Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fes Festival of Sufi Culture ~ Day Two

The second day of the Fes Festival of Sufi Culture began with the morning round table discussion, titled as "Sufi Moments ~ an homage to Abdelwahab Meddeb"
Abdelwahab Meddeb

The late Abdelwahab Meddeb was born and raised in Tunis with his family’s origins stretching from Tripoli and Yemen on his mother’s side, to Spain and Morocco on his father’s side. In 1967, Meddeb moved to Paris to continue his university studies at the Sorbonne in art history. He lived there until his death in 2014, traveling the world as a poet, writer, translator, cultural critic, invited lecturer, scholar-in-residence and visiting professor.

Meddeb used the media as a forum for exploration and debate. His work juxtaposed writers and scholars from East and West, engaging subjects that are historical, cultural, religious and political, and thereby challenging the stereotypes that Muslims and Europeans hold about each other. A voice of tolerant Islam, Meddeb was no stranger to controversy from militant Muslim quarters.

The morning round table discussion, chaired by Faouzi Skali, featured French-Lebanese poet and essayist Salah Stetié, a friend of Meddeb and Abdou Hafidi, professor at the Paris Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales. The discussions used Meddeb's work as a jumping off point to talk about cultural and spiritual identity as well as the challenges of reconciling Islam with the West.

"Morocco as a country of light and colour that produces a music of the heart" Photo Priam Thomas

Citing last night's opening events, Stetié started off by praising Morocco as a country of light and colour that produces a music of the heart. He spoke at length about his “heart to heart relationship” with Meddeb, and the “permanent sorrow” of his untimely death. He had a good sense of humour, and made efforts to present Meddeb as a living man, and even a lover of wine, rather than a Sufi or an intellectual. While Meddeb's work on identity and language show the influence of the postmodern tradition, Stetié argued that he was “not a person who played with words.” Rather he wrote with purpose, and out of wisdom.

Abdou Hafidi described Meddeb as a “poetic militant.” - Photo Priam Thomas

Abdou Hafidi talked passionately about Meddeb as a “poetic militant.” He told an anecdote about when he himself was labeled “a bad Muslim” by a French Imam because of his political views. When he told Meddeb about it, the advice he received was to “be a bad Muslim” and to “stay a bad Muslim.” Hafidi emphasized the importance of dialogue and even argument as necessary alternatives to religious militance. He suggested that dealing with contradiction leads to greater understanding. While Meddeb appeared to some to be an opponent of Islam, Hafidi suggested we understand his work in the dialectical tradition of Plato.

Souada Maoulainine argued the importance of Sufism as the spirit of Islam - Photo Priam Thomas

Afterwards, the audience joined the dialogue. Bariza Khiari remembered Meddeb as a man made up of layered identities, of which none was dominant. Souada Maoulainine argued the importance of Sufism as the spirit of Islam, rather than an inflexible set of rules and doctrines. She talked about her own choice whether or not to veil herself based on the country she is in. On a lighter note, one woman stood up to pay homage to Faouzi. She read aloud a poem her eleven year old son had written for the Festival organizer, making the serious man smile, with a mix of amusement and embarrassment.

Salamaton Sow talked about the importance of continuing Meddeb's mission of cultural criticism. She argued that learning is an “aller simple” or one-way trip that transforms who we are. Faousi wrapped things up by recounting Rumi's story “In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad”. Its a story of a man who travels to another country to find out what he knew all along. The discussion finished with evocative image of learning not as a one way trip, but as a return journey that brings us back to ourselves, better able to understand who we are.

Abdelwahab Meddeb at the 2013 Sufi Festival - Photo Sandy McCutcheon

Further reading
In his impassioned, erudite, and deeply moving book, The Malady of Islam, Abdelwahab Meddeb, details the breadth and scope of the Arab intellectual tradition and dismantles common preconceptions held by the Islamic and Western worlds. He describes the growing resentment between the West and the Islamic world as being due, in large part, to Islam's drift away from its own pluralist tradition.

Tracing the history of the "conquering" of the Arab world by the West, Meddeb provides a detailed history of the ways in which Islamic fundamentalism has come to compensate for Western dominance. Directly addressing the terrorist attacks of September 11, he challenges us to reconsider the presumption that the gulf between the Islamic world and the West is too wide to breach.The "malady" of Islam lies in its alienation from the West and the corrosive influence that fundamentalism has wrought.

Meddeb's book is a correction of the historical record, a passionate description of the best of Islamic thought and culture, and an absolutely necessary read for those seeking a better understanding not only of Islam but also ourselves.

The afternoon round table: Y a-t-il un renouveau do Soufisme dans le Monde Musulman ~ Will there be a revival of Sufism in the Muslim world?

On another beautiful afternoon in Fez, the festival audience was entertained by a musical interlude based on the poems of Rumi.

A beautiful musical rendition of Rumi

The question at the heart of the afternoon's discussion was a curious choice, because it could be argued that one of the purposes of the Fes Festival of Sufi Culture is to bolster Sufism. The panel of speakers came from divergent backgrounds, including science, philosophy and theology but unfortunately the result was a mostly inconclusive discussion that raised as many questions as it answered. Suggestions were made that "we need more emphasis on the role of the heart" and that given Islam was undergoing a "global crisis",  reality was forcing a spiritual evolution that Sufism must lead.

One spectator told The View from Fez that the Festival itself is assisting the revival of Sufism in a tangible way, so the topic probably does not need to be the focus of a round table.

Evening Concert - a night of Samaà

Samaà is a form of Sufi music, and the literal translation from Arabic is "audition", to listen or to hear, but with spiritual connotations. It also refers to a ritual taking place in the zawiya, Arabic for the corner of a Sufi house or meeting place, which could be attached to a Mosque, and which would indicate that the original samaà used to meet in a corner.

Samaà engulfs the audience in Fez - Photo Priam Thomas

Samaà is something that happens in the zawiya but is now becoming part of cultural festivals. As Sufi Festival Director, Faouzi Skali says, "rituals like this are an evening of community prayer, not a performance". This is what adds intensity to the experience as it is never really a performance simply for outsiders, but more for the Sufi’s themselves.  However, it has now become a staged event that has entered the world music market and festival circuits. It seems that it is a very personal celebration between the group themselves but it has also taken on the modern role as a public performance. There are some differences, for example with the Moroccan-Andalusian style performances there will usually be some kind of orchestra, but in the zawiya the typical ceremony is usually without instruments, so it’s often just vocalising.

The samaâ isn’t really considered singing, it’s more melodic vocalising. It has been called chant, but it can be translated in different ways. The word is inshad in Arabic, which can be translated as chant, as distinct from singing, which has other connotations. To our ears it’s very melodic and the melodic rules, the ways that the melody develops, are similar for both, but the overall effect is a combination of location, time and the role of music.

Samaà of the Tariqa Qadiriyya Boutchichiyya

The Boutchichiyya Brotherhood are from the small town of Mardagh, near Berkane, in north-eastern Morocco, which has become an important pilgrimage destination. Their Sheikh is Sidi Hamza el Qadiri el Boutchichi and the brotherhood is active in many countries, particularly in the UK.

The Boutchichiyya are an offshoot of the Qadiriyya tariqa, one of the oldest Sufi orders, which was brought to Morocco (initially to Fez) by the descendants of the two sons of ‘Abd al-Qadir from the 16th Century. The Boutchichiyya take their name from the 18th Century sheikh Sidi Ali al-Boutchichi, a Qadiri who was given the title “al-boutchichi” because he used to serve “cracked wheat” (bou tchich) to the poor who came to his zawiya.

The Brotherhood of the Qadirya Boutchichiya perform a sacred music, and produce a spiritual state "where celestial music becomes audible," says Moroccan musicologist Abdelfettah Benmoussa. "It combines the primordial sound and the absolute divine word. Through the practice of Samaà, it becomes possible to experience the depths of being in universal harmony".

Boutchichiyya Tariqa - Photo: Priam Thomas

Tonight's Boutchichiyya Tariqa was only 15 voices, but this didn't prevent them delivering what the huge crowd had come for. The individual solo voices were strong and, when joined by their brothers in the hypnotically repetitive chanting of “la illaha il Allah”, the effect on the audience was immediate and electric. Beneath the massed voices a solo bass voice provided the texture of an underlying drone. As the performance grew in intensity it evoked loud calls from the audience and a number of people rose to their feet enthralled by the music.

Samaà of Wazzaniyya and Tariqa-s Siqilliyya

Hajj Muhammad Bennis greets the Boutchichiyya

In a nice touch, as the Boutchichiyya left the stage they were greeted by the charismatic Hajj Muhammad Bennis with the combined Wazzaniyya and Tariqa-s Siqilliyya. It was unclear how many representatives were from each of the two Brotherhoods, but that mattered little as the crowd settled down to experience their samaà.

Photo: Priam Thomas

With only ten singers the performance was not initially as engaging as the Boutchichiyya but, while a few people left, the majority stayed and were rewarded with a remarkable experience. The lower energy may have been due to it being a combination of two traditions. The dikr was mostly Siqilliyya while the samaà was predominantly Wazzaniyya.

Photo; Priam Thomas

The chant “la illaha il Allah” slowly increased in tempo, pulling the audience along with it. Finally one of the singers produced a single bass drum and as the Brotherhood rose to their feet the crowd did as well. From a slow beginning they produced a mesmeric and entrancing performance that bathed the audience in a ecstatic wave of joy.

Entranced audience members

It was samaà unplugged and their devotees crowded on stage joining them in a crescendo of sound that proved once again that a great samaà performance is something that transcends the tariqa and embraces the listeners who become an integral part of the magic.

The stage engulfed by the audience - Photo Priam Thomas

The only downside of the night was that the performers were not on the main stage and therefore difficult to see. Adding to the problem was the huge number of smartphones, Ipads and cameras waved above the heads of the crowd in order to try and record the performance.  Thankfully nobody had thought to employ a drone!

Background on Tariqa-s Siqilliyya / Wazzaniyya

The Wazzaniyya Brotherhood is one of the major Sufi groups in Morocco, and was established in 1678. The tariqa Wazzaniyya takes it’s name from the zawiya (Sufi lodge) in Wazzan which was founded around the year 1670 by Mulay `Abdallah bin Ibrahim ash-Sharif (1596-1678). The current Sheikh or leader of the Wazzaniyya is Moulay Ahmad al-Wazzani.

They once played an important political role, and still have a wide following across the country. This was evidenced by the large number of Wazzaniyya supporters and devotees in the crowd at the Batha Museum

The Siqilliyya are famous for “participative samaà ”. Whilst their twirling Turkish Khalwati cousins provided the greatest spectacle, these brothers involve the audience most fully of all the orders, and it is usual for a large part of the audience to accept the sheikh’s active to request to join in the chanting of “Allah” and “La illaha il Allah”. You will hear the cry of “na’m” or “aywa” (both “Yes!) at breaks in the singing, and regular bursts of spontaneous, uncontrolled applause after a solo.

Photos and text: Priam Thomas and Sandy McCutcheon

Tomorrow's Programme at the Batha Museum:
10am Round Table The religion of love and the poetry of the Persian Mystics
4pm   Round Table Mevlevi music and the sound of the Ney (Arab flute) with Kudsi Erguner
8.30pm Concert by Kudsi Erguner of Mevlevi Ney music - "Askin Sesi: Les Chemins de l'Amour"

Monday's weather: Sunny. Top temperature 26 Celsius. Minimum 13.

See other Festival reports

Sufi Festival  ~ Day One
Sufi Festival - Day Two
Sufi Festival ~ Day Three
Sufi Festival ~ Day Four
Sufi Festival ~ Day Five
Sufi Festival ~ Day Six
Sufi Festival ~ Day Seven
Sufi Festival ~ Day Eight

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for sharing the events of the Sufi Festival. I appreciate being able to read about the activities from as far away as the west coast of Canada. One day I hope to be able to attend.