Many cities of any size in Morocco have a Medina ‘quarter’; these are distinct city sections which are often the oldest part of the city, walled, with maze like streets and relatively car free. Many cultural, historical and architecturally interesting features can be found in medinas.
A stimulating and visually interesting aspect of walking Moroccan medinas is viewing the colours and street art used to decorate the many alleys and lanes. More than just brightening up inner city thoroughfares it has been suggested that colours are used intentionally as tourist and cultural branding exercises, and that cities are recognised often internationally due to their colours. Examples of this are Chefchaouen, world famous for its blue walls, and Marrakesh, well known for its red colour. Other reasons and explanations for the adoption of colour schemes include reflecting local natural colours, influences from local or national religious associations, regional cultural influences and influence of colour from sub-saharan African contexts.
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.
‘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…)
A mellah is a walled Jewish quarter of a city in Morocco, analogous to the European ghetto. Jewish population were confined to mellahs in Morocco beginning from the 15th century and especially since the early 19th century. It first was seen as a privilege and a protection against the Arabs’ attacks in the region, but with the growing of the population, it then became a poor and miserable place.
In cities, a mellah was surrounded by a wall with a fortified gateway. Usually, the Jewish quarter was situated near the royal palace or the residence of the governor, in order to protect its inhabitants from recurring riots due to its inhabitants playing a vital role in the local economy. In contrast, rural mellahs were separate villages inhabited solely by the Jews.
The mellah is now one of the poorest neighborhoods in Essaouira, located within the walls in the northern part of the medina. Jews came to Essaouira for the wealth of the port and the trade opportunities it offered, taking advantage of attractive incentives to handle the trade with Europe by Mohammed 111 in the 18th century. Jews once comprised 40% of the population, and the mellah contains many old synagogues. The city flourished until the caravan trade died, supplanted by direct European trade with sub-Saharan Africa.
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.