Sunday June 1 -- on the bus to Marrakesh:

Friday night after the Hilliard Ensemble performance [at the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez], we got on the bus and went directly to the party. Hamid led this expedition himself. It was fun traveling through the medina late at night. It was after 11, the streets were deserted, and dark and looked even more like another century. 
As we arrived at the private home where the party was held, two Gnawa women in brightly colored djellabas (birthday candle pink and electric aqua) greeted arrivals with a loud fantastic call -- “Heee-eyyy” followed by several words strung out in a long line, sounding like Bulgarian folksong. But clearly a welcome. They stood at the door doing this over and over as guests arrived.

We walked down a short hallway and into a small tiled courtyard with a fountain in the middle. All around the courtyard were outdoor patios. They ushered us to one side of the courtyard. When we walked in, four musicians were playing, a kind of genteel Moroccan string band, grizzled older men -- sweet music that sounded slightly Spanish to me. Members of the household brought out chairs, and we all settled on chairs and sofas. Sanaa [one of the guides] entertained us with some belly dancing, at which she’s sensational and very sexy while remaining completely covered up -- lots of flashing eyes and hair-primping. That didn’t go on very long, though. Those musicians went away, and the henna party started. Hamid had arranged to have four or six Moroccan women available to do henna tattooes on anyone who wanted them, for free. (Virtually all the women got either their hands or feet tattooed and some men got little token henna jobs. Harvey loudly joked, “You mean I shaved my ass for nothing?” He did get a small design on the inside of his right forearm. Later we were told it’s not uncommon for men to get hennaed, but usually for weddings and usually only on their palms, for good luck, whereas the women have the backs of their hands and tops of their feet hennaed, for ornamentation.)

Harvey and I were at the tail end of being seated and kept being asked to shift around. When the musicians left, we went and sat on the chaise they’d vacated. But soon another group of musicians arrived, and we had to squeeze over and make room for them. I ended up sitting at the end right next to them -- 5 guys in ceremonial garb: djellabas and wool hats covered with colored beads and cowrie shells, with a long tassel that, with the right rotation of your head, could spin straight out nonstop. Two or three had those hats. Others had cloth hats with a fringe of yarn that looked like a weird clownish wig-hat. These were the Gnawa musicians, and they began to play, and suddenly the house was full of powerful music. Four of them played krkabak, a set of metal castanets that make a loud clanging sound -- castanets crossed with cymbals, a pair in each hand -- and a younger man in the middle played guimbri, a crude-looking guitar with a rectangular box, long neck, and three strings that looked really like ordinary string, the kind you might wrap around packages. At the top of the neck was a panel made of tin covered with little rings, almost like hoop earrings, which created a constant rattle. The men playing krkabak were quite old, maybe late 50s to 70s, wrinkled and wizened and grizzly, either lightly bearded or heavily stubbled. Several of them also wore heavy cloth sashes with cowrie shells sewn to them. One wore a red djellaba -- he was the leader and sang the songs, with the others chanting along in call-and-response fashion. Wonderful rough wild singing, very repetitive.

I stared at the guy nearest to me, dark skin, reddish brown like someone who’s worked in the fields forever -- stubbly, very creased face and hands, lively eyes, slightly watery. Smelled of cigarette smoke. He smoked whenever he got a chance. He reminded me of the kind of guy who on the street you might mistake for a bum, an all-purpose extra guy to pull in for ceremonial duties (to make a minyan), or to do the grunt work, the schlepping. Under his beautiful costume, he wore grubby clothes, a cheap suit jacket with dirty cuffs, a cotton shirt of some dull color, trousers, socks, well-worn babouches (not the yellow kind most Fessi men wear). All the men seemed to be missing a few teeth -- all that sweet mint tea, no doubt.

At the other end of the sofa from me sat an old woman with a white cloth wrapped around her head. She had deep-sunken eyes that looked unseeing. She clapped along with the music. It surprised me that she was with the group -- otherwise in the house the women were doing the henna and the men playing music. I decided to just hunker down next to the musicians see what I could see.

One of the old men in black djellaba was dancing around playfully with the American women who had leapt up and started boogeying when the Gnawa musicians began. I noticed, though, that when the old woman got up to dance, she was doing something else altogether. She slipped off her babouches, touched the floor in front of the center musician (the guimbri player) and started a simple interior dance, oblivious to everyone else. It soon became clear to me that she was the resident witch, the ritual priestess. Besides dancing, every once in a while she would define a space for herself by drawing an invisible line on the floor and enforcing it as her space. The first “number” she did -- after half an hour or so of dancing -- was a knifing ritual. As soon as she pulled out two knives, the crowd got the picture and backed away. She danced around waving the knives, and then she started slashing her forearms with the knives. This is a pretty standard shamanic ritual, I think, a way of demonstrating to bystanders that they are in a trance state and feeling no pain. (Harry Kondoleon described seeing similar things in Bali.) Clearly it wasn’t a deeply solemn sacred ceremony but more of a show-off gesture. Khadifa, one of the Sarah Tours staff, encouraged Tim (the Canadian TV guy) to get her self-slashing on video. Her arm definitely had a series of red welts, not cuts really, no dripping blood. After this display she went up to Hamid and held out her skirt -- he tossed in a ten-dirham note, which let the group know this was the collection plate. “Oh, I get it -- Gnawa rent party,” I thought. I noticed, however, that the old woman (I later learned she’s called the qadima) made it a point not to touch the money but dumped it out onto the chaise next to the musicians.

A little while later she performed another stunt -- again drawing her space on the floor (I never heard her speak a word all night), she prepared a small bowl of water (sprinkled something into it, salt I assumed). Then she wrapped her head carefully in a blue turban with a definite ridge, then balanced the bowl on top of her head and danced around, got down on the floor then got back up against without spilling it (though occasional splashes would drop down her face).

(I’m writing this on the road from Fez to Marrakesh. We just passed a tiny town -- sheepskin rug drying on top of a car, men huddled under tiny lean-tos in open lots, and a hilarious juxtaposition: “Unique Veterinarian” next door to a shop selling “Poulet.” Today’s pet, tomorrow’s tagine.)

After her bowl-balancing act, the qadima refilled the bowl from a larger basin sitting in front of the musicians on the floor. Then she offered drinks to the musicians and a few other people in the house (including an older, darker, toothless woman sitting on the floor who took a liking to me -- she first registered my close attention, and we exchanged warm smiles and nods). When she offered it to me, I drank and raised it to the sky (the gesture of praise to Allah) and handed it back. She pointed to the bowl, which had a few coins in the bottom. I didn’t understand what she was pointing at. She moved on. Then I saw that other people were dropping coins in the water, so I went to my bag and got some coins and added them. I had a few brief qualms about “drinking the water” (a standard tourist no-no) but assumed that holy water would be okay. It was either sufficiently blessed or bottled to begin with. The qadima surely wouldn’t want to poison a houseful of foreign guests. After her dance, before the collection, she walked around the circle sprinkling people with water. She sprinkled extra water on me because I rubbed it on my face and neck, soaking up the blessing. By then I’d already signaled my readiness to be inducted, and she had acknowledged that.

(After her knife dance, one of the very airy-fairy New Age healer women in the tour group reached out to touch the qadima’s hand, to gather baraka. The qadima signalled to her the proper way to receive baraka: take it into your heart, then offer a gesture of praise to Allah, that big bird in the sky. I took note of that gesture, too.)

So it was definitely an occasion of dark people performing for the white folks, and a somewhat uneasy (unholy?) mixture of two things -- the social, fun, unserious henna party complete with dressing select women (and one man) in ceremonial bridal garb, with makeup and tiara, and then marrying them off to Hamid. We knew whenever a new bride had arrived, because the two women who met us at the door would give their welcoming call. That bridal ceremony clashed a little bit with the more focused Gnawa ceremony going on but Moroccan culture doesn’t seem to separate secular from sacred that rigidly. As with other native cultures, the festivals are loose, kids run around, people chat and smoke and drink tea and ignore the performers at will.

I knew, though, that a special occasion had arrived for me. It wasn’t an accident that I wound up sitting right next to the band. After I watched for a while, I waited for the moment to feel right to enter the dance. I knew this was an opportunity for ritual/ temple dancing, my favorite kind -- very different from performing or boogeying down. (I paid close attention to something Hamid said about Muslim moral values -- that nothing comes between you and your direct experience of God: no priest, no rules. The Koran is a guideline but ultimately you choose your behavior, and it all comes down to your conscience, a word I heard him use repeatedly. He said, You don’t do anything until your conscience tells you it’s okay. And if your conscience says it’s okay, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. (The only rigid rule I’ve encountered is “no non-Muslims in the mosque” -- which Shaysta, an older Indian Muslim on the tour, told me she disagreed with.)

I waited for the moment it felt right to enter the dance. I wanted to really feel it. For me that happened when the singing was very thick and full -- so one time when that seemed to be happening, I slipped off my Birkenstocks and spiraled from my seat onto the dance floor and started warming up, dancing in my own circle and just soaking up the astonishing rhythmic racket of the krkabak, which is so LOUD.
After a little while, the qadima brought a blue scarf over and beckoned to me to let her drape it on me, covering my head and my face. I picked up that it was a sort of hood to encourage me to keep my focus inward, not perform or show my face, so I did that and eventually really got into dancing intensely, dancing the dance that I am, and responding to the rhythm of the krkabak and the sexy bassline of the guimbri. It felt almost exactly like fire-dancing at faerie gatherings, drawing into my heart the heat I needed from the rhythm, the fire. Also the longer I danced, the more the krkabak sounded like hoofbeats, the divine horsemen, and as I danced I prayed to the Great Spirit, “Ride me! Ride me!” Once more I knew my place in the world. I could tell my dance was having an effect on the room. But I kept my eyes closed so I couldn’t tell if anyone else was dancing. Behind my eyelids I could see camera flashes going off. As I danced more intensely, the percussionists got more intense. After that song finished, Harvey came up and told me that the young musician playing guimbri was very interested in my dancing, which pleased me.

I danced for about an hour. Every so often the qadima would take away my scarf and put another one on me with a different color -- we went through green and black. The qadima had some kind of radar about who she drew into the ceremony. John Dowling was included -- she threw a scarf over his head. Hamid danced quite a bit, with the hood of his djellaba up, and Esmerelda got into it. A few other people. Yet another guy tried to dance his way into the ritual, another New Age healer-type guy, not a very good dancer. The guimbri player alerted the qadima that he was dancing behind her back. She checked him out and then turned back to the musicians. The guy quickly retired from the floor, and someone said, “I guess she didn’t want to dance with you.”

After a while, the musicians took a break. Throughout the dancing I exchanged glances with the guimbri player, who was very handsome, like a beautiful light-skinned black American with mustache, a little stubble, dimpled chin, and those green Berber eyes. He made a sweet little gesture to me with his fingers, as if referring to the pitter-patter of little feet. He went down the hall to smoke. I could see that he was nursing an injured finger -- his middle finger was rubbed raw. I went over to watch him attend to it and offer some support, but he shrugged it off, no big deal, happens all the time.

He was chatting with his friend, and I found myself drawn into conversation with them. They complimented me on my dancing and proceeded to explain the whole ceremony. The gimbri player's named was Abdelhaq. He spoke very little French. his friend Rashid spoke very good French and virtually no English. Somehow I managed with my crude French to converse with them for about an hour -- speaking with eyes and gestures and heart and noises as much as words.

One of the first things Abdelhaq wanted was to teach me some Arabic words. I thought he was teaching me the names of colors, but I later learned he was telling me the names of the spirits (the djinns) associated with each of the colors and phases of the ritual. He would point to a color, say it in French, then in Arabic and have me repeat it. Very patient but also demanding, testing me over and over. Hamo was red. Musa = blue. Sudan = black. Moulay Ibrahim = green. He pointed out that each song relates to a different color. That's why the qadima changed her attire and the scarves she put on the dancers. The leader of the group was the man in red, known as the qadim. He was Abdelhaq's father.

One of the other things they conveyed to me was a rundown on the conditions for dancing -- bare feet, no smiling, inward focus, no looking at the musicians, because when you're dancing you represent the devil (diabolo) and it would be giving them the evil eye. If you do, they can ask you to leave the house, without discussion.

As I was talking to them, the qadima went into a dance where she became a sheep, wearing a sheepskin, getting down on the floor, rolling, whipping herself with her hand. Then she seemed to get sick, witha  bad headache, had to go in the other room and do something -- some disturbance in the ritual space? -- then came back and finished the sheep dance. She spread some stuff on the skin and offered it to people. Rashid urged me to go get some: "It's good." It was sweet, burnt flour with cinnamon perhaps. (It was a representation of desert sand. I later learned that this ritual, and all Gnawa culture, carries the memory of the enslavement of Moroccans by other Africans -- the water dance honors the memory of ancestors who drowned as slaves, the sheepskin dance paid tribute to those who died in the desert, etc.)

I felt like a five-year-old tribal boy learning at the feet of the elders the ways and rituals of our people.

Published in RFD, Fall 2000