Fez at the time of the Sacred Music Festival
Independent, June 2004
Three voices from three of the daughters of Abraham awaited us. These three women, one Jewish, one Christian, one Muslim stood illuminated on a stage that had been formed by closing one of the gateways into the 13th century palace quarter of the ancient city of Fez. Before them stretched the great rectangular square of the Old Mechouar defined by towering battlements and another external gateway. Into this vast parade ground wild squadrons of cavalry from Middle Atlas nomad tribes would have come to swear their allegiance to the Commander of the Believers. Tonight it was filled with neat ranks of chairs for an audience of thousands who sat in expectant silence beneath the soft glow of the moon. Heat still eminated from off the ochre walls on this June night though cooler air – drawn down through the olive groves of the Rif mountains - had begun to ripple through the crowd. The mingled scents worn by the beau monde of Morocco contrasted with the faint whiff of well-trodden boots from my dishevelled English companions. We had been climbing a mountain in the midday sun, looking for the lost Kasbah of the Christians for some eight hours – and I fear our clothes rather showed it.
Suddenly the lights went up and the sabre-bearing royal guards snapped to attention as Lalla Salma, the young Queen of Morocco entered the old square; her arrival coinciding with wafts of Orange Blossom, cavalcades of black limousines and the bobbing peaked caps of a court of Pashas and Caids. Lalla Salma looked gorgeous, her royal aura all the more intense for the fact that her father was no idle prince, but a hard working school teacher while her grandfather had also laboured all his life - as a blacksmith in Fez’s labyrinthine old city.
The first of the three women sung in Ladino, the poetic language of medieval Spain that the proud Sephardic Jewish families took to every quarter of the Mediterranean as an integral memory of their cruel banishment from Andalucia. Then the sylph-like form beside her, dressed like a dryad in slips of green silk, cut the night air with a poem from Christian France in praise of the Virgin. Then the third glittering form, seemingly imprisoned in a kaftan built from clothe of gold, came vividly to life. A defiant and hauntingly long guttural wail of emotional rapture – an Arabic hymn to God’s love - held the crowd as spell bound as her sisters had.
Later they would sing in unison backed by a local choir. Only then was I released from their spell and could once again look out over my surroundings. The medieval gateway had been back-lit to pick out every carved arabesque tile so that the trilogy of Beni Merin colours (borrowed most famously at the Alhambra) of black, green and white glowed with purity. On either side the two small flanking keyhole arches had also been spot-lit though not so the utilitarian dark towers, which rose in two ascending pairs up towards the night sky in half gloom their summits crowned by tooth-like machiolations. It had not always been so peaceful, for the gateway had also served as a state prison. Ferdinand, a prince of Portugal (and one of the crusade-mad brothers of Prince Henry the Navigator) had been imprisoned here for six years. Ferdinand had surrendered himself as a royal hostage so that his army, caught in a trap whilst trying to besiege Tangier, might be allowed to retreat in safety. His brothers could never quite agree on his ransom price, so Ferdinand withered away in captivity. His body, stuffed with straw, was then suspended as a prize exhibit for a further 29 years until Portugal finally settled the ransom.
After this inaugural concert we walked back along the outside of the city walls. Uphill, to the north, stretched one of the old city’s most venerable cemeteries, here dominated by the monastery-shrine of an 11th century mystic. Sidi Boubker Bel Arabi is one of the seven patrons who protect Fez with their sanctity. He is also one of the many North African saints to have originated in the intellectual hothouse of Muslim Spain. He is also, in the time honoured Moroccan tradition, paired off with a great warrior Sultan, so that the all-conquering Berber cavalry commander, Youssef ben Tachfine (whose Empire of Faith exploded out of wastes of the western Sahara) might come to realise that the penniless sage, the poor preacher from Seville, was closer to the spirit of true Islam than the most magnificently successful warlord.
We re-entered the old city beside the Bab Mahrouk – the grim looking 13th century gate of justice. The local crowds just within the walls, in the Place Baghdadi (who assembled every afternoon at five o’clock for a free version of what we paid to see the following night) had by now dispersed and the police were remodelling the crowd barriers. Despite the presence of governors and the regal Lalla Salma on the opening night, the Sacred Music Festival is neither a government sponsored publicity event or something dreamed up by the minister of Tourism. It remains the creation of a handful of passionate amateurs and though it has grown in size in the ten years that it has been running, it has also kept to its initial altruism, so that after the main evening event, usually ending some time after 10pm, there is also a much smaller (and free) concert held in one of the walled palace gardens of the old city. Here amongst cushions, a mint-tea tent and an old fountain oozing before a garden pavilion, local Sufi brotherhoods play into the night before a small gathering of Fez aficionados, street urchins, intellectuals and curious travellers. This was prime time for me, an exceptional opportunity for a non-Muslim outsider to listen into the rich repertoire of mystical chants that has enlivened Moroccan Islam for centuries. There were the Orthodox brotherhoods such as the Kettania and Jilalia as well as the once-frowned upon Hamdouchia and Aissaouia whose ecstatic traditions originated in the stone built villages of the Jebel Zerhoun – that magical mountain range that brings the spirit of the Berber Rif almost to the walls of Fez. I was not alone in this feeling of privilege. The greatest star of the whole ten day festival, the Senegalese master-musician Youssou N’Dour, was also on a personal pilgrimage to Sufi Morocco. For Youssou’s own brotherhood, the Tijanniya, has its mosque-shrine headquarters tucked away in the heart of the old city of Fez. The night that he sung in the Old Mechouar stage, the crowd (even at 400 dirhams a ticket) was capacity-plus. Foreign visitors were outnumbered ten to one by Moroccans who came to hear his dynamic, euphoric championing of Islam – the religion of peace and tolerance. Even Osama’s followers might have been converted that night from the path of violence by the shear charismatic exuberance of the man, dressed in a shimmering toga of white, his arms outstretched with his passionate enthusiasm for the Islam of love. Blink at the stage and you could have been looking at an icon of the Transfiguration.
The mornings I spent by a pool or taking half a dozen friends on long shrine-spotting and shopping tours through the maze-like alleys of the old city. Those with the stamina could join in the colloquium of sages held every morning or tour the art exhibitions and special openings of historic buildings in half a dozen sites around the city. There was also the mid-afternoon concert held within the 19th-century garden place of Dar Batha to fit into your festival diary. Visually this was by far the most satisfying, for the raised walkways and sunken beds of the Dar Batha gardens are dominated by a giant holm oak whose canopy of branches formed the theatre beneath which the musicians played, whilst before them a deep scattering of Moroccan rugs added extra colour. Here I was bewildered by a team of dancing Tibetan monks though it was the musicians from Iraq who possess my memory. No boy band of comely 17 year olds will ever equal the beauty of those ancient, well-lined faces and the deep well of history, pathos and love from which they drew such enchantment.
An alternative morning occupation was visiting each other for a late breakfast, for our small party of friends was scattered across a price range of hotels. From rooftop vivacity in a cheap pension beside the centre of things (the Boujeloud arch) to utter-Orientalism in an exquisite ancient ryad tucked away down some obscure dark alleyway but with a view over minarets and mountains to die for. Somewhere in between were the merely comfortable modern hotels with their pools and bars, in one of which I stayed. However everywhere was beautiful at least once a day, when the swallows and the call to prayer possessed the skies.
Part of the charm of the festival was that it drew together such a discordant crowd of individuals. There was a French military gay couple who lived in such perfect accord that they even swam in unison, the editor of Temenos, a pair of princesses, an old gallery dealer from Cork Street (at last replacing objects with abstracts), a homeopath from the West Coast of Ireland, a nurse-drummer from Hackney, a pair of Virginian students escaping Bush, a paper restorer, an Anglican biographer of Tyndale and a novelist from Stockwell. We gradually came together over the week and in the end got in the habit of sharing a great bowl of Harira soup after the evening concert.
When it was time to leave, there was no frantic exchanging of addresses just the easy decision “to see you next year in Fez.”
Barnaby Rogerson travelled as a guest of Tim Best Travel, 020-7591-0300, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LQ who put together an annual Festival package.
Otherwise book a regular Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca with an internal flight connection to Fez-Saiss airport. Those with more time on their hands, could spend a night in Casablanca and make their way by train.
There are a large number of luxury hotels in the 20th century quarter of Fez – but they are all inappropriately far from the festival action. Instead choose from the luxurious – but large – Palais Jamai Hotel, tel 00 212 55 634331 which is just within the walls or Les Merenides, tel 00 212 55 646218 which stands on a hilltop beside Bordj Nord and the Merenid Tombs.
The Batha hotel is an unexciting modern hotel though it has a near perfect position and its bar and restaurant occupy the old British consulate, tel 00 212 55 741077. Amongst the many fabulous old Riyads converted into house-hotels the Dar El Ghalia, tel 00 212 55 636393, the Riad Fes, tel 00 212 55 741012 and the Riad Mabrouka, tel 00 212 55 636345 are the most in demand.
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by Barnaby Rogerson