Monday, June 23, 2014

Awwadha, Afak [Again, Please]: Arabic Classes and the Music Festival

It seems I may have spoken too soon about the weather… The past few days have actually been much cooler than when I first arrived, mostly in the 20s C (80s F), and there have even been sprinklings of rain! Everyone is very happy about it and hoping that the cool weather will continue for Ramadan inchaAllah [G!d willing], because fasting in 100+ degree is no fun for anyone.

Out of the hundred or so North American students one can see milling about the Arabic Language Institute in Fes (ALIF), it seems that all of them are interested in Standard Arabic. My Darija [Moroccan Arabic] class began with a population of one! Well, there are three people on the list, but I was the only one who showed up for the first few days. Since then, one other student has shown up — an Arabic lecturer from Northwestern. No word from Student 3.

One of the 'nice' classrooms at ALIF,
reserved for the advanced students.
My classes are going well, though, and it’s amazing how much faster I’m learning the language with proper instruction. For example, instead of trying to derive the many complicated and irregular forms of the verb knbghi / bghit [I like / I would like] by hearing them in conversation, I have them all in one handy chart! 

The teachers are excellent — my Arabic is rapidly improving and although I can still only hold a very basic conversation, I’ve managed to communicate fairly effectively with my host family and other Moroccans. Darija is a fascinating language/dialect, and it is quite far from standard Arabic in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. I know that I have some linguistic-y friends so if people want me to write more about it I can.

The Centre is lovely — it has a small café, a beautiful courtyard garden and fountain, and a very well-stocked bookstore with an impressive selection of books on Islamic history and modern Arabic literature, in the original and English. And of course, free Wi-Fi! A very comfortable place to hang out. 

The building itself is a beautiful 19th century villa, with a hidden surprise — among the elaborate plaster carvings and colourful tilework, Hebrew letters! It turns out that the home was originally built by a Jewish family, and according to one of the older gentlemen that I met in the synagogue last week, it even served as a yeshiva in the mid 20th century.

Hebrew inscription, giving the date 5691 (1930).

Jewish history is everywhere in Fes; not only has everyone that I’ve told about my religion been very positive, but most people of my parents’ generation have shared fond memories of growing up with Jewish friends and neighbours. The only negative Jewish experience that I’ve had so far was that once when I refused the little kids who crowd around you offering to take you through the medina (for a few dirhams), one of them called me a ‘dirty Jew.’ But I’m not even sure if he was reading me as Jewish, or if he was just trying to get a reaction.

The music festival was going on all throughout this week. On Tuesday I went to a concert of a Pakistani qawwali [Sufi devotional music] group called Marifat, held in a gorgeous 18th-century residence. The concert itself wasn’t great but it was worth it just for the last song — the classic qawwal Allah Hu, as sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. 

What I love about it, besides the fact that it’s a wonderful song, is that it was an inspiration for Israeli music group Sheva, who used the refrain — Allah Hu becoming Hallelu — for their composition for Psalm 150; the tune was popularized by legendary Jewish musician Debbie Friedman in her 1998 album “It’s You” (via New York synagogue B’nai Jeshurun). Today, her tune is sung throughout North America in Reform and Conservative congregations, often without knowledge of its Sufi origins. I videoed the end of Marifat singing Allah Hu, on YouTube here, and you can hear Debbie Friedman’s setting of Hallelu here.

Belting out a Ladino ballad.
I also really enjoyed a wonderful, intimate concert of Sephardi music by Moroccan-Spanish-Israeli singer Mor Korbasi on Wednesday. I loved the traditional Ladino songs and her own contemporary compositions, but my favourite part was the encore: she sat on the edge of her stage, asked the audience to come sit in a circle around her, and she sang Zohra el-Fassia’s love song Shrebtini while the Arabic speakers in the audience cheered and applauded each line. 

It was actually very moving to be sitting in this beautifully diverse crowd — Muslims, Christians, and Jews; Israelis, Moroccans, Europeans, and North Americans — and hear the joyous reactions of the audience; it was almost like we were back in the days of Zohra el-Fassia herself.

Similarly, Thursday night was a wonderful (although not intimate) concert of Andalusi music with Lior El-Maleh from the Israeli Andalusi Orchestra and French-Algerian Jewish singer Françoise Atlan, including favourites like Cuando el Rey Nimrod and a beautiful Ladino version of Ehad Mi Yodea.

Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane
with her Mauritanian henna. A
generous soul and extraordinary
I closed the festival with a wonderful fusion of Indian and Mauritanian music, a joint concert of Raza Khan and Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane. And not only did Coumbane have an amazing voice — she also was wearing gorgeous Mauritanian henna, which she must have had done before she came to the festival! What a treat to see this amazing style unexpectedly in Morocco.

I’ve also gone on two guided tours with ALIF — a tour of the old medina of Fes, and a trip to Meknes and the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Volubilis was lovely, mainly some well-preserved mosaics, the remains of a Roman bathhouse, and some of the oldest traces of Jewish history in North Africa. Unfortunately most of the archaeological findings have been removed to the National Museum in Rabat.

It was very special to go to Meknes, where my father worked with the Joint (sort of like the Jewish Peace Corps) in the 1970s. We found the elderly caretaker of the synagogue who opened it for us and told us about the Jewish community there, once 20,000 and now reduced to fewer than 50. Unfortunately he didn’t remember my father by name and I didn't have a picture of 25-year-old Abba to show him. Nonetheless, it was still very moving to see the classrooms of the Talmud Torah school, the calligraphed shivitis on the walls, and a 200-year-old pasul [ineligible] sefer Torah. We didn't get to see any more of the mellah but it was nice to get a piece of Meknessi Jewish history.

The Talmud Torah of Meknes.

But while I had hoped to spot some Meknessi henna while I was there too, unfortunately I only saw one woman with a plain dot design and one woman with modern ‘Khaleeji’ style, and I wasn’t able to get any more information about how the Meknessi style differs (if at all) from the henna done in Fes.

I did spot this interesting artifact... A hennaed ostrich egg in
a public apothecary, Meknes. I wanted to buy it but the seller
wasn't there. Also notice the boxes of HST henna at the front.

So, once again, we’ve reached the bottom of the post and no exciting henna news. I promise, dear henna readers, that the next post will be devoted entirely to henna with lots of pictures! I have managed to see some interesting henna here in Fes, and I decided in the end that the henna that I’ve seen so far deserved its own post — and hopefully I’ll see even more. But a full henna post is coming next week (inchaAllah, as they say here) so stay tuned!

I am such a tease.

Another teaser… Until next week!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful update! I feel like I took the journey with you. The pictures are fantastic.