Weapons of Mass Sedition

Can a sacred music festival lure us away from violence and toward reason?

"Now we'd like to bring out our sisters from Morocco," gospel singer Barbara Jackson shouted from the stage of the Library of Congress's Coolidge Theater. Seven veiled women waving henna-decorated hands joined Jackson's blood siblings, the Anointed Jackson Sisters. "And our sister from Algeria," Jackson added. Françoise Atlan, an elegant Sephardic Jew with long black hair, entered stage left. When Israeli and Palestinian Sufi singers— "our brothers Gabriel and Yacoub"—joined in, things became overcrowded. But it was worth it. Interfaith dialogue needs all the space it can get in a world where religions vie so dangerously for dominance.

The transformative potential of such exchanges animates the Spirit of Fez sacred music tour, which kicked off at the Library of Congress March 6 and arrives at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Victoria Theater in Newark on Friday and Poughkeepsie's Bardavon Opera House the following evening. In Washington, D.C., across the street from the Capitol, the event brought musicians and peace activists together along with Moroccan dignitaries and officials of the World Bank. The bank, an important funder, clearly believes its promotion of capitalist fundamentalism dovetails with the secular ambitions of the Moroccan government, which would like nothing better than to develop its own world-class cultural event with worldly social aims.

I flew to Casablanca on my way to last year's Fez Sacred Music Festival just three weeks after terrorist bombings shook Morocco. Everywhere were public-service billboards bearing the Hand of Fatima, a symbol of protection for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Scholars and cab drivers alike told me that the slogan, in Arabic and French—"Don't lay a hand on our country"—was directed at terrorists and fundamentalist Muslims.

Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant (in white) performing in Washington, D.C., March 6 with the Anointed Jackson Sisters (in black)
photo: Rick Reinhard
Hadra des Femmes de Taroudant (in white) performing in Washington, D.C., March 6 with the Anointed Jackson Sisters (in black)

Set in Morocco's northern Middle Atlas region, Fez is among the oldest of Islamic holy cities, a center of learning since the founding of Qaraouine University in the ninth century. It boasts a history of religious tolerance: Many of the Muslims and Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century ended up there. I'd arrived for a week of sacred music and consciousness-raising. Yet little prepared me for how the first sacred sounds I'd encounter would affect my consciousness. A 3 a.m. muezzin's call to prayer, issued from mosque minarets in all directions, woke me. I'd heard this before, right down to the vocal embellishments, from the Sephardic cantor in my childhood Brooklyn synagogue.

Morocco is ruled by a monarchy, but its constitutional reforms and civil society stand in contrast to most Islamic states. Sufism, the mystical humanist face of Islam, is represented in Fez by the many brotherhoods active there. Embodied as it is in the tenor of daily life and high-level policy-making, the Moroccan Sufi spirit is akin to the voice of liberalism here—a force for moderation and inclusion.

Fez native and Sufi scholar Faouzi Skali first initiated a film festival in the wake of the first Gulf war. He dubbed it Desert Colloquium, after Desert Storm. "It was a modest response," he told me over mint tea in Fez last year, "and it has kept on evolving." What it evolved into is the current Fez Festival of Sacred Music. "Music seemed more elemental," he explained, "and it got around barriers of language."

The Moroccan festival has included Buddhist and Native American music, but its focus remains the unity of the three Abrahamic traditions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And for the past three years, among the festival's most resonant sounds has been people simply talking. Last year, a five-day conference gathered academics, politicians, activists, and musicians to discuss "globalization with a soul." Senegalese prime minister Idrissa Seck, Brazilian minister of culture Gilberto Gil, and Reverend James Parks Morton of New York's Interfaith Center all attended.

Now Skali hopes to "stimulate similar conversations in the West." Free panels will be held an hour before the performances in New Jersey and Poughkeepsie. A discussion at the Library of Congress included Skali; Gabriel Meyer, who directs the Sulha Peace Project in Israel's West Bank; Peter Eigen, founder of the economic watchdog organization Transparency International; and World Bank "values and ethics" specialist Katharine Marshall. Eigen, a former World Bank director, spoke of "systemic support of bribery by rich northern nations in collusion with corrupt southern leaders." A young Moroccan American woman asked, "At the risk of sounding pessimistic, how can we link Sufi music with political change? Is it culture we need, or serious reforms?" Marshall spoke movingly of "departing from a technocratic place in an attempt to find soul," though it was hard to tell whether that reflected a redefined mission or a PR campaign. And invoking kabbalah—"the ear is the womb of the future"—Meyer hinted at music's power to foster constructive dialogue.

It would be impossible to replicate the Moroccan festival's trappings—the former sultan's courtyard under a massive Barbary oak tree, the amphitheater carved from an ancient fort's remains. But Terrance Grace's impressionistic short film Sawt-e-Sarmad: The Sound That Intoxicates Man precedes and contextualizes each concert. Images of Sufis chanting collide with images of scholars talking and donkeys laboring. A quote from Rumi's Sufi devotional poetry appears, then dissolves: "We have fallen into the place where everything is music."

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