Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Retrospect - The Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, 2011

The fifth Festival de Fès de la Culture Soufie - The Fez Festival of Sufi Culture - was an overwhelming success. From the opening night concert with Moroccan singer, Karima Skali, through the nights of Samaa to the final concert at the Hotel Jnan Palace, the audiences were large and appreciative. Here is our wrap-up of the Festival.

The focus of the festival was on the female aspects of Sufism and this theme was explored in the 10am and 4pm conferences and round table discussions. The well attended conferences ranged across topics from the female saints of Morocco to the writings of Isabelle Eberhardt.

The only disappointment was the cancellation (due to illness) of Sir Nicholas Pearson and the fact that English is still not employed (with one exception) in the discussions, introductions or the programme. While being aware of budgetary restraints, the large number of English speaking visitors makes English important. The other improvement needed is a more descriptive programme with notes on the various brotherhoods, the name of their leader and so on.

The venue, the Batha Museum courtyard was, once again, perfect, with the sound and lighting of the highest standard. Even when rain threatened, the erection of small tents enhanced the intimate feeling.

The feminine was not as present in the evening events which were more about immersion in and reflection on the spiritual aspects of dhikr and samaa. Too often in presentations such as these, there is a sameness that is discernible, even by the uninitiated. This was not the case at this festival, with every evening having a distinctive tone that made for an exhilerating week of discovery.

The highlights

While many of the locals in the audience had strong affiliations with particular Sufi brotherhoods, without doubt the highlights for almost all visitors were the energy and spectacle of the Tariqa Khalwatiyya. Yet, beyond the spectacle, the power of the devotion at the core of the Turkish dervishes was apparent to all. It was both an exciting and deeply moving event.

Experiencing the power of the Boutchichiyya or the intensity of the other brotherhoods, it would have been difficult to pick a highlight - that is, until the Tariqa Siqilliya entered the courtyard at the Batha Museum.

For those who had not seen this brotherhood before, the glorious polyphonic singing was such a surprise that there was an audible gasp from many in the audience. Not only was the polyphony entrancing, but the voices of those who sang solo lines amidst the chanting, were superb. It was THE stand out event of the festival.

See reviews of the Siqilliya HERE and HERE

A small gripe: please wait until after the last concert before dismantling the Coke fridge and stacking up chairs. This was distracting.


Fitz Morrissey read about the Sufi festival on The View from Fez and decided to visit Fez with a friend. They are both students of Arabic and Islamic studies at Oxford University. Fitz kindly offered to write about his experiences.

Fitz Morrissey and Chris Lyle

A trip to the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, 2011

When I first decided to visit the Festival of Sufi Culture in Fez, I'd imagined a somewhat low-key affair: a few academic lectures attended by a select group of Sufism enthusiasts, and if we were lucky a recital or two from some real-life Sufis. What we got instead was an extravaganza, a festival in the true sense of the term celebrating all that is good about religion. Here, at the Batha Museum in Fez, was the place to be. Where I had imagined an esoteric gathering came an eclectic group from near and far, some young, some well traversed on the Sufi path. Many were imbued with a sense of deep piety that added to, rather than hindered, their life-affirming outlook. When one told me, "This is the true Islam, not the one you see on the TV," I understood what she meant.

Faouzi Skali's festival at all times reflected Sufism's focus on the harmony between the outward and the inner, on the underlying unity of superficial difference. By day we had the all-enveloping cosmology of Ibn al-'Arabi, biographies of those female saints whom history has suppressed, poetry from Rabi'a, Rumi and Goethe. All, though coming from different backgrounds and writing in different ages, seemed united by a shared appreciation of the power of love in and of God. With every talk my knowledge was broadened and my sense of wonder heightened. Importantly, this was not just staid academia, but a project that needs to be actualised. Sufism is a living reality, and thus a potential vehicle for both the remembrance of God and the betterment of oneself as a human being. It is through festivals such as this that this message of love and tolerance, and especially this year the celebration of women's role in the tradition, can be shared with those whom Sufism was previously unable to reach.

And then there were the concerts. I'd enjoyed al-Kawthar and the Ensemble Ibn 'Arabi, two professional Sufi groups playing music from al-Andalous, enough on the first two days to go home contented there and then. Little did I know that round the corner were the sama' recitals of the Sufi brotherhoods, each unique in its own way, yet all united by a common purpose of the annihilation of the ego. These events were like no other concert I'd ever been to. Here one felt not a member of the audience, but rather part of a congregation, a participant in an ancient ceremony. On Monday night, when the Turkish Khalwatiyya brotherhood whirled, swayed and rocked to the rhythm of their trance-inducing chanting, at times menacing and at others a picture of tranquility, a part of me wished that I too was a Sufi. What's more, every performance, from the Boutchichiya to the Siqilliyya, featured singing and playing of the highest quality. Sama' is ritual, but it's also great music. Every night we saw a different take on the dhikr (remembrance of God) ritual, once more highlighting the rich diversity of Sufi culture. How can we generalize about Islam when so varied are the modes of expression of a Muslim's commitment to God?

The Festival was a real joy to attend, surpassing my expectations, confirming and confounding in equal measure. I saw an outwardly foreign culture to be in fact a resource of common humanity. I met Moroccans, French, Turks, Nigerians and English, all taking something different from each event, but all united by their wish to partake in this spectacular celebration. Faouzi Skali should be lauded for the conception of this project, which everyone I spoke to said gets better year upon year. I certainly hope so, as I'm sure I'll be drawn back to Fez, the perfect setting for this festival of mystical and traditional spirituality, at some time in the future.  -  Fitz Morrissey


"Aisha" - The Sufi cat was at every performance.

The devotees added colour and movement

Even during chanting one brotherhood member had time to find the number and then make the call !


To Faouzi Skali on presenting a world class event that leads to greater appreciation of many aspects of Sufi Culture. To his entire team from security through to administration, lighting and sound who made the event a pleasure to attend... and to the visitors from around the world who made the effort to come and join the locals in Fez for a wonderful festival.

To see all our stories on the Sufi Festival CLICK HERE

Photographs: Sandy McCutcheon. Additional photographs: Gerard Chemit.

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