I made the journey to Interzone from Tarifa across the 11 mile stretch of Atlantic where, in the distance, the Rif mountains stood in a coruscating haze of a bright September day. Interzone is an area where sea, ocean and cultures collide.
Tangier was an International Zone from 1912 to 1956 and became the destination for many European and American spies, writers, artists and musicians. It enjoyed a reputation for hedonism where any pleasure was readily available. Indeed author William S. Burroughs who lived for long spells in Tangier, wrote, “Tangier is one of the few places left in the world where, so long as you don’t proceed to robbery, violence, or some form of crude, antisocial behaviour, you can do exactly what you want.” (more…)
It was almost 2 years ago that I was in Morocco on the occasion of the Muslim celebration of Eid al Adha, more commonly known as the Feast of Sacrifice, a celebration of significant importance in the Arab world which marks the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
I had crossed into Africa by ferry from the Spanish port of Tarifa and completely by accident found myself at the beginning of the preparations for the festival in Tangier. Sheep and goats were herded through the city streets, loaded into cars and busses and chased through the colourful narrow streets of the medina. Adults and children were excited as the animals neared their own homes, children rushed to greet them and local families keenly watched as sheep and goats were tethered outside in the medina. Residential areas became temporary livestock quarters. In the Muslim cemetery adjacent to the strikingly green Marshan Mosque hundreds of feted but fey animals grazed on the grasses between gravestones, shepherds watching and ensuring their short term safety. Walking back into the city, the spinning wheels of grinding machines noisily announced the incipient celebration as men queued with knives at the roadside hardware shops lining the Avenue d’Anglettere.
Following considerable time spent in Morocco, and the accumulation of many images, it became compelling to try to undertake a more permanent presentation of some of the photographs taken. The most moving experience for me was the time spent in Chefchaouen, in the Rif mountains, where the city is predominently painted in variants of the colour blue. It is thought that this application of blue was started by Jewish inhabitants who considered blue to be closer to heaven, and the colour was applied liberally throughout the city. There is also considerable parts of the nearby coastal city Essaouira painted blue, and this is a city recognised as the site of primary occupation of Jewish communities throughout Morocco. Perhaps there is a correlation.
My time in Chefchaouen was made infinitely more cheerful by staying within a traditional Moroccan building called the Small White Palace. (more…)
‘Saints’ in Morocco have a very different interpretation than those in Europe. In Morocco saints can be ordinary people who had a lifetime of ‘doing good’. Saints can be either rich or poor, educated or uneducated, employed or unemployed, living within a home or homeless. They are considered to have ‘ lights of guidance because of the blessings that Allah showered upon them’.
The whole notion of wandering saints in Morocco fascinated me when I first visited Morocco. A vision of marabouts walking the countryside, giving solace to the poor and medicinal aid to the unwell, and then eventually dying and having a tomb built over their resting place was intriguing. Further reading, predominantly Realm of the Saint : Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism by Vincent J Cornell has replaced that idea with a more accurate picture of what the evidence suggests; Moroccan ‘saints’ had a spiritual role, that of “substitute of the prophets” (known as walaya), though not entirely representative of traditional Islamic interpretation . Their other role comprised that of political and local ‘fixers’ (wilaya), settling disputes and often representing the poor against rapacious Shas and tribal chiefs, treading a delicate line between influencing powerful landowners and doing what was possible for the disadvantaged.
Many were fortunate enough to travel and enjoy a good education, spending time either in el Andalus or the wider Islamic community, before returning and living a life of relative isolation, though often within a Sufi social and spiritual framework of a specific community. Rarely did they ‘wander’ across Morocco. (more…)
Choosing between the sacred and the profane has always been problematic; making that choice at an African music festival is a particularly difficult decision.
The Gnaoua and World Music Festival at Essaouira, Morocco, is a unique opportunity to see and enjoy animist African culture embedded within an Islamic country. Gnaoua music is widely considered to have been introduced to Morocco from sub-saharan Africa when Sultan Moulay Ismail introduced thousands of slaves to form his Black Guard armies. (more…)
Despite its less traditional interpretation of Muslim faith, Morocco remains a devout country. Mosques remain the centres where Islam is worshipped, but a series of other religious institutions, called Zaouias, have an immersive spiritual and civic role. These are often formed around a particular saint or Sidi and maintained by that person’s family.
A variety of spiritual, cultural and civic activities occur at these centres. Reflecting the spiritual nature of traditional Gnawa music, two Zawiyas hosted a number of concerts over the Gnawa festival. These events started at 11pm and lasted about 3 hours. They took the form of shorter ‘lilas’, where music, incense, dance and trance encourages personal transformation and relief from either illness or spirit-possession. Possession by djinns ( bad spirits ) remains a commonly held belief today.
These photographs depict members of the Zaouia Aïssaoua preparing for the procession and opening of the 19th Gnaoua and World Music Festival, commencing 12th May 2016 at Essaouira. I had visited most of the zouias in Essaouri several days earlier and this particular brotherhood was the most welcoming of all, inviting me back to watch their preparations.