Thursday, June 17, 2004

Meknes, Morocco/Fez al-Jedid, Fez, Morocco

One needs to spend only a little time in Morocco before realizing how close religion is to the hearts of the people. Much of the language is embedded with religious references - the standard greetings all involve God or Quranic phrases of one sort or another. Even cheap hotels often have a small room marked "mosque," as does the American Language Center where I study. Businesses are expected to be closed at 11:30 on Friday to allow employees time to get to the Friday prayers, and even those who don't go often have a radio on where they can hear the sermon.

Moroccans talk about religion all the time. Off the Place de Florence in Fez is an Italian place where we know the waiter, and he often cites mosque sermons when discussing stuff like why he doesn't want to bring up an old argument that seems settled. People often ask what religion you are, and some express interest in your precise sect of that religion, while telling you about the school of Islamic law which they follow. (Most Moroccans and Maliki Sunnis.)

There is, however, another important element to Moroccan Islam, one not found as much in the countries of the Middle East. These are the cults of the walis, the "friends of God" who are similar to Christian saints and believed to possess a divine grace because of their closeness to God. Such holy figures are buried all over the place, such as at the previously described Chellah in Rabat. Usually they are associated with Sufi orders who make annual pilgrimages to their tombs where they, too, hope to have personal mystic experiences of God.

One of the most important walis in Morocco was Sidi al-Hadi Ben Aissa, who lived a little over 300 years ago and was connected to the great Moulay Ismail, an early sultan of the presently reigning Alawite dynasty and ally of France's King Louis XIV who founded a new capital at Meknes in the late 17th century. The Sufi order he founded is actually noted for some rather extreme practices, such as swallowing glass and live snakes. After seeing some of the Moulay Ismail sights, a couple of us set off with a guy named Ben Aissa who was curious about the tomb of this famous person with the same name.

The day was brutally hot, and the relatively narrow lanes of the Meknes medina were a welcome change from the open spaces of the Roman ruins we had seen that morning. Although non-Muslims are forbidden to enter holy sites in Morocco, a practice which results from a long history of Christians in particular showing a lack of respect for them, people were more than willing to point us in the right direction, as we cut all the way through the medina to the Muslim cemetery on the far side. Along the way we saw all the usual sorts of medina shops, including some with glazed donuts which would have looked good in cooler weather. We stopped in one where someone bought a soccer jersey, and as they haggled the shopkeeper offered us all tea as is a common practice.

The mosque of Sidi Ben Aissa itself was set apart from all other buildings, and was white with green trim, green being the color of Islam. We got to the doorway, but unfortunately you could not see the actual tomb from outside. We had a nice conversation with the guardian, who after awhile decided to actually let us step inside up to a point where he thought the tomb could be seen, albeit with difficulty. There Ben tried to get the picture, but three late-middle-aged women came and had sharp words with the door guy, so we had to step out again, and the guardian just took the picture himself.

All of this, and the subsequent further conversation with the guardian and another man who had come to see what all the commotion was about, was conducted in perfect friendliness that puts to rest the notion that Muslims are invariably hostile to non-Muslims around holy sites. In fact, when we got into the discussion of nationality and one person tried to apologize for being an American, the guardian would have none of it, pointed to the sky, and said that before God all men were brothers regardless of where they came from. And when we were about to leave, Ben said his name, causing something of a stir; and the guardian grabbed his arm, took him over to a side window, unlocked it, and flung it open revealing the elaborate tomb of the wali covered with Arabic writing while bystanders started gossiping, "Hey! This American's name is 'Ben Aissa'!"

At one point I asked the guardian a question about walis in Morocco, and in reply he mentioned Moulay Idriss I, founder of Morocco's first dynasty in the late 8th century. In 750 the Abbasid dynasty came to power on a wave of popular discontent with the preceding Umayyads and the belief that a member of the Prophet Muhammad's family should rule as caliph. They were descended from the Prophet's uncle, Abbas, and had a certain interest in marginalizing more direct descendants. Thus Idris, the Prophet's great-grandson, decided it might be a good idea to go to Morocco, where he arrived at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, high on a hill-top overlooking fertile green valleys near Meknes.

Today Volubilis is in ruins, but its mosaics are remarkably well preserved as the city remained occupied until the 18th century. Today its population consists mainly of snails keeping cool on the underside of tree leaves, tourists marching around with or without guides, and storks who live in roots atop the pillars of the Temple of Jupiter which in taking off resemble airplanes as with wings spread they seem to be lifting off from the ground even though it is really the ground falling way under them. From here Idris, after winning the respect of the people and beginning to consolidate some political control of the area, began the building of Fez as a capital for his new kingdom.

However, Moulay Idris was to live here for only a couple of years before at last the assassins of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (of 1001 Nights fame) caught up with him, and he fell of poison, a martyr to his followers, who buried him in a magnificient tomb on a nearby hillside where today a town named Moulay Idriss is clearly visible from Volubilis. That town, considered the holiest city of Morocco, is its most important pilgrimage destination, and for centuries was closed to non-Muslims, but today people will welcome you, and even urge you to step up farther in the mausoleum until you come to a marker beyond which non-Muslims may not pass. There are also guides who can show you the viewing platforms which allow anyone to look down into the courtyard of the mausoleum at the bright green roof of the burial chamber.

Amidst all this, it is of course easy to forget that there is another important religious tradition present in Morocco, one which has been present for centuries but which came in the greatest numbers in the 1400's when the Christians drove them out of Spain during the Reconquista. These are the Jews, and though today their numbers have dwindled their culture and holy sites remain throughout the country. Fez is the home of the original "Jewish Quarter" in Morocco, built as part of Fez al-Jedid originally to house the Jewish refugees from Spain, a legacy seen clearly in the open housing style with large windows and wooden balconies looking out over the streets. Today this quarter remains, in the shadow of the vast royal palace, called by the locals the "Street of the Jews" though only seven Jewish families remain here today, with the other 5000 individuals scattered throughout the city.

Fez al-Jedid is only a 15-minute walk from our part of the Ville Nouvelle, and is a good place to go if you want to feel like you're in Morocco and not France. The high buildings and narrow streets make walking around there a cooler experience, and the shops include a large number of electronics, music, and (frequently imitation) name brand goods. There is also an extremey large number of dentists, all with signs featuring smiling teeth. One place to visit is the newly restored Ibn Danan Synagogue, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can see the Torah scrolls covered in red cloth and an admittedly moldy if deep mikveh in the basement. More interesting, however, is the Jewish cemetery, through a black gate in the walls of Fez al-Jedid and home to a blinding sea of 18,000 white graves dating from at least the 1600's to January 2004. Among them is one black one covered with Hebrew script - because of the large number of candles placed in a small compartment venilated by a smoke stack we guessed it was probably the grave of a miracle worker, while further up the hill was an elegant white tomb with green trim belonging to a young girl martyred for refusing to marry the governor of Tangier.

Somewhere around here there was supposed to be a museum about Moroccan Jews who had left for Israel, but we were having problems with hustlers and didn't want to fight it then; still, as that sounds like a highlight, I hope to return. Until then, it is perhaps presumptuous to try to put together a comprehensive picture of the religious picture in Morocco. However, while there is certainly a presence of Islamic fundamentalists I'm just not running into, Morocco is arguably one of the least fundamentalist places around. The call to prayer is in the Wahhabi style - a flat monotone to avoid sounding too much like music - but aside from that legacy of the puritan Almohads from centuries ago Morocco today shows little inclination to part from its distinct heritage of personal religion and folk traditions. In fact, I've met some Moroccans who refuse to identify themselves as Sunni or Shi'ite and say only that they are followers of Sufism.

Perhaps the best statement I've heard of liberal Moroccan attitudes came from a guy in a restaurant who gave his favorite verse from the Qur'an, which translated means "What is licit and illicit is clear." This he applied not only to Islam, but to all religions, saying that right and wrong were not complex questions and everyone agreed on the basics. This, of course, is something the student of comparative religion will quickly notice, and its application in the lives of people is a comfort to live around.


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