Every year on the anniversary of the prophet Mohammed’s (praise and peace be upon him) birth, the ‘Eid al-Mawlid, thousands of Moroccans take part in pilgrimages to sacred places: saintly tombs, shrines and grottos, and places frequented by ‘junuun,’ those non-human beings talked about in the Qur’an and who hold a special place in Moroccan folklore and popular culture.
Last week thousands of pilgrims descend upon Sidi Ali, a near drive from Meknes or Moulay Idriss, to commemorate Sidi Ali ben Hamdush. Culture Vulture’s Jessica Stephens and I made the trip in search of the supernatural, the trance, the aura of the junuun, to experience the ritual bath at the spring of Aïsha Kandisha – a jinn said to dwell in rivers and underground water sources.
During the week of the pilgrimage tents and stalls line the streets of the small town. The smell of tea and grilled meat mixes with those of live sheep awaiting slaughter and the sweet incense used in ritual offerings. Music fills the foggy mountain air as impromptu street performances take place in every corner. Families gather round the musicians playing anything from the Ahidous native to the Altas Mountains to Sufi music in the Hamadshi or Gnawa traditions. As midnight nears and we begin making our way to the spring of Aïsha Kandisha, the streets fill with more and more people, some coming from as far as Casablanca.
Along the road leading to Aïsha’s grotto, one finds everything they need for the ritual: incense and candles, spices and milk, dried lizards – to be cut in three and burned – as well as lead used for various magical practices. They’ve even gone to the lengths of preparing all-in-one ritual kits including everything one needs to please the spirits. Not many foreigners come to Sidi Ali, but the herbalists are welcoming and willing to share their knowledge with us.
Walking through the festival bazaar, one has the impression that they are both back in time and in a modern art exhibition at once, Jess remarked, examining a neatly bound string of dried lizards.
The spring of Aïsha sits nestled in the side of the mountain. A rock with a flat surface near ground level is adorned with lit candles, and incense and other offerings are scattered and burned before pilgrims make their way down a few slippery steps to the spring. The waters of ‘Aïn Aïsha flow through a crevice revealed by a few uplifted paving stones. Along two sides of the spring, small stalls are used as showers, where pilgrims wash with the spring waters and say a prayer before throwing their underpants over their shoulders and into the ravine. Needless to say, the trees lining the ravine are well-adorned. We didn’t dare bathe outside in the freezing cold, however pilgrims continue bathing well into the night.
Light-headed but calm from the sweet smell of incense, and acquainted with Aïsha, it was trance-time. By the time the Gnawis began their laïlat, the rhythmic evening incantation that brings spirits and humans together in remembrance of God, the population of Sidi Ali had gone up drastically. In garages, tents and concrete apartment buildings all over town, the sound of the gambri accompanied by metal castanets echoed as the chant of the gnawis rose in unison.
Slowly spectators were brought into the ritual – dancing, swaying and being offered breaths of incense until some crept into a trance. The kind of bodily involvement in the trance inspired by gnawa is by far the most intense I remember having seen. Women and men in trance rock their heads and sway in sporadic, yet rhythmic motions. When asked by Jess, one young woman from Casablanca said that she highly recommended the trance, that there was no better feeling or sense of release. But not everyone can do it…
At a moment in one of the Laïla, an older man rolled up his pants and sleeves, revealing scars from the previous nights. Taking deep breaths of incense and calling back and forth in prayer with the gnawi, he readied himself for the knife. I turned away shortly thereafter, but had to come back out of morbid curiosity. As the gnawa musicians picked up the pace, he began rhythmically cutting himself on the arms, the lips, the neck and sides. We mused that the knife wasn’t sharp enough to cut very deeply. However, sharp or not, seeing as it was Tuesday we guessed the old hajj was only warming up; and before long some participants in the Laïla were passing bundles of lit candles up and down their skin.
The experience of the Laïla was unlike anything I’d ever seen, however, it struck familiar chords. Participation with the mystic during the pilgrimage of Sidi Ahmed ben Hamdush is very much like all mystic experiences: it requires initiation and belief. For the outsider, the sweet smell of incense and the rhythmic clapping of castanets and chanting of the gnawi form an experience that flows between the spiritual and the sensory – between mere curiosity and more esoteric meanderings.
Hardly advertised, the pilgrimage of Sidi Ali ben Hamdush is known by most Moroccans. As foreigners living in Morocco, we wouldn’t have known about it or gone if it weren’t for the advice of friends. However, only traveling a few hours from Fez, we relished the opportunity to be transported deep into Moroccan tradition.
Text by: Joe Lukawski/Photos by: Jessica Stephens
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