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.