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.
“You will fly over the ocean,” he continued, “by the power of baraka, the blessing of Sidi Moulay Brahim, tair lajbal, indicating the spirit bird that flies over the Atlas Mountains”
Memoir of a Berber by Hassan Ouakrim