My Ecstatic Experience at the Fes Sacred Music Festival

twitter friend @konorth asked me a question about where i stayed when i was in Morocco (2006), and while trying to find the answer, i came across a piece i wrote about my experience there. i’ve never published it before and i can’t remember why i wrote it (a submission to a site? a half-assed nanowrimo attempt?), but i figure i might as well post it (along with some photos and videos to help illustrate). fair warning: it’s a bit umm, flowery.

Fes - Medina - Bab Bou Jeloud

Bab Bou Jeloud

Fes - Medina - Souk

The souk

I settled down to dinner at a small sidewalk restaurant — it was my second night in Fes and even though it was past sundown, I could still feel the hubbub of the medina coursing through the streets, spilling out to the rest of the city through the large keyhole-shaped portals of Bab Bou Jaloud just a stone’s throw away. I had my Morocco Lonely Planet book out on the table and that drew the inevitable conversation from one of the two people sitting at the table next to me.

“So, where are you from?” asked the tall brunette with a French lilt.

I turned my chair to face them. “Oh, I’m from the States but I’m studying in Germany now.”

“Ah cool! What brings you to Fes?”

“Nothing, really. I had some frequent flyer miles saved up and I’ve always wanted to see what Morocco was like, so I went to Casablanca and Marrakesh earlier this week, and now I’m here,” I said, looking around with a sense of wonder.

She introduced herself as Roxane, a dancer who split her time between New York and Europe, and the person she was with was Dave, an American who quit his job as a lawyer to “travel the world”. (Truth be told, I could picture him more in a wetsuit holding a surfboard than in a three-piece suit holding a legal brief.) They didn’t know each other before, but like with me, they struck up a conversation at the same restaurant couple nights ago and discovered they were staying at the same riad.

“Are you here for the Sacred Music Festival?” she asked.

I flashed a brief look of puzzlement. “The what? Oh. That. I’d heard it was going on and saw signs for it coming in from the train station, but I don’t know too much about it.”

“Oh, it’s great! I saw a couple of shows with Dave so far. Want to come with us to the Sufi Night tonight?” Her face lit up, as if she knew she had something magical to share.

I was, admittedly, apprehensive since in my years of solo travel I’d never done much with other people, preferring to keep to myself, doing things on my whim. Perhaps it was my years as an insecure teen that were still making themselves felt a decade later. But, I thought to myself, why not? I’m in Morocco, I have nothing better to do, and I never stay up past midnight!

“OK!” With those two syllables my face lit up too as I filled with excitement at the thought of actually being adventurous.

Fes - Hotel

Dar Bouânania, the riad we stayed at

The stars were bright in the clear sky overhead, and they magically aligned that night. As fate would have it, I was staying in the same riad Roxane and Dave were, so after I wolfed down my (by then cold) chicken tajine we went back there to hang out on the rooftop patio of the Dar Bouânania before the Sufi show at midnight. The smoke from their cigarettes floated and disappeared into the cool, breezy night. The hubbub of the streets and the drone of the muezzins died down as the night drew on. It seemed as if our laughter and conversation were the only things disturbing the restrained calm of the old city.

Around 11:30 we made our way through the dark, rank, winding alleyways of the marketplace, watching alley cats scurry off into the menacing shadows as we interrupted their dinners. We emerged to find a crowd gathered in a courtyard waiting for the concert to start. I stood on a tree stump to get a better view. Most of the non-Moroccans had managed to get seats in the front, but those were clearly the tour bus types; I knew I was in the right place standing among the locals on the periphery. Soon, the music began and it was as if I could see the energy emanating from the instruments and the singer’s mouth, enveloping and feeding the crowd. The people around me began jumping up and down, clapping, yelling and whooping along. All my inhibitions faded away at that point as an unrestrained grin came over my face. Roxane was jumping, Dave was jumping, I was jumping–eyes closed, everything but the music and energy fading away. It wasn’t until later that I learned that Sufi music is meant to foster religious ecstasy. I may not go to a church, a synagogue, a temple or a mosque, but that night was the closest thing I’ve felt to ecstasy, ever.

The stars had most definitely aligned.

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