Moroccan Medicine for the Mind
Gnawi chanting and the Atlas Mountain music known as Ahidous form the backdrop to a spiritual celebration that pilgrims flock to every year for a deeper understanding of life, faith healing, trance healing and, perhaps most importantly, to ask for favours from saints and djinn.
Moroccan Islam is different from all other forms of the religion. In part, this is because of the inclusion of rituals and traditions from the shamanistic and Judaic belief systems that existed in North Africa prior to the introduction of Islam. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pilgrimages that take place on the day of the Prophet Mohammad’s birth. Known in Arabic as Eid al-Mawlid, the holiday in Morocco is more of a celebration of the world of mysticism, djinn and Moroccan ‘saints’ than anything related to the Muslim faith.
Key to these gatherings and pilgrimages are Sufi brotherhoods such as the Gnawa, the Aïssawa and the Hamadcha, with their trance-like music and bizarre (to us) ritual behaviour. One of the most famous but least witnessed (by outsiders) is the celebration connected with Sidi (Saint) Ali Ben Hamdouch, the founder and patron saint of the Hamadcha brotherhood. This particular brotherhood provided much of the basis for Gnawa’s music, which is much more widely known for its trance-inducing rhythms. Hamadcha trance music is known as ‘medicine for the mind’ by many Moroccans.
The village of Sidi Ali lies 70 kilometres north of Fez, the spiritual capital of Morocco. During the week following Eid al-Mawlid, the Mouasseem Sidi Ali Ben Hamdouch fills the otherwise quiet rural community with music, trance and possession ceremonies, prayers and sacrificial slaughters dedicated to Saint Ali Ben Hamdouch, mystical spirits and other holy personages. Thousands of pilgrims fill every available bed, couch or tent space as Moroccans come to entangle themselves with the supernatural aura of a place where spirits and humans join together to honour God.
From ritual baths in the spring of Aisha Ben Hamcoucha to the music and sweet incense that continue without stop, this is a celebration of the mystical—and whether you are there as an observer, a performer or a pilgrim, chances are you will be brought into the ritual as the feeling of trance wraps its way around the crowds.
In 2013, the Celebration of Sidi Ali Ben Hamcoucha will take place in the last week of January. Because it is calculated using the Muslim lunar calendar, it will take place approximately 10 days earlier in each successive year.