Pathways to Creation: Exploring Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco
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.
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.
Tuareg culture is a rare Muslim community in which the men are veiled.
Thanh Huong brought Vietnamese folk music to Morocco.
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.