El Jadida - It was Saturday 3 March 2002, when I drove to Ben Yeffu during a Spring season moving through an exceptional heat wave that melted asphalt roads like chocolate and plunged flying birds dead on the ground. Yet, I could not postpone my visit to the shrine because I was invited. In Morocco, to be a man you should keep the word you allow your tongue to utter. And I gave my word to visit the shurfa on that Saturday when they invited me.
El Jadida – It was Saturday 3 March 2002, when I drove to Ben Yeffu during a Spring season moving through an exceptional heat wave that melted asphalt roads like chocolate and plunged flying birds dead on the ground. Yet, I could not postpone my visit to the shrine because I was invited. In Morocco, to be a man you should keep the word you allow your tongue to utter. And I gave my word to visit the shurfa on that Saturday when they invited me.
When I arrived, there was a gathering of Buffi shurfa including the imam Abdessalam sitting round a table on which a dish of Moroccan crepes (mesemen), silver tray and tea set are placed but no pouring of tea had commenced yet. When they saw me, they stood up jubilant and greeted me warmly saying that I came on (my) time. The service was to begin.
I sat looking at Abdessalam, a wrinkled face showing the scars of long suffering, exhausted from a long urban-life competition to survive with dignity and manhood. His ridges counted the years of his struggle to barely maintain the subsistence of his family. He suddenly interrupted my intrusive gaze with an excited child-like smile and said: “You know, the group would be lacking if you did not show up!” “Same thing for me, you’re always on my mind, here it is peaceful and warm,” I replied. Sidi Ahmed, one of the renowned shurfa at Ben Yeffu stepped in saying: “we still need his friend “l-beljiki”, we miss this nice fellow!” Alas! Bygone times! Philip, the Belgian, is a friend and research collaborator. He was my mentor in ethnographic fieldwork and we spent wonderful time in the research site at Ben Yeffu. His questions and comments often rocked my insider habitual perception.
Abdessalam thought that by the power of Allah he was yoked with the saint Ben Yeffu. But I thought that he lived in bondage to the common memory and social bond that held the Buffi community together. I saw how he was sitting with Buffi companions high-spirited, vivaciously immersed in communal talk. I was there that Saturday to listen for the third time to the imam’s story.
The imam was born in a duwar called al-Kwash, 6 kilometres far from the Hasba in Tnin al-Gharbiya and 11 kilometres far from Jam’at Shaim in the region of ‘Abda. His birth might have probably occurred in 1940s because his mother connected the time of his birth with the early beginnings of the Year of Hunger. This was how Moroccans adjusted their own calendar. They commemorated their children’s birth by virtue of a ritual calendar of religious festivals and historical events. Many people would tell you that their birth coincided with the exile of the sultan Mohammed Ben Youssef or the Year of Plague. Of course the civil registry system was established in colonial times in 1915 but was not popularized to the outskirts of central districts until the independence period and beyond. People, before, used historical and ritual events to serve as reminder of their children’s birth.
The imam grew in the countryside running on the fields’ borders and swimming in irrigation canals. In his free time he took shelter under trees’ shadows and nibbled the fruits he had stolen from the fields. Like the rest of his peers, he wandered half naked in a gown without underwear, his head shaved except for a braided hair lock falling across the back of his neck. He was not only playing with his friends but also helping the family in domestic labour. He scythed grass, fetched water and rode donkeys. In the midst of such busy life he attended the Koranic school and learnt all verses of the Koran by the time he reached his adolescence. Every day, he sat on the straw mat of the Jama’, and cleaned his slate when he finished learning a Koranic verse by heart, and recited it successfully in front of the fqih and the rest of attendees. When tired he sat by a stone and back again to naughty play; he spied on perching flies and surprisingly hit them with an elastic strip. He took immense pleasure in devastating colonies of flies. He was an exterminator, an unmatched fly serial killer. The imam recalled those early golden days with a sigh.
When he attained his twenties in 1958, he got married from the duwar. His parents interpreted his puberty for reliability. They looked for a bride to let their son settle down. He was sexually mature enough to live with a pubescent girl though he could not earn a living to provide for them. So, they both moved to Casablanca in search of better living conditions. His Koran recital skills enabled him to grow high expectations about his career, so that he saw himself outgrowing the normal career of a local farmer attached to his native land. His migration, he told me, was by no means a rupture with the native soil. The imam travelled to Casablanca with an idea to make money and invest it in land assets in his own region to grow the family’s fortune. Most the rural youth still travel to the city with the aim to work and collect money to grow their home property and build mansions in their native duwar. Their marriages are often arranged with families from the nearby rural neighbourhoods. Those who err and marry from the city may be swallowed in the belly of the whale and sever the roots of nativity.
Parents say that they are anxious about their children’s future. They like them to marry before they move to the city to work. When youths leave their wives and children behind them in the duwar, they do not only send money home but they keep attached to the natal land where they belong. The city is often a mere source of income. With such ideas in mind, the imam rather took his wife with him, and settled in the economic capital of Morocco, a big city where the tempo of life may challenge trained marathon breadwinners. Even though he worked as a traditional tailor and Koranic teacher, he could hardly make ends meet. The cost of living was very high and every gesture was taxed. The imam never thought that the day would come he would pay for water to drink. He did not give up. He manoeuvred to survive in the belly of the whale. He practiced divination and magic (sbub) for maraboutic clients. He responded to the wishes of those clients who shared the cultural worldview that saints and spirits may steer life’s Ferris wheel of fortune. Why not? He was a shrif endowed with his ancestors’ baraka. He was a sacred Koran mental carrier. He had all the equipment to defend himself and his clients against any malevolent spectral attack. He began his magical work and attracted more clients via his trade.
One day, it happened that he brew a magical potion that did not bring the desired effect, and perversely cleft his magical armour. He became possessed. A strong Jinni took hold of his body and set him out on a venture without return. There is a rule of thumb among traditional curers that any wrongdoing against a jinni can be fatal. He knew it but he took unnecessary risks in his magical tasks exaggerating his tours de force, which enraged his spectral servants and incited their mutiny against his sharifian power.
It was in 1966 when he fell sick. He was in his thirties, still a young man. On a Wednesday in July in the same year, he consulted a “Nazarene” doctor in Roche Noir in Casablanca; a blood specialist, as he named him. The doctor, as I understood, was a cardiologist. After examining his patient, the doctor gazed at him. Then, he addressed the imam:
“When did you feel such pain?”
“Few weeks ago!”
“Do you know that your case is so urgent, hypertension is life threatening!” The doctor insisted. The imam was listening in silence, and looked at him in blank incomprehension. Then the doctor turned to the imam’s brother and said: “does not this man beat people!” Abashed by the doctor’s remark, the imam’s brother answered that his brother fell sick just the day before avoiding any moral inconvenience and belying his brother’s words. Again, the doctor spoke to the imam in earnest persistent tone:
“You have to understand that you have severe high blood pressure, it is 22 and you need intense medical care!”
“Really! I do not know what you are saying but my blood is pure and sharifian, the only problem is that I was not careful in my incantations. Now I feel I am possessed though I am not sure!”
“Look at me Si Abdessalam, if you don’t treat your hypertension you will die. Jnun are busy in their own world, they are not idle, and why shall they bother to attack you?” The dcotor returned to sit behind his desk.
“This is what people like you say but Jinn live with us and communicate with us. Be careful not to belittle their power. They may harm you!” The imam winked at his brother signalling him to leave. The doctor was not looking; he was still sitting behind his desk oblivious of the imam’s words, writing a prescription for the patient.
When they went out, they looked for a drugstore and purchased medicine for the imam. It was my brother who insisted that I should comply with the doctor’s words. I did not believe one single word by that man! I did not find any baraka on his hands. He gave me injections, powder, liquid but nothing worked. Instead my body wriggled in pain whenever I took such foreign mixture. I was not me! I was sick, yes! But my cure was lurking in the baraka of sacred ancestors! If peaches could cure, they could have cured themselves! When I was practicing my cure, I received a lot of patients who cursed doctors. They sent them to me in hopeless conditions and I cured them with the baraka of Allah.
The third night after seeing the doctor, it was a Friday night, the imam felt an atrocious pain. He spent the night walking along Medyuna’s road until sunrise. On Saturday morning, he visited the saint Ben Yeshu near Casablanca. Inside a dome-shaped sanctuary, the imam sat relaxed, recollecting the sequence of his past events. Was it a wrong step to leave home and be away from the warmth of the duwar? What a clumsy mistake to rend the maternal womb and venture out in the unknown belly of the whale? Perhaps, this was the curse of the ancestors? He should go back and alleviate their wrath! Why should he leave the land that pulled and tore its muscles to give him birth? How could he visit an alien and trust his toys turning a blind eye on his ancestors and their mystic power to cure? Was he wrong because he turned his ancestors’ divine gift into a business trade? Perhaps, their baraka didn’t work outside the duwar! Perhaps, in Casablanca, there were alien tribes of jinn like the doctor coming overseas from another faith invading the city with a power that excelled his ancestors’?
When he returned from his visit to Ben Yeshu, he immediately took the coach and travelled back to his own duwar in al-Kwash in ‘Abda. During this journey of the return of the native, he was accompanied by his brother, who informed his mother about the imam’s sickness once they arrived. To my amazement, Abdessalam’s mother was not affected by the news and rather coolly replied that the shurfa were doomed to that kind of fate. She added that some of them might turn out to be mystic wanderers or majadib. Then she turned to Abdessalam: “You are a pure shrif, and shurfa cannot be cured by commoners (l-‘wam)! Go to your father’s tomb and you will find the answer!” her electric words jolted his head and opened his eyes to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: his cure was located in the baraka of his ancestors.
Then, the imam stood up and walked absently towards his ancestor Sidi Ahmed Bumadian, the saint protector and hereditary chieftain of the Kwash clan. When he went inside the qubba, he felt a physical pain in his back that he compared to a stone, when removed from a cairn, the latter immediately collapsed. He said that the pain became lethal when what he labelled ‘explosive thunder’ agonized his back. Every week, inside the qubba, he suffered a different pain, sometimes creeping up, other times crawling down. But the pain never reached his brain; he never lost consciousness.
Inside Sidi Ahmed Bumadian, one of the descendant custodians (hufdan), who practised remedial treading (‘fis), trampled heavily on his body pressing him down with his foot to transmit to him the baraka of the saint, a form of therapeutic massage after which the imam started feeling better during the first sessions, but it was not a better treatment. He could not return to his normal health condition. Besides, the curer was not from a better sharifian lineage than the imam himself. It seems to me that he merely experienced a placebo effect with a fake improvement without real cure or recovery. Of course, through the imam’s kaleidoscope lens, such scientific meanings are absent even if he sometimes feigned to listen to the Whited Sepulchre voices of modern cure. Ennuied by the heavy unresponsive silence of his ancestor, the imam decided to leave the womb again roaming for cure. It was not Sidi Ahmed’s impuissance that the imam doubted. The silence of the saint was perhaps a sentence of banishment and exile, he thought. Was it written on his leaf that he was destined to be a vagabond wandering for cure?
This is a short ethnographic serialized story published by installment with each episode coming forth approximately every Saturday.