Monday, July 11, 2011

The enchanting Moussem of Moulay Idriss Zerhoune

Guest contributor New Zealander Rose Button reports for The View from Fez on a much anticipated festival in a sacred Moroccan town.

Moulay Idriss Zerhoune is special - not only is it a peaceful hilltop city resting against the Zerhoune mountains, just five kilometres from the roman Ruins of Volubilis, 20 minutes from Meknes and 90 minutes from Fez – most importantly it is one of five Holy Cities in the Islamic world. For it is here that the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss I is located.

Moulay Idriss I ruled between 788 to 791 AD. A descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, he was the founder of the Idrisid dynasty, considered responsible for the early Islamization of Morocco and Spain. He also initiated the building of Fez.

In Morocco, thousands of Muslims make a pilgrimage to Moulay Idriss Zerhoune during the month before Ramadan. During this ‘Moussem’, or religious festival, they pray, celebrate, sing and dance. This year the Moussem was held on July 7th and occurs again on the 14th and 21st.

I have been part of the Moulay Idriss community for two years, since I opened my guesthouse Dar Zerhoune. When I heard that the Moussem was happening, I leapt at the chance to go as I wanted to learn what it was about, to understand more deeply the people of Moulay Idriss and their local traditions and be part of the community. So last Thursday I headed over. I was the only Westerner in town and it was an amazing and enchanting experience and a privilege to be there.

In the late afternoon, I arrived at Moulay Idriss from Fez by train and grand taxi. The streets were lined with gorgeous Moroccan flags and a high number of security guards. There was a stage in the main square with banners, men selling popcorn and balloons. It resembled a western ‘fair’, Moroccan style. I felt excited!

I gained prime position by sitting on the main square outside a coffee shop and waited as the anticipation built. By about 5.30pm local dignitaries had gathered outside the Mausoleum, dressed in their flowing white djellebas. Police cleared the main square of locals and we all waited outside the barriers as something was about to happen.

 It was not long. First a security van came whizzing by, sirens blaring, followed by a motorcade of sleek black cars through the market street of Moulay Idriss. They stopped in the main square and from each car a security man leapt out, followed by dignitaries from around the Meknes area. The dignitaries greeted their counterparts from Moulay Idriss and they all quickly went into the Mausoleum.

During this time hundreds and hundreds of men, from Moulay Idriss and further afield, were gathering in the streets around the main square, waving flags and carrying offerings and pictures of the King. They were jovial and celebratory and all wore striking white djellebas; their usual attire for Friday prayers. The coffee shops were packed with men and women greeting one another; drinking; laughing, with their children playing. I constantly scanned every direction, as I wanted to know what was going on, and what would happen next.

After a short time, the dignitaries returned from the Mausoleum and took a seat in the stand, where they observed as each group of about 100 men came and made an offering at the Mausoleum, singing the Quran in beautiful voices, and praying. While some had flags and pictures of the King, others simply prayed and sang as they were waiting in the glorious sunshine. Then they, too, would enter the mausoleum. The musicians and sound of singing created a jovial and enchanting atmosphere.

Singing the Quran
After all the groups had been presented, the dignitaries were whisked away and the main square was free for locals and visitors to chat together and enjoy. I realised I had been sitting outside the coffee shop for five solid hours, mesmerised by so much happening around me: families returning to Moulay Idriss to greet old friends; ladies having henna designs painted and lots of families out in the cafes and restaurants, enjoying the vibrant atmosphere. I was struck by the the way the beautiful traditions I had seen contrasted with modern symbols of celebration, such as the children running around with balloons introduced by the western world.

About 11.30pm, I headed home. Through the night I continued to hear the beautiful soft music, singing and chanting, even at 4am. I have been told that they stay up all night.

“This is just the beginning,” someone said. The Moussem on July 14th and 21st promise to be bigger, as each surrounding town brings over a group to join the fun. I will definitely be there, to be part of this extraordinary event again.

Story and photographs: Rose Button

No comments: