by Hussein Rashid, guest contributor
Rumi ensemble from Iran performs at the Bab Makina Palace courtyard. (photo: Hussein Rashid)
Some people had Elvis. Others had The Beatles. My dream concert is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. With a rotating list of performers, it does not matter who was there, but the idea of the festival is what counts.
Over ten years ago, I bought a CD called B’ismillah (“In the Name of God”), a two-CD set from a Fes concert. In that moment, I knew the power of music. The organizers started the festival 16 years ago to bridge the rift amongst civilizations after the first Gulf War and they sought to use music as a common language. The concerts continue to bring in a variety of musical traditions from around the world to show what all people have in common.
My review at Religion Dispatches explains the mechanics of this year’s festival. However, one highlight that I was totally unprepared for was Sufi Nights. After the formal concerts during the afternoon and evening, there was an area set up for local Sufi groups to perform.
Sufism is a broad label for a wide variety of mystical traditions in the Muslim faith. Sufi groups tend to reflect their local cultures, bridging the Arabicized scholarly religious tradition with the local, living Islam of the different communities Muslims belong to. Some of these Sufi groups rely heavily on music.
In the United States, we have been exposed to Sufis and Sufi music for a long time. Jalaluddin Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in the U.S. and is founder of the Sufi group known as the “whirling dervishes.” Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced the Master Musicians of Jajouka to new audiences. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a musician from Pakistan known for qawwali singing, a type of devotional music in South Asia that was incorporated into films like Dead Man Walking.
Because Sufi groups are deeply embedded in the cultures in which they emerge, the free Sufi Nights concerts attracted large numbers of Fasians, in addition to the international crowd who had come for the festival. Each night the performers would be welcomed, personally, by the local community. They were part of the life of the city. They were neighbors and co-workers, cousins and clients.
There was an immediate intimacy between the audience and the performers because of their local character. It was incredibly easy to be swept into that feeling. The small theater area helped to highlight that feeling of intimacy. One night, my camera battery had run down, and I didn’t have any extras. I allowed myself to enter that world. Coming from a South Asian cultural context, I have to say that the ritual did not taste right on my tongue, but that didn’t mean that I did not relish every moment of it.
The invocations and formulas the Sufi groups used were known to all the locals. They participated with the people on stage, not just “singing lyrics” but entering the ritual themselves.
Young children entered the ecstatic states of coming nearer to God, moving their bodies and calling out the names of God. The adults took a little longer, but they too participated in the rituals, entering those moments of nearness to the Divine. Tears ran down people’s faces as they approached the ineffable, and smiles lit the ground as though reflecting the divine light they were seeing. It was being in a timeless, placeless space that continued for an eternity and ended in an instant.
Except, you realize that the performance ended, but the moment did not. The songs are popular ones. Young men continued singing after concerts were over.
You would go into the old city, where the stores were, and hear these songs played in shops alongside the latest Shakira tune. The difference between the sacred and the profane is much more porous in these contexts. Here, popular does not mean a-religious, and religious does not mean private. No one was forced to believe or practice anything; stores would remain open during prayer time, sisters would walk down the street, one in hijab and the other not. As a result, people lived and expressed their faith at every moment.
The great secret of the Fes Festival are the Sufi Nights. It is the bridge that the organizers so desperately want to build. You cannot be unaffected by the experience. If you have an open mind, it helps you to see the world a little differently. It’s the one part they do not put on CD; nor should they. I am too young for Elvis, too young for The Beatles. I did get my Fes Festival and I am looking forwarded to going again.
Hussein Rashid is a native New Yorker and proud Muslim. Currently an instructor at the Center for Spiritual Inquiry at Park Avenue Christian Church and based at Hofstra University, he is deeply committed to interfaith work and is passionate about teaching. He believes we need to start talking more intelligently about Islam specifically, and religion generally.
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