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What am I doing here? Mouassim in Sid Ali Ben Hamdouche

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?

Moulay Idris Zerhoune and Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche
30 January 2013

This past week has gone faster than any last year did. I don’t know what that means or even if it means anything. Last Wednesday began an odyssey that I’ve only just started to digest and I’m not sure I can actually share it in any kind of detail. Air Sidi Ali was an experience like no other.

Through my friend Jess at Culture Vultures Fez, I was able to participate and observe something that not many outsiders have ever witnessed. It’s not like I’m the first or even the hundredth foreigner to ever go to a leela or visit Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche during the annual moussim, but not many have. One reason for that was the draconian fascist control system which was thrown over the entire project by the driver-cap wearing Moroccan councilmen who would prefer that outsiders not witness animal sacrifice, trance induced euphoria, or the mysteries of mystical Moroccan Sufism.

Funny that the magic of being a witness to such an amazingly primal celebration, being welcomed warmly by complete families of strangers and master musicians into trance ritual healing, celebration, and release – all of that was overshadowed by a bunch of insecure bureaucrats in tailored suits who did their best to throw a net over all of us who wanted the chance to understand something beautiful, to be a part, and to gain a greater understanding into the true pulse of Morocco.

Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche MouassimFrom the moment that Jess began organizing her artistic project – for ARTISTS – not journalists, not reporters, but ARTISTS who sought inspiration and beauty from the very soul of the maghreb – from the moment she requested permission and began to do things in a legitimate way – from that moment the bureaucrats did their utmost to stop it. Had she simply gathered a group of foreigners and gone to the mountain village to see and take part – it wouldn’t have been a problem. The problem was that she was trying to do things in a way that was respectful of the culture, respectful of the people, respectful of the rules, respectful of the authorities, and respectful of the bureaucracy.

One of the reasons I can’t wait to leave Morocco is that small-cocked bureaucracy where each level of bureaucrat is so scared to look like they don’t know how to do their job (which most of them don’t) that they can’t risk making a mistake that will point out what they don’t know. So, they simply say no, they make up reasons to say no, they refuse to give access to the higher ups, and they maintain the status quo in the hope that they too might rise to the higher positions where there is more money, more authority and less chance that anyone will find out that none of them know what the fuck they are doing. The key to that is to not disturb the guy above you. Be a good gatekeeper and you will rise. Rock the waters and you will be replaced with a better do-nothing. These guys in their driving caps and suits were on us like stink on shit as we were welcomed by people, musicians, herbalists, magicians, fortune tellers, mystics, and scholars alike. They went so far as to shut down a conference when they found that foreigners would attend and to post officials on either side of us as we walked through the streets or sat in houses. When the portrait photographer set up his large polaroid portrait camera in a public space, none of the common people cared, but those bastards in the suits did. They shut him down before he could take a picture coming out of the woodwork where they had been watching us. As we walked down the street they grabbed our interpreter/guide/facilitator and dragged her backwards without saying anything to us demanding “What do they want to know? Why are they here? What are they trying to find out?” I doubt they would have dragged her to some dark dungeon if I hadn’t noticed she was being dragged away, but maybe, luckily there were friends about with more pull than me. I’m just a nobody. Through the time I was there they were demanding papers, entry numbers, signatures, permits and doing everything they could to keep this magnificent spectacle from being seen. They failed. They failed and they looked like fools doing it. Not only did they look like fools, they are short changing their spectacular culture, the wonderful people, and the rich cultural tapestry that we wanted to tap into. Yes, they failed.

We were taken into houses where they were not present. We witnessed slaughter, we heard music, we danced, we chanted, we tranced. We met fortune tellers and herbalists and watched as candles were lit for spirit saints and saint spirits and djinn. They stopped the photos in the streets but the musicians came to private houses to provide portraits. They shut down the conference but they couldn’t shut down the conferences in the cafes or even the slaughter of a cow in a house filled with Hamdacha, Gnawa, Issawa, and musicians. They didn’t keep the blood from bare feet, the candles for the sacred tree of Lalla Aisha, the washing in Aisha ben Hamdouche’s spring, or the dancing in procession.

This project wasn’t about revealing things to the world. It was about tapping into and sharing the sacred, the beautiful, the artistic. It was about bridging cultures and finding the commonality of man. The project was a success. My art is changed, the art of the others is changed, perhaps, even the art of the people we interacted with is changed.

The bureaucracy? It’s still the same. They just don’t get it. They never will.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook