It is difficult to describe my feelings at the moment. How can it be that one moment I am sitting at a café in the Petit Socco of the Old Medina and a few hours later I see Victorian houses running alongside the railway lines on my way back home?
Where is home?
My spirit moves slower than my body.
My eyes are still filled with the brightness of the sunlight, which reflects on the white walls of the old buildings facing the Strait of Gibraltar.
I woke up at 4am this morning. As usual the adhan was followed by the ‘alarm cock’ (as I had nicknamed my local black rooster) calling the dawn on my last day in Tangier. I got up, tumbled over my suitcases, switched on my sound recorder and went back to bed. Somehow I got used to this chant, its powerful, subliminal message which sinks down in my conscience at the spiritual peak time of the day.
I don’t want to get up.
I’m not ready to leave my room, sit down at the Café Centrale for my petit déjeuner, pay the hotel room and get a taxi to the airport! I’m not ready to say goodbye to this place. I just started feeling part of its everyday life, ready to take creative action while people protest for their rights in the streets. A demonstration has been called today and I will be on the plane…
Outside it’s still dark. My body sinks in the uncomfortable springy mattress. My inner eyes fly over the hills overlooking the city’s intricate streets.
The last week in Tangier has been intense. I met with Mohcine and Rachid, two photographers whose work reflects the many personalities of this complex city.
I had a brief meeting with Simo, a video artist, at the Cinémathèque de Tanger. I met with the representatives of cultural institutions to talk about the final installation and possible creative activities in schools in Tangier and London. Finally, I met with the Maâlem Abdellah Boulkhair El Gourd, a well known Gnawa master who lives just a street away from me in the Old Medina.
With Abdellah I spent most of my afternoons this week, talking about the city’s history, the war in the Maghreb region, the Gnawa music tradition, its rites and visual representations.
Before leaving London I had researched and discussed the significance of the Gnawa music with Simo, a film maker based in Essaouira, whom François had put in touch with me via email. From him I learned about the connections between Gnawa and the spiritual practice of Sufism and how the Gnawas are a brotherhood practicing a rite of possession, which is accompanied by music and dance. This syncretic cult bears similarities to Brazilian condomblé (which I explored during my work in Salvador de Bahia), Southern Italian tarantism (which I know through the religious festivals I saw in Italy) and African Voodoo.
According to Simo Gnawa is a mix of Muslim religion and African animism. Although the subject is still studied by anthropologists, it is accepted that the members of the cult, the Gnawas, perform a complex liturgy, called lila or derdeba. The ceremony recreates the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe through the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity. The lila is animated by a maâlem (master musician) and his group who perform a special form of music which brings the followers to ecstatic dancing and possession. During the whole night ritual the musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance, while playing the krakebs. There are still many lilas organised as private functions by the masters, which retain the sacred, spiritual status of the music testifying of the continuous presence of this syncretic cult in Moroccan cultural life.
In his last email Simo had warned me that i have to “take care with what it’s written on the Internet and even in books, as there are many stereotypes and a narrative untrue in connection with gnawas being descendants of slaves”. According to Simo “their ancestors, which were spread everywhere in Morocco, came in their majority from the armies Haoussa /Bambaras primarily to reinforce the royal guard at the time of Moulay Ismail, the famous Black Guard, which was the vastest army in Africa durung the 17th century. They had promised fidelity and allegiance to the dynasty of Alaouites on Coran from which came their nickname Abid El Boukhari, the slaves of Boukhari. They ensured the peaceful transition from the royal dynasty and their presence was at the service of the Palace. When their army was relieved in his great part, the Gnaoua families which chose to remain in Morocco practiced artisan trades (they were blacksmiths, but also carpenters, tailors, etc.) or became musicians and healers. As skilful musicians they preserved their musical tradition”.
For this reason Simo suggested that it was important to visit Mâalem Abdellah Boulkhair El Gourd founder of Dar Gnawa, a kind of establishment for the instruction, practices and the promotion of the Gnawa culture.
Following Simo’s last email I was waiting anxiously to meet Abdellah in person. So it did not take me by surprise that Abdellah came into my picture of Nadia, the young woman who I photographed a few days ago, while he was walking down the narrow alleyway to his house. This was a couple of days after my arrival and well before our first introductory meeting.
Abdellah entered my camera frame to become part of the project even before I knew it.
Is this Gnawa?
Is this the essence of the microscopic movement which is kept intact within the walls of the Petit Socco and I have learned to love so much?
Am I really back home?
What is home?
Click on sound: Extract of Gnawa music by Maalem Abdellah El Gourd