We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.
Little Gidding T.S. Elliott
It may seem incongruous to entitle a page about Islamic and African culture with a quote originating from the heart of English literature. There are however substantial reasons for doing so which relate mainly to my own cultural orientation and state of mind. I need to extricate myself a little from affiliation with Morocco.
I have now spent a long time in Morocco, travelling down from the north and visiting interesting sites along the way. My main focus has been visiting Sufi shrines and tombs often associated with zaouias as well as exploring the role of healing illness through music. The two areas are however inter-connected; it is predominantly the Sufi brotherhoods through networks of zaouias which perform traditional healing music. An important addition to this group is the Gnaoua who have no Sufi heritage. Instead they bring ritual and belief from middle Africa and transpose their animist culture into the melange which is multi-ethnic Islamic Morocco. Essentially they perform the same healing role as the Sufi brotherhoods.
The underlying assumption shared across these groups is that invisible spirits range widely throughout society, mostly replicating the lifestyle of humans in their own dimension. Some spirits are considered capricious and hostile and are believed to decide to inhabit or occupy humans which can cause illness, or ‘malady’. The presence of these spirits are given validity by references regarding their creation in the Qu’ran; they are formed from ‘smokeless fire’ whereas humans are formed from ‘clay’. The Qu’ran provides further details about hierarchies of spirits which suggest differentials in terms of associated strengths and powers. Although the more powerful have individual names and significant personality traits, these spirits are collectively called Djinns ( masculine ) and Djnniyya ( female ); and their presence and capability of possession is found right across the Islamic world.
A further assumption shared across these groups is that music, ritual, prayer and animal sacrifice can propitiate the djinn and, inter alia, bring remedy and peace to the afflicted. These are traditional methods of treating illness within a Moroccan society where educaton, money or access to conventional medicine has largely been historically minimised. With modernity now in Morocco, things should have changed. Have they?
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.
Green is the colour of Islam and olives; Ouezzane has both in abundance. Its ancient medina, painted green throughout, is testament to both its Sufi heritage, and associated Quranic link with olive trees, and its cultivation of olive trees locally. In the Quran green is associated with paradise.
Below are extracts from ‘My Life Story, Emily the Shareefa of Wazan’, the remarkable account of Emily Keene’s marriage to the Sharif of Wazzan, Hadj Ahmed Ben Abdeslam, an exalted and powerful religious leader in Morocco directly descended from the Prophet Mohammad, published in 1912.
Arriving in Tangiers aged 21 in 1871, she married the Sharif 2 years later, bore him 2 sons and they divorced 14 years later. They lived mostly in the Dâr Damânah, the zaouia and her own house in Tangiers, as well as occasionally in zaouias in Algeria. His former wives and children from those earlier marriages lived in Ouezzane.
The Sharif of Wazzan, Hadj Ahmed Ben Abdeslam, died in 1891 at the zaouia Wazzâniyyah in Tangiers with Emily by his side.
These extracts provide fascinating insights into both their lives together and society in Morocco at that time, including the beginning of their relationship, the birth of their first born son Moulay Ali ben Abdeslam, who was to succeed his father as the Sharif in 1891, the death and funeral of Lalla Heba, the Sharif’s daughter from a former marriage, their own marital decline, separation and eventual divorce. The unique spiritual and secular role of the Sharif, his relationship with his followers and provision for the poor is described. The Sharifian dynasty and the origins of the town of Ouezzane is explained. Information regarding the creation of the concept of Dâr Damânah, the House of Surety, is also provided. Also some of the common superstitions and cures of the day are considered.
Finally the Sharif’s death and burial, and Emily’s experience of that, is movingly documented.
Emily Keene died in 1944 in Tangiers. A commemoration plate can be found in St Andrews church in Tangiers and she is interred in the cemetery of the Dâr Damânah in the Marshan.
The photographs in between the quotations are of the courtyard garden of Dâr Damânah in Ouezzane, taken in September 2019.