At dawn, the spirits are lit.
Listen to the whispers of the waves
Beautiful music, beautiful banner
To Sidi Mogdoul I’m heading
Great is the joy of Essaouira;
Beautiful girls, venerable old men,
All are hurrying in the middle of the paths …
The first and starting zaouia of the annual Regraga pilgrimage ( Daour ) is found at Akermoud, a small town to the north of Essaouira. The zaouia contains the catafalque of Sidi Abdellah ou Hmad, a Marabout saint.
The Regrega tribe leaders are the descendants of the saint apostles of Islam who, legend suggest, learnt the new religion of Islam on a visit to Mecca. Here they were told by the Prophet to spread Islam to the Maghreb. Every spring (March-April) the descendants carry out a pilgrimage which lasts 39 days and visits 44 sacred places in the region. Pilgrims visit a series of local shrines, from the mouth of the Tensift river south of Safi to the northern outskirts of the High Atlas, including the city of Essaouira .
It traditionally begins from the zaouia at Akermoud.
For the first time whilst visiting shrines in the Chiadme region I had come across stalls selling items either as souvenirs or for consumption at the shrine as part of a ritual. The shrine was in a small village called Sidi Abdeljalil some 3 kilometres from Talmest where the bus had dropped me. I then travelled to Sidi Abdeljalil by calèche, where the driver of the horse drawn cart allowed me to take the reins whilst he smoked a pipe of kiff.
The road was bumpy and twisty and the horse had a mind of its own. The minimal instructions I had received were woefully inadequate and I was relieved to pass the reins back following his smoke.
You know that you have arrived at the correct destination when the hotel proprietor seriously enquires whether you would like to sacrifice a sheep the following day in the grotto of Lalla Aisha. I had arrived at possibly the strangest place yet on my travels through Morocco.
The small town of Beni Rashid on the Zerhoun mountain is better known as Sidi Ali, named after the 17th century sufi saint Sidi Ali ben Hamdush. His tomb lies in his zaouia in a small gulley at the edge of the town looking out over the fertile valley where Meknes can be seen in the distance. Of more significant interest is that Sidi Ali is bound by legend to another sufi saint, Sidi Ahmad Dghoughi, his disciple and servant, who is buried in the nearby village of Beni Ouarad, and that they are both bound by legend to a hostile but beautiful female spirit ( jinniya ) called Aisha Qandisha.
It is a love triangle with a difference; the legend describes how Sidi Ali’s baraka was transferred to Sidi Ahmed upon his death, how the Hamadsha brotherhood obtained its traditional ‘hal’, that is ecstatic dance, how music and its healing role of people came into being, how the Hamadsha acquired its self-harming behaviours once in trance, and finally how the she-devil Aisha Qandisha became an integrated and indivisible part of the Hamadsha Sufi traditions.
The legend also describes the genesis of the cultural-medico concept of Ethno-Psychiatry where ecstatic dance and spirit expulsion, sometimes facilitated by animal sacrifice, has traditionally been first choice for treating a range of illnesses in Morocco.
Several weeks ago I wrote a blog post regarding Emily Keane, the Sharifa of Ouezzane, an English woman who, in a remarkable story, married one of the most powerful and spiritual men in Morocco. The post can be read here.
Her husband was the Sharif of Ouezzane, Hadj Ahmed Ben Abdeslam, an exalted and powerful religious leader directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed. His religious order formally resided in Ouezzane, a town in northern Morocco on the edge of the Rif mountains, famous for olive and wool production. The Sharif’s former 3 wives continued to live in Ouezzane, and after their marriage in 1873 the Sharif and 23 year old Emily chose to spend most of their time living in Tangier with their 2 sons.
In Tangier the family lived across several homes, including the Zaouia of Ouezzaniyya and the Dâr Damânah. The Dâr Damânah, however, is more than a house; it is a divine agreement, confirmed in a visionary visit from the Prophet Mohammed himself, that ancestral baraka, or sanctity, should continue to pass down through the family of the Grand Sharif from generation to generation. The Prophet decreed that the family’s house should be designated for ever Dar-el-Demana (house of surety), a token of this agreement, and a title the direct descendants bear to this day. It is held in the highest veneration throughout Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, Egypt, Turkey and India.
The Dâr Damânah and family home of the Sharif and Emily is in the Marshan area in Tangier.
Had Dra is famous for its Sunday souk, one of the largest in Morocco.
It is also locally renowned for the zaouia of Sidi Ali Ben Mâachou, a part of a fascinating mosque and madrassa complex where the 40 day Regraga pilgrimage comes to an end every spring time.
The annual pilgrimage around the locality of Essaouira every spring is called ‘ Regraga’, a name which also describes the group of Chorfa ( a darija word denoting noble religious leaders descending from the Prophet Mohamed otherwise known as Sharif ) who make the pilgrimage annually.
The Regragas originate from Chiadma, a region located on the Atlantic coast between Safi and Essaouira in the south of Morocco. They are the descendants of the saint apostles of Islam who, legend suggest, learnt the new religion of Islam on a visit to Mecca. Here they were told by the Prophet to spread Islam to the Maghreb. Every spring (March-April) the descendants carry out a pilgrimage which lasts 39 days and visits 44 sacred places in the region. Pilgrims visit a series of local shrines, from the mouth of the Tensift river south of Safi to the northern outskirts of the High Atlas, including the city of Essaouira .
The Pilgrimage contains two groups; one group stops at every shrine on the way where they build a holy tent of palm fibres which is then dyed with henna. The other group arrives in procession with a moqadem (religious leader) riding a white horse.
The Daour (tour) of Regraga starts in the zaouia of Sidi Abdellah ou Hmad in Akermoud and concludes in Sidi Messaoud Boutritiche in the town of Had Dra .
I Am He Whom I Love
I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I:
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
If thou seest me, thou seest Him,
And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both.
Hussein Ibn Mansur Al Hallaj
On the bus recently from Casablanca I was fortunate to sit next to a teacher of English from Safi, a Portuguese coastal city in between Casablanca and Essaouira. Of the diverse topics we discussed, perhaps the most interesting was the subject of the current dichotomy in Moroccan society regarding the relevance of traditional superstitious beliefs in comparison with the irresistible march of science and rationality.
Chama was definitely of the belief that the old traditions have had their day, and that Morocco must continue its progress towards modernity. I think she considered my interest in Jinn possession and the Sufi co-fraternities ( Gnaoua, Hamadcha and Aissouia ) practicing different forms of healing in sacred religious/magical ways with incredulity.
Morocco was for the modern, with a linear curve heading directly towards an erudite, cosmopolitan and definitely 21st century society. The traditions were for yesterday.
Below is a series of photographs documenting the zaouia and mausoleum of sufi Sidi Abdellah ben Ouasmine located in el Hanchane, a small town in Essaouira Province.
Sidi Abdellah ben Ouasmin is the grandson of Sidi Ouasmin, the Sultan of Regraga, found near Akermoud on Djebel el Hadid.