In man's attempts to get on well with potential destroyers: gods, storms, wild animals, demons and even human enemies, he has made sacrifices, developed rituals, made up stories, played music, sang songs and danced. Gnawa music can be regarded as a means of self-expression and communication with spirits. In other words, it is a centre of communal celebration intended for the pleasure and entertainment of both human beings and spirits. Just as some renaissance painters couched their anti-Christian ideas through apparently Christian paintings, Gnawa, a pagan practice appealed to the possessing spirits through apparently Islamic songs and rituals. This conflict between the Islamic and the pagan, the sacred and profane, the dark and the light has helped this music to create its own context and audience.
In a maze of narrow vein-like alleys where houses mushroomed against the rules of gravity and architecture, bottom-bellied and top-tapered like a public display of giant terra-cotta pots, a jerry-built house jutted out, the jagged sand-walled facade looked like a dry nutshell, plain because unpainted, peculiar because unprotected. The unused door, for want of an upper hinge was constantly ajar. At night when it was locked to keep animals out, a latch string was left out to allow people in. That was how the Gnawa Zawia, a brotherhood of slave descendants expressed their deep-rooted refusal and rejection of chains and shackles: tangible symbols of slavery and servitude... The door-adjoining room on the right served as a mosque for the sect. Opposite the mosque was another quasi-identical room which housed their recreational rites and rituals ... The 'spirits' room was second on the right. Here they catered for the needs of different spirits in terms of incense, colour and music.
The police ignored them; their job was to ignore whatever was not useful to their mission. While two inspectors escorted Said out of the building, the third one followed with a bagful of Said's documents. No case without evidence was the first rule they learnt at the police school. Fake evidence to charge a damned annoying suspect was what they learnt at the police department after they graduated ... "Don't worry! They don't need me or anyone else to incriminate him. The new terrorism law has decreed that a suspect is guilty till he is acquitted. The main concern is that one may be remanded for months without a fair trial ... Let's hope for a time when power can be exercised over a citizen only to prevent harm; a time when, over himself his mind and body, a person is sovereign. What scares me the most is that before that day is born, and before the dazzling sun of freedom rises, we shall all be prisoners."
Behind bars, he is in a prison.
Outside bars, I am in an even larger prison.
It is called a country and I am called a citizen.
Words and pictures that present a very different image to the one portrayed in the lavish Moroccan Interiors books with their seductive spreads of Marrakech riads. The photos are my own and the three extracts come from a very brave book written in English by a Moroccan author. The Spirit of a City is about the explosive collision of traditional and contemporary cultures that is present day Morocco. Its author Hamid Qabbal is an English teacher in Essaouira and the novel is set in the annual Gnawa festival in that city. To put The Spirit of a City in context here is a quote from Aboubakr Jamai, the outspoken and ex-editor of two leading Moroccan newspapers:
'The [Moroccan] regime likes to think and say it's a democracy, but obviously it's not. A very cursory reading of the constitution would tell you that it's not a democracy. It would tell you that it's an absolute monarchy. We have a political life, we have political parties, a measure of freedom of the press and of expression. But it is not a democracy in the sense that Moroccans have the power to change their rulers, because they certainly can't'.
* Listen to music from a Gnawa brotherhood in Essaouira in a Chance Music podcast. Author Hamid Qabbal lists his favourite music as Sufi music on his blog profile. Hear Syrian Sufi chant and instrumental music in another Chance Music podcast. Read An Overgrown Path on gnawa music here and about Sufism here and here.
* For a contemporary take on Sufi music try Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight which sets a poem by the 13th century Sufi mystic Meulana Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi. It is on the CD of Jonathan Harvey's choral music which featured in Zen and the art of new music.
* Composer Maurice Ohana (1913-1992) was born in Casablanca. Morocco of Sephardic-Jewish descent. Read about him in Unlocking the music of Maurice Ohana.
* More on the Jews of Morocco and on Moroccan resident Paul Bowles in Jewish music under a sheltering sky.
* Unfortunately there seems to be no easy way to buy a copy of The Spirit of a City. It is published by Sefrioui Editions in Essaouira and I bought my copy in the city. I can find no record of it on internet sellers such as Amazon France. My only suggestions are to email the publisher at editions_sefriouiATyahoo.fr or, even better, take a trip to Essaouira.
All photos were taken in Morocco and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Aboubakr Jamai quote is from Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden by Morgan Spurlock which was borrowed from a public library. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk