Monday, July 09, 2012

Khayyam ~ a Hard Act to Follow ~ The Fes Festival in Retrospect

Anne Graaff is a South African writer, artist and contributor to The View from Fez. Anne is currently living in Paris. In today's contribution she reflects on the 2012 Fes Festival of World Sacred Music.


This year's Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes has now come to an end. It has become an important annual event for cultural exchange in the arts in North Africa. Its scope is far broader than music and the customary definition of the sacred.

As usual, June was the month for this captivating Moroccan city to roll out the red carpets to visitors from abroad and to the local populace and to royalty. The King's wife, patron of the festival, H.R.H. Princess Lalla Salma, made an appearance. With the usual royal aplomb, she swept into the opening ceremony at the marvelous old Bab Makina fort, attended by the abidingly present and joyous retinue of the swallow population, who nest in the holes in the fortress walls. The agile birds circled, ducked and dived in balletic swoops of delight, above her very pretty royal head. And as the sun went down, the curtains on the festival went up. The theme for 2012 was Re-enchanting the World.

This is a big theme and a very apt one. The festival director, Fouzi Skali, and his artistic director, Alain Weber, got it right. They demonstrated that they have a finger on the global wrist-pulse. And clever of them to start the story with the appearance of a princess. It is a good recipe for enchantment.

The theme presupposes a disenchanted world that is seeking to renew its sense of wonder and connection to the sacred. It presupposes a world that has lost touch with something important - the something that gives the sap to life, the motivation to the human heart, the mystery and allure that satisfies soulfulness.

The musical program for the opening evening (compiled by Tony Gatlief) celebrated the poetry of the eleventh century Persian poet, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam. Khayyam was born and buried in Nishapur (now in present day Iran). The Sufi mysticism, mingled with Medieval science and a healthy gusto for good living, that characterises the voice of Khayyam, has predominately been made accessible to us in the west through the famous translation of his Rubaiyat verses by the Victorian translator, Edward FitzGerald (1809-83).

Translation always provides a challenge to meaning. FitzGerald's translations have been criticised for taking liberties. But then, forcing, however delicately, the foot of one language into the hand-glove of another can never be perfect. Languages represent not only words but world visions. The FitzGerald translations continue to captivate readers with their wit and wisdom and provide ongoing scope for contemporary interpretations. They also do credit to the breath-taking breadth of Khayyam's vision. A polymath mind, Khayyam connected the dots between disciplines in an exciting way, even for today's audience. His poetry places humanity in the context of cosmos, and a single human life against the backdrop of Big Time. This ability to telescope outwards is part of what makes his poetic thought outlive his time and speak across the ages. Like the great bard, Shakespeare, from the Occident, the Oriental verse of Omar Khayyam dwells lingeringly, in one couplet after another, upon the the meaning of an individual life against the vast backdrop of time and space. Our existence is a fugitive and frail thing. Shakespeare, using the tongue of Macbeth, links it to a shadow play. Khayyam says:

This Universal wheel, this merry-go-round.
In our imagination we have found.
The sun a flame, in the Cosmic lantern bound
We are mere ghosts, revolving the flame surround.

Our great poets take us to the heart of existence. That is why we revere them. And when we get there we encounter some curious and not always easy, not always palatable ideas.

Is there the radical understanding, in the poetry of Omar Khayyam, that the imagination is responsible for the world that mankind has created? This is a bold idea. Consciousness is the hub of the wheel of forms. Then there is the difficult idea, brought to mind by his verse, that consciousness itself becomes the flame that entrances us.

We are like ghosts in the thrall of our own creation. And, like something ghostly, we are insubstantial in relation to what we have created. Like a flame, consciousness, too, can splutter out.

These thoughts, that a contemporary reading can extract from Khayyam, are both disturbing and exhilarating. It is disturbing to dwell upon the fragile and illusory nature of our creations. But there is optimism. Dry tinder burns bright - old and brittle ideas are good fuel for the fire.

The Fes World Sacred Music Festival lit a small but important fire of its own in an attempt to burn old wood. There was a morning program of philosophical and academic seminars and speakers at the Batha Museum, that, on paper, sounded fascinating (I did not attend). From the program, the spirit of the endeavor seemed apparent: - it is time to formulate a new vision for civilisation. Topics covered included the Arab spring and what it might now engender, the interface between spirituality and business and how the two arenas could attempt to find common ground, whether the current financial crisis is also a crisis of civilisation.

The desire to re-enchant the world, even for a brief spell and in small ways, is the desire for meaning and connection and renewal. We require new stories and songs so that the birds in our souls will swoop, swoon and sing with delight once again.

The musical events of the festival, in this respect, did not disappoint. Bjork wove original spells, from her own version of fairyland, one lovely evening at the Bab Makina. She, and her choir of fairy-like attendants transported us to a Nordic realm of visionary myth and Gaia consciousness. Another evening, Joan Baez entranced her audience with her graceful and gritty songs of love and protest - again, like the verse of Khayyam, some as pertinent today as when they were first written. In the gardens of the Batha Museum Sheikh Yuseim al Tubani enchanted his audience with a Sufi vision of oneness, which permeated the verse he sung. "Your spirit is mingled with my spirit as amber is mingled with perfumed musk" is but one of the lines that he soulfully intoned.

And perhaps, the prize for enchantment went to the exquisite Indian dancers of the Katbak school, a dance tradition from Northern India. The dance combines complex and subtle movements, with codified expression harnessed to the enactment of myth. The technical skill of the two dancers was simply breathtaking - fast and flashing footwork, dizzy turns and gravity defying manoeuvres. The couple, a male and female dancer, circled each other like the sun and the moon, cosmic prince and princess as they wove their story-webs in the beautiful garden setting of the Batha Museum. They were gorgeously attired in splendid and shimmering costumes, akin to the tails of peacocks, the contents of a jewel box. Their act was a spell-binding story of creation, two conjurers, male and female, bringing form into being, matter into manifestation.

This desire for re-enchantment of the world is one response to our perceived global predicaments. There are gaping fault-lines in our climatic, geographic and cultural landscapes. The Fes Festival, Re-enchanting the World, created a useful space to think about influencing change and an opening to celebrate inspiring cultural myths.

If an individual life is fleeting, so is an age, a century, a millennium. The only constant is change. There is another verse by Omar Khayyam that comes to mind:-

Ah, Moon of my delight, that knows no wane
The moon of Heaven is rising once again.
How oft hereafter, rising, shall she look,
Through this same garden after me in vain.

The moon that does not wane is the inner and subjective moon of the poet's imagination. It is the muse in the inner garden. It is the enchantress. The real moon marks earth-bound time and reminds him that a human life span is fleeting. The garden will remain long after he has departed the earthly realm.

The garden of our earthly realm will outlive us all. But as long as there are human beings on earth, there will be those who discover the inner gardens, and the moons that enchant. Omar Khayyam has shone his moon for generations of poetry lovers, and more recently, for the audiences at the 2012 Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, which went out of its way to pay suitable homage to this great and visionary Medieval mind.

It waits to be seen who is cast to play the part of Moon for Africa in the 2013 Fes Festival of Sacred Music. Khayyam is a hard act to follow.

Words and photographs: Anne Graaff


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