Waddick Doyle reflects on Fez, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music and its director, Faouzi Skali.
Fes is a city unlike any other, a sort of Varanassi of the West, spiritual capital of this country which claims to be the oldest continuous kingdom in the world. Every June for the last 18 years, Fes has also become a capital of sacred music with its festival bringing musicians from all of the world, who come here to share their joy and enchantment.
Fes was and is the centre of the Sufi tradition in the west of the Muslim world which is becoming more and more important in Morocco and an antidote to the rise of fundamentalism elsewhere.
The old medina has 240 mosques and countless zawiyas in the walled city where there is no motorised transport. Mules and donkeys weave their way through the labyrinth of alleys and ways of the largest living medieval city in the world.
Festival Director, Faouzi Skali, is a native of the old city and himself a sufi adept and poet. Worried by the widening gulf between Islam and the rest and in the changing process, he created the Fes festival as an attempt to let people communicate through music. He invited musicians from all traditions in a deliberate attempt to give the festival's public a chance to taste a variety of sonic beauty.
He was and remains convinced that beauty can change the world and that traditions will best understand and appreciate each other if they listen. Eighteen years ago with this simple idea and no money or position he created a festival which now attracts spectators in their thousands and journalists in their hundreds from across the world. It is the one of the few places in the world where Jewish and Muslim musicians sing together in joyous festival as Rabbi Haim Louk and Abderrahim Souiri did on Thursday evening.
This year, the festival celebrated the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam, and was entitled "the enchantment of the world." The opening night featured a specially commissioned work by France's Tony Gatlif, denoting how a mystical song from India to Morocco produces a type of enchantment.
Omar Khayyam's poetry was recited in Farsi, Arabic and French bedore ending with Fes's own Marwan Hajjiek singing the simplest of Muslim litanies, laihillallah, the unity of God. The audience warmed to it despite an unseasonal cool wind.
All of this was choreographed in Bab Mekina, a fort above the ancient city. An international crowd from Europe and America had come to see the King of Morocco's consort, the princess Lalla Salma, who opened the festival in a dazzle of elegance. Zeyba Rahman appeared dressed in an orange sari and explained the evening in English. She hails from Dehli but is now the New York based director of the festival for America and Asia. Fatiha Morchid, Moroccan poet, pediatrician and TV personality accompanied her in Arabic and French.
For 10 days, the festival programmed concerts day and night, all striving like Kabir to realise the sacred in the beauty of spiritual experience. Kabir's poetry was featured by Mukhtiyar Ali who performed in the Batha Palace garden in the shade of a huge barbary oak tree. The audience took up the refrain and this ancient Arab city resounded with a crowd of French, English and Arabs chanting in Hindustani.
The old medina of the city strangely mimics the music with its poor narrow streets and small doors opening into hidden palaces centered around courtyards with trees and tranquil pools, unimaginable from the dusty pathways outside. On entering them one's eyes are transfixed by the symmetrical beauty of the houses and their geometric mosaics. As in Kabir's poem sung by Ali under the tree, if you search God with all your heart, he will appear before you.
The audience was entranced without understanding words. Some of the concerts are at night and the audience wanders the labyrinth of the medina seeking a sudden opening to a new viusal and sonic world. For Fes is a city of deep listening, "samma" in Arabic, where an audience listens to poetic chanting about being drunk with love and falls slowly into another state, retreats into inner worlds of beauty. Deep listening is a term developed by NYU musical anthropologist Deborah Kapchan based on her studies of sufi music and Fes. It is a listening without understanding that goes beyond words and makes people like each other whether or not they understand the meaning.
Skali's intention from the beginning was to bring beauty and spirituality to the centre of a broader political project, based on Dostoevsky's injunction that only beauty can save the world. In this mesh of politics and aesthetics, he has created The Fes Forum based on the idea of giving a soul to globalisation.
He invites a motley crew, mixing those who normally attend the Davos Economic Forum and those who go to the World Social Forum, to discuss the role of spirituality in globalisation. This year much discussion centred around finding new indicators for measuring the well being prompted by the King of Bhutan's suggestion to measure gross national happiness instead of gross national product.
What was clear, however, looking at the faces joyously clapping in unison at the Jewish-Muslim concert, was that the Fes sacred music festival was doing its bit to increase global happiness.
Waddick Doyle is a long time friend of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music and a keen observer of its development. is the the Director, Division of Global Communications and Film, and founder and director of the Masters in Global Communications program at American University of Paris. Doyle teaches courses in Media Globalization, Contemporary World Television, Media Law, Policy and Ethics. He has held positions at universities in Italy, France and Australia. His article on the Fes Festival was first published by the International Business Times.