Sunday, September 16, 2012

In light of last week's events

This week started off innocently enough. It was my first real week of work and I was eager to getting started and to begin feeling more integrated in the office environment. Tuesday was the 11th anniversary of September 11th and it was business as usual. Aside from checking Facebook news feeds and the news headlines, there was very little "on the ground" affirmation of the day. Which makes sense; when I've spoken with Moroccan friends about the terrible tragedy in New York City on September 11th, 2001 very often they respond with a comparison. They may comment about how our death count in the Middle East since 9/11 significantly overshadows the three thousand-something casualties we incurred that day; they will bring up Palestine, or the ongoing events in Syria. It's not that what happened in the US eleven years ago isn't important or wasn't devastating, but having discourses like this that don't always end in proverbial back rubbing is (for me, at least) in a way its own form of catharsis. It's nice to live in a world where the United States isn't the center of attention and to reflect on the significance of other violent and unwarranted attacks that go on around the world. My heart goes out to the victims, their families, and their communities. I can only imagine what it feels like.

In ways, being in the MENA region on the anniversary makes me think about it and its implications even more. I recognize September 11th as a terrible day not only for the American people, but as a grim indication of the impossibility for peaceful foreign and domestic policy to occur in the future. On Tuesday I hopped in a taxi on my way to work. The driver was making light conversation as we wove through morning traffic. As we drove, I looked out the window to see everyone going about their daily business: shop keepers sweeping the sidewalks, women in djellabas carrying raffia baskets and tugging along small children as they completed her errands, men colluding at coffee shops around fanned-out newspapers and cigarettes, women frying breads outside small corner stores on large metal griddles. This is what daily life in Morocco looks like to me. There are no car bombings and no anti-American banners or flag burnings. In my experience, if a Moroccan doesn't understand or agree with an element of American foreign policy, they will want to ask you about it, not attack you for it. As an American in their country they give you the benefit of the doubt. They welcome you with open arms. These are the Muslims that I interact with everyday.

It is because of my daily experiences here that I find what happened in Benghazi and what spread to consulates all over the world devastating and sickening. I have friends who work at the US Embassy in Rabat scared at the possibility that the same thing could happen to them. My family was worried for my safety. It didn't help at all when it was released that one of those killed at the US consulate in Benghazi was from my home town. He was a Navy Seal and taught English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. Though I am confident that the worst is over in Morocco, I'm trying to stay up to date on the news and am checking the Moroccan US Embassy website regularly for any breaking security warnings.

 On Friday peaceful protests broke out all over the MENA region directly following midday prayer. In Morocco, there was a protest of a few hundred Salafist Muslims organized in Salé, Rabat's neighbor across the river, and one of with numbers between 300 and 400 people near the US consulate in Casablanca. Aside from the symbolic burning of the American flag, heavy police presence (especially for the one in Casablanca), and anti-American chants (seen at nearly every protest that occurred that day across the world), both were small in size and relatively mild. The only reason I know that they happened at all was because my cab driver on my way home from work was listening to the news. I felt no tension or witnessed anything firsthand.

According to a report from Al-Jazeera on Sunday, King Mohammed VI spoke on the phone to Hillary Clinton, where he called both the murder of the US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and the film that has provoked these protests and attacks as, "odious". In an official palace statement, King Mohammed VI expressed his, "sincere condolences" over Tuesday's events in Benghazi while also condemning, "the inadmissible provocation agains the sacred values of the Muslim religion".

In regards to the "anti-Islamic documentary" that supposedly started all of this, there is increasing evidence that points to the fact that the film wasn't even made by an American Jew, but rather a Coptic-Christian American named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula looking to incite violence between the West and the Muslim world. What's more is that several sources have come out saying that even the actors performing in this incredibly sub-par and low budget film claim that they were seriously misled. Mentions of the Prophet Mohammed in the film seem to have been dubbed in during post-production. Regardless, I see the events that occurred as avoidable, unnecessary, and embarrassing. There seems to be blood on everyone's hands.

All of a sudden, with last week's events, we (Americans) are back with the image of Muslims as extremists and the entire MENA region as a breeding pool of blind hatred towards the West. How many years of progress in foreign relations have been erased? How many will it take to bounce back? To all that were involved I wish to ask this simple question: was it worth it?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

3la salemtek! Welcome back.

After a summer’s long vacation from writing, September feels like a perfect time to resume. 
This summer went by in a blur. I spent June and July in Rabat. With a lightened workload, I had ample time to travel, try new things, and spend time with friends. One of my goals for the summer was to learn how to surf. There is a small surf shack on the beach that offers a very attractive surfing “package”, where you pay for twelve lessons that include an instructor, wetsuit, and surfboard. As you can imagine, the surf instructor are very laid back guys who do this because they absolutely love it. There is no time limit to your lesson. You arrive, wait for the mouja mezyena (good waves), and then set out until you tell them safee (that’s it, I’m done). The best times of day to surf this summer were either early in the morning or about 6 at night. 

For one reason or another, I ended up doing the latter time, which placed me floating in the surf just as the sun was beginning to set over the Atlantic. While my goal was never to become an expert surfer, as someone who has always enjoyed swimming there is something incredibly exhilarating about finding a new way to enjoy the ocean. It has also been fun to be a part of a different side of Morocco, meet new people, and learn new words along the way. My sister visited me for a weekend in the very beginning of the summer and I was able to take her surfing. She loved it and was able to stand up on her first lesson! It was great to be able to share something like this with her. 

Us post-surf lesson with our instructor Hamza 

 In the beginning of July a few friends and I did a four-day trek up Mt. Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Our journey started by taking a train to Marrakech, where we spent one night in a hotel before setting out early the next morning to meet our grand taxi driver. We drove an hour and a half up winding dusty roads to a small village in the mountains to meet our two mules (b’ghla), guides and begin our journey. Over the course of four days we saw breathtaking views (that brought upon many ‘Sound of Music’ inspired sing-a-longs), hiked up countless switchbacks, stopped for lunch in a small village, danced, and met new friends each night as we congregated for tea and cookies in the mountain refuges. Our guide, Hicham, spoke English fluently and was very gracious to us. He told us that he has several sisters and was therefore not phased at all by spending four whole days isolated on mountain trails with a group of four girls. For that, we were lucky. He also impressed us by the ease at which he maintained his brisk pace. He always had his hands casually slid into his pockets and barely ate or drank anything while we hiked. He told us he was practicing for when he has to work during Ramadan.

The view from the house in a small mountain village where we stopped for lunch the first day
Being in the mountains meant that Darija was replaced by Teshelheit (a Berber dialect) as the lingua franca. In the evenings after dinner we would sit around with the mountain guides at the refuge and they would try to teach us songs in the local language. While the words didn’t stick, we did acquire a fun list of new words in Teshelheit during our trip: 

Or geese eelie - there isn’t…

Or geese ajmeel - you’re welcome

Aghrome  - bread

Aman - water

Eemeem - delicious

Goma - brother

Ultima - sister

Eesh/ch’e - eat
Zund zund  - same

Eemik eemik  - so-so

Timinseeween  - good night

Throughout the trip, the summit had been the goal. Everyday we were getting closer and closer to reaching it. In the morning on our second day, I had my first experience with altitude sickness.  The climb was steep and the altitude raised quickly. All I could think about was old PBS documentaries on climbing Mt. Everest when they showed hikers experiencing altitude sickness and needed oxygen masks and coughed up blood. Of course, our experience was not that bad. I did feel incredibly nauseated, had serious vertigo, and as it was happening felt like I would never be able to summon the strength to continue. Apparently, one of the easiest ways to ward off altitude sickness is by drinking enough water. Finally, the episode passed and we moved forward. I learned never to underestimate the power of proper hydration. 

Post-dinner tea time on the roof of the refuge our first night
The next day was summit day and I woke up nervous. I knew that the altitude we would reach today would be even higher than yesterday and my fear of coming down with altitude sickness for another time haunted me. As usual, we set out early in the morning. I couldn’t believe it when we could finally see the metal triangle perched atop the peak in the distance and Hicham gave us the estimated time as 30 more minutes. In the final stretch, my heart began pounding and I broke into a jog. At that moment, it all felt so easy. We finally reached this incredible peak that for days seemed threatening and unattainable. From the top, there were several groups from all over the world taking pictures, holding flags, laughing, and enjoying well-deserved snacks. Hicham surprised us with a huge bag of cookies and nuts. We looked out in all directions over the clouds as a large group began praying in a circle, hands out, heads bowed. We sang more folk songs, took pictures, and then started our descent down. In total, it took about two and a half hours to reach the top from our refuge, and about 3 hours to get down.

Group shot at the refuge before beginning our summit hike on day 3


Less than a week after returning from our hike, I packed up my bag again and set out on a three day trip to Brussels in hopes of setting up contact with several people and associations who could help me with my Fulbright application. The days went by fast and were filled with pleasant surprises. Cold calls turned into warm meetings and I left feeling euphoric by the way the puzzle pieces felt like they were finally fitting together. 

Shortly after coming back from Belgium, I could feel that there was something different in the air. The streets of Rabat became flooded with cars that had MRE (Marocains résident à l’étranger - Moroccans living abroad) license plates from France, Spain, England, Italy, and Belgium. This could only mean one thing: summer vacation was here and Ramadan was quickly approaching. The date sellers in the markets nearly doubled, as did the honey-soaked chebakiyya pastries and large tupperwares. Billboards popped up all over town showing major Ramadan sales at supermarkets and department stores. Interestingly, as the city began to fill up with extended families, it also simultaneously became more peaceful and quiet. 

Just as Moroccans were welcoming their extended families living overseas back home for the holidays, I was lucky enough to have the rest of my family visit for one week. We hired a driver and went down south to the beach towns of Essaouira and Agadir as a way to beat the heat and enjoy the seaside culture à la marocaine. After five days down south exploring Argan cooperatives, ancient medinas, resort-style beaches, and learning to respect the incessant and powerful wind Essaouira is known for, we returned back to Rabat and Fez for our last few nights together. Ramadan began during our trip, which provided us with an added challenge of finding food throughout the day while everyone else was fasting. Despite that, it was a great experience to be able to observe the holiday with my family. I think we all realized that while we may not fully grasp the purpose behind this strict month-long regime of fasting and feasting, we could respect the similarities that it shared to holidays that we hold as sacred: how time slows down and people take the time to be with those that they love. 

After saying goodbye to my family I began a two-week house/cat-sitting “post” at a friend’s house in Agdal. The couple has two very loving and attention-hungry cats that feed off human affection. It was nice to be around clean and domesticated cats again as opposed to the all too often run-ins with cute but dirty dumpster-diving ferrel variety. As teachers at the Rabat American School, their house was equipped with many comforts of home, including dependable wi-fi, a verdurous garden, and an ‘American telephone’ that I could use to call home. In the evenings I would have friends over after they broke their fast. We enjoyed several Mexican fiesta dinners followed by long games of cards that lasted well into the night. 

The garden tortoise that always found his way into the house

Finally, I returned home to Boston for a short three week trip. It felt wonderful being home again with my family just in time to celebrate my birthday and savor the last few weeks of summer in New England. I left to come back before my heart or head was ready, but new opportunities were on the horizon back in Morocco that I needed to attend to. Last week I signed a one year contract with an American-Moroccan development agency and moved into a cozy new apartment on the beach. While things are moving fast and at times feel overwhelming, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Inch’allah my exchange of comfort and familiarity for new and challenging will be one that will prove to be as rewarding as I imagine it will be. I’m looking forward to all the lies ahead while trying to take things one step at a time. Shweeya b shweeya. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Falling in love with Paris all over again

Last weekend finally arrived, the weekend where all of his things were packed up to leave for the summer back to the U.S. Since he was flying out of Paris, we decided what better send-off than to spend one last weekend together in Paris before his Sunday departure? (It was also helpful because I needed to renew my visa.)

At 4 in the morning we rolled/dragged all of the suitcases and got picked up in a grand taxi to be taken to the airport. We woke up a few hours later as we were landing in Paris on a rainy Friday morning. After finding our hostel we wandered around the city trying to soak in as much as we could. Here are a few photos from our trip.

Like any good tourist, we started by wandering down towards the Seine and then made our way over to the Louvre. I am always blown away by how grand the architecture is in Paris. Everything feels like it was placed with the greatest of intention - every fountain, flower box, statue, and pigeon. 

While we were debating about whether or not to go inside, we decided to do some trompe l'oeil photography. 

"Winged Victory"
Mounted in an archway atop a landing on a marble stairway, this statue representing the goddess Nike towers over all visitors wishing to enter her wing of the museum. Such a breathtaking piece of art. 

This is the face you make when you realize that Friday nights the Louvre is free after 6 pm for all under 26 year olds! 

Ingrès - L'odalisque

Seeing this painting felt like I was meeting a friend for the first time after years of written correspondence. L'Odalisque was one of the major influences/references that I used in my senior thesis last year on the contemporary literary/visual art response to 19th century French orientalist art's depictions of North Africa. Interestingly, though Ingres is known for his depictions of the Orient, he actually never once set foot in North Africa. The furthest he got was Italy.  

A view from outside the Louvre. For those of you who haven't visited the Louvre, this once was the palace of the king of France. The entrance of the museum is through the glass pyramid.

The archway across from the Louvre. Though this picture doesn't do it justice, I was struck again by the marvels of French architecture. We came upon the arch just as the sun was setting, and if you looked straight through the archway you would see a tree-lined garden "boulevard" (too wide or grand to be called simply a pathway) with Cleopatra's needle, and then finally the L'Arc de Triomphe mirroring this arch on the other side.  

Our hostel shares its arrondissement (18e) with Montmarte and Sacre Coeur. This is the view of the church from our walk to Gare du Nord train station, our nearest metro stop.

On Saturday, we went to the Catacombs, which begin close to the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Apparently this location is just south of what used to be the city gate, which was called the "La Barrière d'Enfer" (The Gate of Hell). 

Built in the 18th century as a way of dealing with the overflowing city cemeteries due to various battles and plagues, the Parisian catacombs are a sight to behold. It is a series of tunnels that stretch over a mile long and are filled with neatly stacked bones of over six million skeletons. The whole site has a very macabre vibe. At each turn there is a new marble plaque that has a quote usually in Latin or French about death. For instance, after going down over a hundred steps to get into the catacombs, there is a sign hung above an archway that reads:

 "Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort"

(Halt! Here is the empire of Death.)

There was another plaque further along that read:

"où est elle, la Mort? Toujours future ou passée.
 A peine est-elle présente que déjà elle n'est plus." 

(Where is she, Death? Always in the future or past. As soon as she is present she is no longer.)

The catacombs were fashioned out of old Parisian mines. Back when France was part of the Roman empire, it was customary to bury the dead on the outskirts of the city (interestingly, this practice is also seen in the way that the old Moroccan medinas are set up - with the cemeteries by the outer walls). However, with the arrival of Christianity, it became customary to bury the faithful in consecrated ground around churches. Between population growth, war casualties, and plague victims, the amount of dead was leading to not only spatial issues but sanitation ones as well. Moving the bodies underground seemed like a logical solution.

Afterwards, we continued strolling and sight seeing. 

France's color palette: beige, iron black, green, glass. 

We kept remarking about how great it was to spend a few days in France as an interim before he headed back to the U.S. not just because it's Paris, but because it helped facilitate a gradual adjustment to the inevitable culture shock of returning to the U.S. after spending nearly a year in Morocco. Though it is still very different from Morocco, there were several commonalities that we found to be comforting. First of all, while the city was comparatively pristine to our home of Rabat,  the similarities in the architecture of the buildings in Paris to the ones that line the grand boulevards in Rabat were undeniable (though admittedly, ours are a bit more worn down). Another similarity was in the language, though not in the way you would expect. While walking through the city we often heard more Moroccan darija than Parisian French, which made our ears perk up. On our last night in the city we grabbed falafels by the Notre Dame Cathedral at a small little stand on a cobble-stoned side street. I overheard several clients speaking to the man behind the counter in Arabic, so I decided to order in the true lingua franca. After a short exchange, we realized that not only was he a Moroccan immigrant, but he grew up in Rabat in the quartier just next to ours! It's moments like this that make you feel like the world isn't the large after all. 

After 48 hours in Paris, we found ourselves staying up late drinking wine from the bottle and agreeing that we should live here some day. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Sarkozy, c'est fini!"

On the evening of May 6th, the long-awaited French presidential election results announced François Hollande as the next French president by a mere 3.8% over Sarkozy (51.9 to 48.1, according to Le Monde). The crowd of hundreds of thousands of Hollande supporters cheered and popped bottles of champagne around the Bastille as they waited for Hollande to make his first address as president.

I heard a report on NPR's Morning Edition that discussed France's election night, Hollande's plans for France, and the differences between Sarkozy's and Hollande's political platforms. One of the major differences that was highlighted in the news program (as well as in other popular media outlets) is their position on immigration and foreign affairs. While Hollande welcomes multiculturalism and more progressive approaches to strengthening France's international relationships, Sarkozy has always preferred more traditional and exclusionary tactics. Towards the end of the program there was a clip of the cheering crowd outside the Bastille when out of nowhere a voice comes to the forefront and shouts, "Vive la France! Vive les Marocains!". It made me reflect on how French politics affect Moroccan (and North African, more generally) society. What do Moroccans have invested in having their presidential candidate win office in France? Will France's relationship with Morocco change now that Hollande is president?

In late April, the French Embassy in Morocco published the results of the French elections in Morocco. There is a large portion of the urban population in Morocco that hold dual citizenship, which gives them the ability to vote in the French elections. In Rabat, François Hollande took the lead with 43.5% and Nicolas Sarkozy was the runner up with a mere 26.9%. The rest of the votes were divided among the remaining three candidates.

While the results differed depending on the city (Sarkozy won the majority vote in Marrakech for instance), what is undeniable is that the French elections were considered an important issue for Moroccans. Throughout the election cycle I had several conversations with my English language students about their opinions on the candidates, the French electoral process, and their hopes for the future of France. Most of my students are professionals who work for companies or organizations with strong European ties. Even if they don't think that the outcome of France's election will greatly affect aspects of their personal life, they all agree that it would change the way they do business with their French clients and partners.

From the students "polled", it was unanimously stated that they felt that Sarkozy was a disappointing president, and certainly not the type of president that France needs now. While some felt that Sarkozy's "work more, earn more" mantra did good things for the French economy, his eccentric personality made him difficult to trust his judgement in times of hardship. They believe that the French are ready to trade in their hot-shot celebrity president for someone more humanistic and moderate.

Furthermore, Sarkozy's strong anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism stance weakened the country by dividing France into ethnic and cultural factions. He candidly identified certain groups as better than others, which led to a less united country. While he gained the support of the far-right through these actions, he lost the respect of everyone else. One student even said that Sarkozy was "France's George Bush": he managed to debase France's long history of high culture through his poor language and ignorant view point on immigration.

I see several paralells between Hollande's campaign and Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. The first similarity is in the type of candidate they are competing against. Sarkozy ran an incredibly conservative campaign whose foundation rested on the pillars of social conservativism and anti-multiculturalism. Ring any bells? The second similarity was in their progressive campaign slogans. Hollande's, "Le changement, c'est maintenant" (The change is now) begged for comparisons to Obama's 2008, "Change we can believe in" campaign slogan. Finally, the third similarity is in their voter demographic. While both Sarkozy and John McCain pushed for tighter immigration restrictions and paraded anti-multiculturalist values and bill proposals, both Hollande and Obama recognize the importance of the minority/immigrant vote. It will be interesting to see if these seemingly symbolic paralells seen between the two presidents' campaigns will manifest itself into anything significant as time progresses.

On a final note, I found out yesterday from one of my students that after the election results were announced, King Mohammed VI of Morocco coridally invited Nicolas Sarkozy to come to Morocco for a vacation. After François Hollande was officially sworn in yesterday as the President of the French Republic, Sarkozy boarded the King's private jet and set off to spend some time sunning himself at a resort in Marrakech. I asked my student if this gesture holds any greater political implications, since it seemed to me that the King still stands by Sarkozy. My student just shook his head and said, "No, I don't think so. The King did the same thing for Jacques Chirac."

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Saturday at Dar l'Kebira Orphanage

Throughout the semester, a common request we receive at the study abroad organization is to help students pursue volunteering in the Moroccan community, more specifically with the interest in doing work that would allow them to interact with Moroccan children. Together, a group of motivated students and I planned a cultural exchange/volunteering day at Dar l'Kebira that we called, "American Day". Dar l'Kebira is an orphanage/street children's association located in Kenitra, a mere 20 minute train ride from Rabat. It currently has about 40 children that live there, ranging anywhere from 6 to 16 years old.

We started the day with a tour of the facilities:

The lobby area. Behind the glass window is the arts and crafts room. During our visit, were told by staff members that usually the walls are filled with the children's art, however a lot of the artwork that students created was shipped to London for fundraising to benefit an international children's organization. 

An example of one of the girls' dormitory rooms. There are 8 children to each room.

The garden and sports field that we spent most of our day on.

The door leading into the kitchen and dining rooms.

After our tour, it was time to meet the children! We started by making name tags for everyone, helping the children write their names in English and Arabic script (and sometimes helping us!)...

...Others were more hesitant.

After name tags, it was playtime outside! We did a few games as a big group, some in darija and some in English. I was surprised by how many games had a Moroccan equivalent - duck duck goose, red light green light, monkey in the middle, and amoeba tag to name a few.

The games were not only a great way for the children to practice their English, but it was a fantastic opportunity for the students (myself included) to practice our darija! When a game requires you to recognize when your number in Arabic is selected, you better make sure you're staying attentive!

Time for dessert! We prepared an easy yet beloved dessert: dirt cups (chocolate pudding, cookie crumbles, and a few gummy worms), and the staff at Dar l'Kebira provided a lovely spread of cookies, chips, and chocolate. After having our sweet snack, the Moroccan children sang a few nursery rhymes to us and we reciprocated.

Despite the fact that we began the day with completely dfferent cultural and linguistic backgrounds, we spent the day laughing, running around, and enjoying one another's company. I was amazed just how strong of a connection everyone was able to make despite the language barriers. At the end of the day, nobody wanted to leave.

Special thanks to Aoife, our official "photo historian" of our day at Dar l'Kebira for capturing these moments on film!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Another side of Moroccan Culture: Gnaoua and the Layla Rituals

Gnaoua (ga-na-wa) is a musical and cultural tradition that comes out of the West African slave trade. The sleepy beach town of Essaouira in southern Morocco is known for its Gnaouan culture, which came about because it once was a major (slave) trade port on the Western coast of Africa. Today, Essaouira hosts a huge Gnaoua music and culture festival every June to honor its heritage. Many Western musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens (now Youssef Islam) and Eric Clapton spent time in Essaouira and hung out with Gnaouan musicians.  The title of Eric Clapton's famous song "Layla" was inspired by observing one of these cermonies during his time spent in Essaouira. While Gnaouan's religious beliefs are rooted in Islam, it is a very spiritual interpretation - venerating spirits and martyrs during particular rituals. The Gnaoua tradition hold many paralells to Voodoo and Santeria, which makes sense, if you consider the Golden Triangle of trade and slavery between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Voodoo and Santeria are both practiced in the region of the Carribbean, but are considered to have come over from Africa by the slave trade.

The traditional costumes and instruments used in the Gnaoua tradition distinguish it from all other coexisting cultures in Morocco. The first thing you notice is how much the costumes are influenced aesthetically by sub-Saharan culture and tradition. Many of the musicians and performers have darker skin and long dreaded hair, their robes are made of brightly colored fabric (typically red, green, yellow, and/or white) and traditional hats are decorated with colored beads and cowrie shells.

The hat pictured below is an example of the style of hat that Gnaouis wear while performing. They bob their head around and manage to swing the tassle around their head as they play (I say 'manage' because it is harder than it looks - trust me!). Swinging the tassle around as their head sways from side to side gives the impression to the audience that they are being entranced by the music.

The Hajhouj
This instrument is an integral part of any Gnaoua music group. It is a three-stringed acoustic instrument with a deep haunting sound. The strings are made with animal intestines (usually goat or sheep), the base is made out of wood, and the front of the instrument is covered with animal hide (usually camel or goat). The hajhouj is played very similar to a guitar, except with its added ability of acting simultaneously as percussion. Instead of strumming or plucking across the strings as you would a guitar or bass, players of the hajhouj strum or pluck downwards so their fingertips tap the animal hide, creating a percussive sound.

An interesting fact about the hajhouj : if you turn it on its side it resembles a slave ship

Percussion - Karkabo

The Karkabo percussion used in Gnaoua music is played in a similar way to Spanish castanets, placing the two pieces between your thumb and pointer finger. The sound of the metal clacking together is meant to conjure up the sound of slave chains.

The Layla Rituals

The Layla rituals, literally meaning night rituals, take place during the month before Ramadan. Laylas are a spiritually cathartic ritual that begins when the sun sets and ends at sunrise. People who believe they are ill due to a spiritual imbalance come to the Layla to be healed. Every night, a woman hosts the ritual in her home and invites a maalem (master, teacher) of Gnaoua to come with his musicians and lead the ceremony. 

During the layla, participants go on a spiritual journey where each transition is marked by different colors, incense, music style, and spirits evoked. Every person feels that they have a personal connection to a particular color and/or spirit, and when that color/spirit is evoked, they respond in a particular way, which I will elaborate on below.

White:  The color to start off the Layla, open the doors into the spirit world, and invite the spirits in. The musicians sing about marabouts, or saints, who believed in human equality and who spread the word of Islam. Both of these qualities are fundamental to the Gnaoua tradition because of its roots in both the West African slave trade and the Islamic faith. 

Green: During the green color, the spirits have been invited but no activity has happened yet. One of the major spirits that the lyrics evoke during this color is Moulay Abdelkader Jilali, who is a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. 

Light Blue: Color of the water spirits. During this section, the music evokes Sidi Moussa, the master of the water. We sing to Sidi Moussa to acknowledge that he provides us with water, and to show our respect. During this color, those who believe to be possessed by this spirit do a dance that looks like they are swimming to the rhythm of the music. 

Here is a clip from a Gnaoua group playing the song for Sidi Moussa:

Dark Blue: Color of the sky spirits, particularly Bou Yandi, the master of the sky spirits.  Those who are possessed by sky spirits begin to jump up into the air as if they are flying to the rhythm of the music.

Red: This color is known for its violent behavior, and logically it represents blood. Sidi Hamou is the major spirit of blood. When the music begins for this color, those that feel they are possessed by this color do a full bow facing into the circle in front of the musicians and then proceed by taking out knives and begin slashing themselves and dancing to the rhythm of the music. Oddly enough, it is believed that even though they are cutting themselves and they are bleeding, there will be no sign of it ever happening once the layla is over and the sun comes up.

Green: The color green returns for a second time, but with a different significance. This section of the layla ceremony is used as a way for everyone to relax after the intensity of the red color and to honor certain people/spirits who have or continue to do good in the world. Two popular venerated saints for this color are Moulay Abdellah and Moulay Abdelrahim. 

Black: This color is the spirit of the forests, which contains so many spirits that they split the color into two sections. The first section is for "big" spirits and the second is for "small" spirits. The first "big" spirit that is mentioned is Lalla Mimouna, who is the guardian of the door. We must appeal to her first if we want the door opened to the forest spirit world. Dancers who feel they are connected with the spirit Sidi Mimoun hold lit candles and dance around while brushing their skin with the flames. After the "big" spirits, the music moves onto the "small" spirits, which are numerous. One aspect that separates this color from the others is the way the music is played. During Black, the musicians follow the lead of the dancers, speeding up the rhythm as the dancing accelerates. The music doesn't stop until the dancers cannot dance anymore and collapse on the ground. 

Lalla Aicha: While she is associated with the Black/Forest spirits, her importance lets her stand alone. Lalla Aicha was a beautiful woman who lived in Morocco during the 15th century when the Portugese expansion led to their occupation of the country. It is believed that Lalla Aicha only left the house at night, when she would seduce and then kill Portugese soldiers. 

Here is a clip of a Gnaoua group playing the song for Lalla Aicha:

Yellow: As the sun starts to make its first light on the horizon it is time to begin Yellow, which is the color for feminine spirits, such as Lalla Mira and Lalla Maliki. 

Finally, as dawn approaches, all the guests, participants, and musicians come together for a large prayer, where they ask God to continue to protect them and their country. When morning comes, everyone packs up, says their goodbyes, and goes home to catch up on sleep.

The information in this blog post about Layla ceremonies was taken from a presentation on Gnaoua culture done at my work. Fareed, an incredibly talented Gnaoua and jazz musician, came to talk to our students about his culture and perform a few songs. He is the singer and bassist of a gnaoua/rock/jazz fusion band called "Mayara". You really can hear the blend of cultural influences in their sound - African, Carribbean, Arab...

Here is a music video of one of their songs, "Haly Gnaoui":