Cultural cafe at the Fés Festival of Sufi Culture



A panel discussion on art and spirituality held in the courtyard of the Batha Museum under the benevolent protection of a three-hundred-year-old fica tree.

moderated by Faouzi Skali (right above) with

Zeyba Rahman

Setsuko Klossowka de Rola (center above)

Chris Merrill

Mohammed Chabbab

Brahim Tijani

Frédéric Calmès

Salamatou Sow

Some thoughts:

Zeyba: We are speaking different languages but we are saying many of the same things.

Zeyba told stories of two moments when art and spirituality came together for her under the beautiful old fica tree in the courtyard of the Batha Museum where we were gathered. One occurred when the great Sufi musician Jordi Savall was playing a concert under the tree. The birds began swooping down and around him as he played; they sang louder and louder. Clearly, they were singing with him. The musician stopped playing. He looked up at the birds. They are the real music, he said.

When it was his turn to speak, Chris reminded the audience that a poem is an act of attention and that in both poetry and prayer, we are obligated to pay attention. He was here, he said, to listen. He ended by reading an excerpt of a poem by Thomas Merton, written in homage to the Sufi poet from Fes, Ibn Abbed.


Thomas Merton:

8. To a novice:

Be a son of this instant:

It is a messenger of Allah

And the best of messengers

Is one who announces your indigence,

Your nothingness.

Be a son of this instant,

Thanking Allah

For a mouthful of ashes.

Salamatou Sow, a sociolinguist from Niamey, Niger, spoke about the hope we need to have even in these difficult times. Later, a group of women surrounded her, telling her how moved they were by her stubborn refusal to give up hope. With politicians going thoughtlessly to war and turning their countries into caretakers for graveyards, women must be the ones to act on behalf of their communities, she said.


Frédéric Calmès, a young French musician, has found in the Sufi musical tradition the musical community he sought. He plays a lute and speaks eloquently of the way the Sufi repertory, music, songs, and poetry, forms a bond, an ongoing community in which he can participate.

After the panel ended, the conversation continued over mint tea.

here I am with Salamatou

me with Salamatou

A woman from Grenoble named Odile told me that she is drawn to Sufi poetry and thought, although she is not a practicing Muslim. She first became aware of Sufism through a Jewish teacher from India. She said what struck her, in listening to the different voices, was the wonderful diversity of the scene—the Japanese artist in her kimono, an American poet, a scholar from Niger.

Nina, Chris, Zeyba and others

Nina Ter Laan, a young Dutch anthropology student, is doing fieldwork for her doctorate on the expression of religiosity in contemporary Moroccan music. She is looking at the way music flows across national borders via cellphones, festivals, and internet social communities like Facebook and Youtube. Talking with Nina and Frédéric reminded me of my friend Tom Turino, an ethnomusicologist. In his book Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, he creates a new conceptual framework for understanding music. Rather than organizing it geographically (Indian music, Moroccan music) or by instrument (banjo music, tuba music) or by religion or ethnicity, tracing its threads around the world, Tom, just like Frédéric, focuses on the social relationship between the people and the music. His first category is participatory music, music in which there is no separation between musician and audience, in which everyone present participates through dancing or singing. This participatory quality is what Frédéric has found in Sufi music. At the concerts, people sing along to certain choruses and clap to the rhythms; clearly they share this collective body of music. The music is diverse but it is a strong bond holding Sufis together across time and space.

I understand this feeling from my own experiences dancing to American old time music. My house in Urbana, Illinois is often filled with old time musicians sharing different versions of Elzic’s Farewell or June Apple. They know the same songs.


My last conversation in the courtyard is with Zeyba, who looks off toward the sky in that elegant way she has, that manages somehow to be meditative and sharp-eyed at the same time. She tells me and two young women how Sufism is the connection that brings together all sides of her—Arabic, Pashtun, born in India, raised in England, living in New York. ”For me,” she says, “Sufism is a doorway to approach the world.”


One Response to “Cultural cafe at the Fés Festival of Sufi Culture”

  1. Muhammed Bello Says:

    I m really pleased to across this brilliant comments on sufism. Very pleased to read about Salamatou Sow who i last met in 1988 at the international conference on Fulfulde language, history and culture at Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria.

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