group of guests stayed later than he thought appropriate, as he wanted to spend time with his latest wife. When finally they left, his companion Anas ibn Malik followed him to the nuptial chamber. As the prophet was stepping inside, he pulled down a curtain, struck by a sudden revelation from Allah that basically stated keeping his wives hidden from the view of other men is “purer for your hearts and for their hearts.”

After Muhammad’s death, donning hijab was appropriated and adopted by elitist Muslims wishing to mimic the prophet’s status. It took some time to acquire its more modern usage, one that is cited as an oppressive tool used by the male-dominated ulamah. There is no doubt this has often been the case. Yet the Western this-or-that-only perspective often misses a crucial element, one expressed by religious historian Karen Armstrong: “Veiling can be seen as a tacit critique of some of the less positive aspects of modernity. It defies the strange Western compulsion to ‘reveal all’ in sexual matters. In the West, people often flaunt their tanned, well-honed bodies as a sign of privilege; they try to counteract the signs of aging and hold on to this life. The shrouded Islamic body declares that it is oriented to transcendence, and the uniformity of dress abolishes class difference and stresses the importance of community over Western individualism.” ( Islam: A Short History Modern Library, August 2002)

This calls for quite a different understanding of community by an individualist, secular culture such as America. Even when women that previously shed the veil then choose hijab, it is treated as an underlying psychological trauma that needs to be overcome. At the root of this issue, however, is former Wall Street Journal journalist Geraldine Brooks’ observation: “What is so puzzling is why the revelation of seclusion, so clearly packaged here with instructions that apply only to the prophet, should ever have come to be seen as a rule that should apply to all Muslim women.” (Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Anchor, 1995)

The detailed craftsmanship of the medina.

Like the lineage of ahadith—documented traditions of the teachings and actions of Muhammad not in the Qu’ran, but recorded by close companions and family members—the mystery of the widespread usage of hijab will not readily come to light. Safe to say, at times the intentions of veiling, with its focus on community and transcendence, helps in the creation of identity for Muslim women—Muhammad respected his wives highly, and took their advice in many political and spiritual situations. At others, it is a patriarchal shackle that needs to be evolved. As Brooks points out, using Muhammad as a scapegoat does not excuse extremists for their misinterpretations.

Another routine practice in some Islamic communities is denying women the right to even speak in the presence of men, for it will “arouse” the male and “distract” him from his true focus, Allah. This idea is not confined to Muslims. At the end of my two-hour interview with Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu for a cover story in Global Rhythm a few years ago, he asked me to pass along some music. He said there were two things he cannot listen to, however: the sacred music of other religions, and anything sung by women. They both, he said, distracted him from focusing on G-d.

These ideas pose a serious theological question. If God/Allah is responsible for having created everything in existence, and the role of women is subordinate to men—and, as shown above, misleading to man’s “true” plight—then why create her at all? The notion that they are a “test” of a man’s true worth, one evoked way too often, is disgraceful. To cite God as having made a mistake is blasphemous. To state that a woman is incapable of contacting the sacred is sheer nonsense.

Tuareg culture is a rare Muslim community in which the men are veiled.

That is exactly what I felt when the Tuareg group from Mali, Tartit, took stage at Batha Museum, a stunning venue which featured the main stage underneath a giant oak tree. Theirs is a rare Muslim configuration—it is the men who are veiled. All nine members wore hijab, but only the men covered their faces. As soon as men are old enough to shave, they must cover all but their eyes with indigo cloth. This historical rarity is recognized in their very name: the Arabic word “Tuareg” means “The Abandoned of God”. Of course that name was assigned by Muslims who would never entertain such an idea. Tartit is not the only Tuareg band to be heard in the West of late. Due to the runaway success of the bluesy Tinariwen, numerous Saharan bands have flooded the overseas consciousness. Portraits of these men fully covered while women remain revealed have put a serious spin on veiling.

Alongside Faiz Ali Faiz, Tartit was the ensemble I most looked forward to when initially reading the line-up. I’ve been a big fan of their two records on Crammed—Abacabok and Ichichila—for years. In some ways, Tartit is much rootsier than Tinariwen, due to their focus on chants, tehardent and percussion, with only occasional flourishes of electric guitar. Their ceremonial dresses were long, flowing, wrapped in innumerable layers of purple and white cloth, with gorgeous headwraps and giant necklaces sprinkled with pendants, charms and stones. It was a regal, nostalgic sight; the integrity and sheer power of this group resided in the collective confidence each member displayed. The idea that these women were not touching upon something “sacred” as they performed would surely never occur to the hundreds present, who clapped along, shouted and occasionally stood up in solidarity to the show on stage.

While traditionally these songs are much longer than the eight-minute renditions they performed—as one member joked, “if we really wanted to reach trance, this would have to be twenty-four hours”—their call-and-response poetry was enough to emotionally charge the crowd. Each member danced, taking turns at center stage. One woman would enter the half-circle, sit and weave her hands in dexterous positions; one man would jump up and dance, like a bird taking flight. The two most ubiquitous occurrences of humanity—love and war—were represented: one woman, one man, playing coy in ceremonial courting; two men bearing fists and ducking, all in time to the repetitive drone of the drums. The message was clear: life is a dance, best to take part with a smile.

Watching them perform reminded me of another passage from Brooks’s aforementioned book, when she discussed her fascination watching a bellydancer perform while on assignment in Egypt during a time when religious leaders were trying to outlaw it: “What she was doing with her body was what a woman’s body did—the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the hips and abdomen; the very center of the female body’s womanliness.”

As religious scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl pointed out, “Ultimately, the Qu’ran, or any text, speaks through its reader.” Thus, the responsibility for translating and then legitimizing scripture is an individual and social choice. The Five Pillars of Islam—the call to prayer five times daily, salat; paying of alms, zakat; fasting (sawm) during Ramadan; at least one Hajj to Mecca; and the profession of faith in Allah and acceptance of Muhammad as His messenger, shahadah—say nothing about hijab, and yet is has become a symbol, for better and worse, for what outsiders have come to believe about Islam.

Thanh Huong brought Vietnamese folk music to Morocco.

What we read about a culture and what that culture actually is often becomes two different realities. From what I noticed about Morocco, the social arrangements are much different than in America. You generally do not find groups of boys and girls together. You do see plenty of couples, but clusters were gender-specific. A large percentage of women wore hijab, yet among the younger population that percentage evened out. It was rare to find the full-bodied chador and burka, and unlike most texts I’d read in preparation for my journey, women had no problem making eye contact with me, or saying bon jour in passing.

While women like those in Tartit are part of a heritage that holds up the feminine, today’s predicaments in other countries—Saudi Arabia and Eritrea come to mind—do not look promising in regards to gender equality. While we shouldn’t blindly assume other countries should adopt foreign moralities, we must also learn from the painful lessons of history and the brutal masculine treatment—psychological, spiritual, physical and emotional—of women. We must remind ourselves that prior to the demands of purely monotheistic religions that call the creator “He”, the goddess was as important (if not more so) than the god.

If there was any one thing I respected most about the programming at Fes, it was the focus on the feminine. Besides Tartit, numerous performances highlighted the sacred female: the epic mythologies of Sami culture preserved by Norway’s Mari Boine; the effervescent interpretations of Sephardic folklore by Belgium’s La Roza Enflorese; the winsome heights of Vietnam’s Huong Thanh, accompanied by three incredibly talented instrumentalists; Lebanon’s Ghada Shbéïr, performing an impressive range of Eastern Christian songs; the ingenious and patient dance of Bali’s Panti Pusaka Budaya, with their focus on hundreds of facial expressions and hand gestures and the hypnotizing effects of Gamelan drumming.

Tartit Live in Fes, Morocco

The most touching moment happened to me while walking through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter of the medina. With a population of some one million people, there is said to be roughly 200 Jews left in Fes (although one local told me there were 100 families total). As three of us were being led by a guide that was appointed to us by a police officer to a synagogue that may or may not have existed, we stumbled across a group of kids playing with a dog and a bicycle. The children were instantly drawn to my tattoos, walking over and nonchalantly rubbing my arms. Two eight-year-old girls cornered me to look at my camera, suddenly becoming shy when I pointed it at them. We chatted for a moment, before I turned to follow the group. They shouted “Au revoir!” as I walked away. I started thinking how easy it is to communicate with children throughout the world, how open they are to the experiences of life.

Then I wondered why as adults we complicate everything to such a degree that our basic intentions—community, friendship, cultural exploration, emotional expression— become so pushed down that when on occasion they emerge in our thoughts, they seem foreign. The Taoists were right: a river is a river, a mountain a mountain. When we pretend that they’re anything else, we start missing everything this life has to offer.

Mali’s Tartit performing at the Batha Museum.

Faith in a Future World

By its very design, the Fes Sacred World Music Festival is constructed as a bridge between past and future, diversity and commonality. It allows musicians and audiences to experience the various ways that humans commune with something “other”, whether that be some form of universal energy, or the sheer ecstasy of being surrounded by other appreciators of global music.

Fes renewed my faith in the possibilities of open conversation. It was also a startling eye-opener to the nuances of my own faith, reminding me once again how important the development of humility is. While Morocco is politically moderate, this does not mean we should assume it is attempting to mimic any other country. This is not fair to the uniqueness and integrity of a civilization that is 1,200 years old. As Reza Aslan points out in No god but God, “only in America is American democracy possible; it cannot be isolated from American tradition and values.” This is hard for any culture to swallow in regards to other countries in an age of globalization. We have to remember that if the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle don’t fit, you cannot force them together. But you can complete one picture and hang it in a gallery next to others.

Author: Reza Aslan
Book: No God But God
Subtitle: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
US publication date: 2005-03
Publisher: Random House
Amazon affiliate: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=popmatters-20&creative=9325&camp=1789&link_code=as2&path=ASIN/1400062136
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/n/nogodbutgod.jpg
Length: 336
Price: $25.95

Walking through the café section of the medina one last time, the low register of the guimbri rang out, as two boys practiced their Gnawa chops on a stop near a carpet shop. They were maybe 15-years-old, and the lute novice was making quick work on the fretless bass. A few other boys gathered around, clapping and singing along. While across a desolate lot people were paying over $50 to see a horrible Tunisian “Sufi” performance that reminded me of watching flamenco dancers at Disney World, this young crew was contacting the sacred. From the looks of it, they were doing a fine job.

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