Mullahs and music in Morocco

Published: July 5, 2010

The writer is a professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, US (fawzia.khan@tribune.com.pk)

On my recent trip to Morocco, I did more than just sing. I was swept along on a tidal wave of song and music that has been swelling to gargantuan proportions, thanks to the royal decrees of King Hasan V. This  perspicacious young ruler — and I am no fan of monarchies or monarchs — has been fanning the flames of musical madness as an antidote to extremist Islam in
his country.

This was my first visit to the Maghrebian kingdom. I was bowled over by the country that has seduced many before me, including the writer John Bowles. His Orientalist novel, The Sheltering Sky, popularised further by Bertolucci’s filmic version, certainly has done its bit to pique the desires of many westerners for the exotic “Moslem” Arab world. But of course, this is now part of a fast-receding past, however imaginary, to be replaced by the very real present of a world increasingly under the sway of religious revivalism, including a virulently fanatical, pleasure-hating puritanical strain we are witnessing particularly (though not exclusively) in the Muslim world.

Music, with its magical propensities to touch the human soul and soften even the hardest of hearts and open the most closed-off of minds — represents a particular threat to the forces of obscurantism, whose aim is precisely the opposite: the shutting down of thought. Bodies and minds swaying to the rhythms of the universe, in sync with the spirituality which resides in all of us and which wants to celebrate the life-source, the beating heart — these bodies, these hearts, these souls, participating in the exchange of musical breath — these are anathema to the killjoys who want to snuff out life itself.

King Hasan of Morocco seems to have realised that we are indeed in the midst of an epic battle between the forces of light and darkness, pleasure and pain, music and fanaticism, music and militarism. Thus, a few years ago, he decided to create public venues for the promotion of music all over the country, and the result today is a cornucopia of festivals dedicated to many local and international genres of music. The most well-known of these is perhaps the Festival of Sacred Music which this year marked its 16th anniversary. It  takes place in the month of June in the ancient city of Fez, which also boasts the oldest, continuously-functioning university in the world, the Keraouine, which I had the pleasure to visit, although, sadly, I missed the festival. I did, however, make it in time for the Mewazine Festival which is on its way to becoming a huge world music festival, held in the imperial city of Rabat.

My friend and I careened around one night, taking cabs, two women alone, no problem, from place to place all over the city, attending free concerts in “plein air” as they say in French.  Huge open-air stages with high-quality sound systems, offering free music in various neighbourhoods from the lower-class to the well-heeled, attracted audiences in the thousands representing all classes and age groups. I saw old women with heads covered, young girls in jeans and t-shirts, and men and boys of all ages, including young ones kicking soccer balls around while music blared and performers gyrated on stage and on giant screens. We heard a new group called Outlandish from Germany and then raced off to catch the latter half of Sir Elton John’s concert.

Despite angry protests against inviting a homosexual singer to perform, voiced by members of the religious right, the king and the festival organisers stood firm in their resolve. It’s the music that matters. That was their message — one, all Muslim governments and people need to heed.  Singing my own mixture of Sufi-pop in the 14th century Kasbah Palace of Tangiers, I felt spiritually cleansed by the moon bath of my Moroccan musical journey. A journey which is already opening my heart and mind in unexpected ways.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2010.

Reader Comments (13)

  • cmsarwar
    Jul 6, 2010 - 2:24AM

    Fawzia says she is no fan of monarchies and monarchs.But when you visit a foreign country,particularly a Muslim monarchy,there would be no harm to inform the readers,only very briefly ,whether the good monarch is feeding his subjects on music alone.Cultural pursuits become relevant after the rulers have provided basic needs for the common man.Music cannot be an effective antidote to extremist Islam .Ignorance, hunger and absence of an equitable and fair political structure breed discontent and resultant violence.I am sorry for this discordant note on Fawzia’s musically vibrant piece.Recommend

  • Umayr Masud
    Jul 6, 2010 - 9:07AM

    Everything seems fine to tourists :)
    That being said have you by chance met any mullah in morocco ? I bet not. The mullah’s there are quite different than the mullah’s around our part of the country. Unaffected by the Jamat-e-islami brand. The actually talk about things and discuss them, if your argument leaves rationality they smile and leave. Recommend

  • Adnan
    Jul 6, 2010 - 2:21PM

    Fawzia Sahiba, King Hassan II died in 1999. His son, Mohamed VI, is currently ruling Morocco. Recommend

  • Mohammed Boudarham
    Jul 6, 2010 - 2:23PM

    Sorry Madame. You talk about Hasan V but he was named Hassan II (the second), the father of Mohammed VI. as for Mawazine, its the work of Mohammed VI and not the one of Hassan II dead on july 1999.Recommend

  • YASIR RAZA KHAN
    Jul 6, 2010 - 2:45PM

    Cultural pursuits become relevant after the rulers have provided basic needs for the common man.Music cannot be an effective antidote to extremist Islam .Ignorance, hunger and absence of an equitable and fair political structure breed discontent and resultant violence.I am sorry for this discordant note on Fawzia’s musically vibrant piece.

    That being said have you by chance met any mullah in morocco ? I bet not. The mullah’s there are quite different than the mullah’s around our part of the country. Unaffected by the Jamat-e-islami brand. The actually talk about things and discuss them, if your argument leaves rationality they smile and leave.Recommend

  • Jul 6, 2010 - 6:17PM

    We Muslims have found ways of living double lives. There is a first layer and beneath that, a second and who knows what else. The author is lucky to have found solace at her contact with a “layer” of a Muslim country. I suppose more can be seen if there is interest. Of course, that option has to be exercised consciously. Since it is so convenient not to bother, the Americans understand very little about what drives non-western societies. No wonder, they find themselves unprepared when an Islamic revolution hits Iran, or medieval types take over Afghanistan or Hamas becomes the Palestinian people’s voice. Recommend

  • Jul 6, 2010 - 7:57PM

    Thanks for your concern cmsarwar, it seems our brand of monarchy in Morocco is doing quite fine, not the utopia one would dream of, nor the realistic one one aspires to yet, but we are on the right track, I believe.
    Mrs Afzal-Khan sees in Morocco’s festivals some anti-islamist policy. It’s certainly marketed as such, at least in part, by the authorities. However, I see it simply as people having fun, as they always did, and will continue to do. I might not buy into “the magic” of music, but it’s certainly as next to basic a need as it goes.

    Ps: talking about the current king, giving him his father’s (and son’s) name, and his grand father “number” is quite confusing… and amusing. Recommend

  • cmsarwar
    Jul 7, 2010 - 7:15PM

    @xoussef.While commenting on Fawzia’s piece,(feeding the hungry on music) I was thinking of countless immigrants from Morocco I noticed during my visits to France,struggling for survival.When people flee to foreign lands to make a living music is not what that monarchy should provide.
    I am glad to hear Morocco does not have the mullahs of Mullah Umar type,the debased version of Islam.I am reminded of the great caliph Umar and his famous observation:I will be accountable if a single dog goes hungry under my watch.Unlike Mullah Umar(unluckily named after the great caliph)whose main focus is on subjugation and degradation of women.I wish our current muslim monarchs,kings and rulers could rule wisely and provide justice.
    With due respect to Fawzia she appears to be out of touch with the situation prevailing in the Muslim world.For her, sexual orientation is an issue.That is basically an American debate.Here we shed tears on the issue of abortion/pro-life.She does not understand that mere survival is the problem for most of the people for whom she has prescribed the medication of music.She is perhaps not aware of pangs of hunger,misery of being homeless,bondage and slave labour and sheer helplessness of existence.But I am so glad she returned from Morocco,singing her Sufi-pop,all cleansed ,and with best wishes for a happy,singing/dancing monarchy of the good monarch.Recommend

  • Jul 11, 2010 - 6:31PM

    Moroccan immigration is another debate I would love to indulge into, but I feel it would be disrespectful to the author of the article, somehow. I will say only this, my feeling is that even a booming economy would do little to curb Moroccans desire for migration, or entice a massive return. It’s more complex that that..
    There is this idea of exclusiveness a lot of people have, saying we need this, we need that, not music, not festivals, not cinema, not culture. True, roads, hospitals, schools, water and sanitation, there is a lack everywhere, but is it necessary to shun every non-survival aspect of our lives till everything gets done?
    I believe people need entertainment too. It might not do a lot in the way of enlightening obscurantism, but it certainly helps people get by day after day.
    I profess sheer ignorance regarding Mullahs and such, so I won’t comment nor compare. I’ll take your word for it and hope no such people gain prominence here. Recommend

  • PCV in Morocco
    Jul 12, 2010 - 4:30PM

    Glad to see others have corrected the name of the king of Morocco. In addition, the author referenced here is *Paul* Bowles, not John Bowles. Such basic factual errors as these give me little confidence in your credibility.Recommend

  • Jul 20, 2010 - 9:46PM

    Best,
    FawziaRecommend

  • fawzia afzal-khan
    Jul 20, 2010 - 9:55PM

    Thanks for correcting my errors;you are all quite correct,I should have double-checked to make sure I was not misrepresenting the names of the current monarch of Morocco–and certainly can only excuse this and error of saying “John” when I meant “Paul” Bowles to a rush to finish and send off the piece before returning to other work. My apologies and shall be more careful next time. That said–I disagree totally with the common thesis held by may people that culture is something that is next in priority to “food and shelter” and other “basic” necessities. This is very old-fashioned, and in my opinion, mistaken type of analysis common to those who think in Marxian terms of cultural needs as being supererogatory and part of a superstructure that is determined by and comes after the “base” of society has somehow been “set.” This is not how life and living function..all facets and needs are deeply intertwined, and affect each other.Recommend

  • cmsarwar
    Jul 22, 2010 - 8:35AM

    @Fawzia.I appologise for my old -fashioned views on life and living expressed in response to your piece on Morocco.I was definitely not relying on Marx.I shall appreciate if you could kindly guide me to some reading materials on the latest findings that a nation can sing and dance away its hunger and misery.
    In fact,I understand now that your article about Morocco was not about Morocco;it was about you. Recommend

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