El Jadida - It seems that the modern societal institutions of justice in Morocco have not yet ploughed the rocky soil of maraboutic culture, and structured the grassroots social subject because the masses at the bottom of social space still take the effort to travel and supplicate Moroccan dead saints for giving them justice. The maraboutic ritual of supplicating for social and economic rights delineates how a large segment of the population perceives and imagines social justice and how cultural imagination and ritual practices shape it.
El Jadida – It seems that the modern societal institutions of justice in Morocco have not yet ploughed the rocky soil of maraboutic culture, and structured the grassroots social subject because the masses at the bottom of social space still take the effort to travel and supplicate Moroccan dead saints for giving them justice. The maraboutic ritual of supplicating for social and economic rights delineates how a large segment of the population perceives and imagines social justice and how cultural imagination and ritual practices shape it.
From my ethnography of various saint protectors in Doukkala and the High Atlas, I have come to the conclusion that Moroccan pilgrims use their own popular idioms of justice to understand and construct their relationship with saints and the political system they represent. Enduring the lack of justice in their social world, lots of Average Moroccans go to saints to seek mythic justice. Maraboutic clients as they are, they do not perceive social justice as part of the real world they belong to, that is as a human right to be struggled for, or a principle pertinent to a ruling state that should be accountable to its citizens for the administration of justice. Instead, it is an occult gift that relates to the anonymous power of saints and spirits who possess the miracles to make it true.
The cultural construction of mythic justice as a gift offered by saintly figures may have effects on the practice of justice in society as a whole. It may conduce in shaping communities of supplicators and touring pilgrims in whose cultural imagination justice is shaped in terms of charity. Moroccan supplicators thus place emphasis on their compliance rather than resistance in their quest for justice. The state and its apparatuses are absolved from accountability regarding the administration of justice. To the contrary, the saint, sultan, judge and apparatuses where justice may be manufactured are complied to and transformed from external and potentially exploitative forces into positive and benevolent protectors.
There is no effective agency of obliging them morally to ameliorate the social conditions of the poor. It is rather a form of therapeutic resistance for the poor to relieve their social world from tension and conflict by escaping to the miraculous to look for extraordinary solutions to ameliorate their social conditions. In maraboutic culture, the authority of a Moroccan saint is embodied in his power to respond to the supplicants’ variety of wishes from fertilizing the land and women to cursing enemies and punishing their lot. As an example of performing feats of justice, some saints are believed to impart irrevocable curses.
Beattie maintains that in African societies, the elders’ curses are feared because “they are the closest of the living to the ancestral ghosts. And where there are religious specialists, such as shamans or priests, their blessing or curse is often thought to be the most potent of all” (1964, p. 237). This more or less explains why people consult shurfa and ask them to curse their enemies on their behalf. Like elders, priests and shamans, shurfa have a close relationship with their ancestral spirit (the saint) because they descend from him and from the holy lineage of the Prophet.
At Ben Yeffu, a saint in Doukkala region, healers keep relating narratives to convince the visitors of saint’s capacity to strike back. One of the legends they are fond of reiterating time and again is the quarrel on land boundaries between the saint and Mul l-Bergi. Informants say:
Ben Yeffu settled in the place in al-Gharbiya region and started cultivating the land. But Mul l-Bergi was not a friendly neighbour. After the death of his father, he started quarrelling with Ben Yeffu and his sons on the borders (l-hdud) between the two estates. One day, Ben Yeffu wanted to end up these rows and suggested that he and Mul l-Bergi would get up at dawn, mount their horses after dawn prayer, and meet each other at a particular place. The place of their meeting, they agreed, would mark the frontiers of each one’s land. Mul l-Bergi welcomed the idea. The following day, he got up earlier than Ben Yeffu, mounted his horse without praying and rode speedily towards Ben Yeffu’s place to gain as much land as possible. Ben Yeffu played a fair contest. He rode on his horse after doing his dawn prayer at the mosque. And so he was late, and could not go beyond Daya al-Bayda (about five kilometres from the shrine), since Mul l-Bergi had already reached it. Ben Yeffu did not gain much land but recognized his neighbour’s trick and cursed him: “You have left me without land and I have left you without descent.” God accepted the curse for Mul l-Bergi did not leave any descent.
From then on, the Buffis, especially the progeny of Sidi ‘Ali, Ben Yeffu’s brother saint, have been quick to retaliate with curses like their grandfather who had a sharp tongue (“fummu skhun,” “hot mouth”). During the moussem, I observed that some healers would swear and curse people. One of them threatened a beggar in the shrine with the power of his ancestor, telling her that he saw the saint every night in his dreams and that his curse was irrevocable. The woman was stealing candles from the pile. He told her that, if she kept harassing him, he would curse her with banishment from the shrine.
Also, when I was sitting in the mahkama (court of jinn), a woman came and asked the healers to curse her neighbour who seduced her husband. The woman was from the Buffi lineage. She told the healers “I will bring you a sacrifice if you make her crazy so that she walks naked outdoors!” They looked at me before they looked at her, telling her that Allah would take revenge if her neighbour had really been unjust to her. I had the impression that the answer was due to my presence, and that they would have said different invocations if I had not been there. Moreover, the Buffis have an institutional apparatus of curse incarnated in the saint Sidi ‘Ali who is famous for his always fulfilled curses.
Inside the shrine, visitors murmur their wishes and curses because they don’t want other people to overhear them. A popular religious saying goes that “people should make their wishes silently so that Allah lubricates their fulfillment.” People do the same for their curses. Still, I tried to listen to what some visitors said in private. One woman was so furious that she nearly cursed in a loud voice. She started circumambulating the coffin of Sidi ‘Abdelaziz, kissing its corners and saying: “O Mulay ‘Abdelaziz! O Mulay Sultan! I have come straight to you and destination is Allah! I call them to your trial! They have wronged me and it is dispersion I wish for them!” Then she said again: “O Mulay ‘Abdelaziz! I want them to be dispersed, particularly, ‘Abdelqader, his wife and daughter.”
As the reader may notice, the supplicant is careful in her curse and protests only about the social injustice she endures from particular people. What we can deduce from this example is that the woman’s belief in the saint’s fulfillment of her curse may alleviate her anger and deter her from taking the initiative herself in attempting to settle the conflict by inflicting injury on the wrongdoer. Her rancor and hostility are ritually discharged at the saint. Her faith (niya) in the saint’s power is enough to let her wait and expect the miracle of revenge.
One of Ben Yeffu’s sons, Sid l-Bdawi fassal d‘awi (judge of complaints), is a centre where people go to make oaths. He is also well known for his immediate response to people’s curses and perjury. At his shrine situated in the fields, people perform their curses in a ritualised form. When wronged, they go to Sid l-Bdawi and sweep it over the wrongdoers. The process is literally called “sweeping the shrine over them” (kay shetbu ‘lihum siyyed). The wronged person takes off his coat or djellaba and starts sweeping the floor of the shrine and cursing the wrongdoer: He wishes that the wrongdoer’s household would be swept like the shrine. He will say: “You have wronged me! I complain about you to this saint! I hope that you come down with an illness for which there is no cure! I hope that you are scattered so that you can never return! Go, my Grandfather and Sid l-Bdawi are cursing you!” Sid l-Bdawi is very well known for punishing those who voluntarily violate their oaths or vows by false swearing. Informants say:
In the past, a man suspected his neighbour to have stolen his rooster. So, he told him that he would complain about it to the qaid. At the time the Makhzen was very oppressive. If one accused someone and reported his allegations to the qaid, a makhzeni would go to the dwelling of the accused person and called him to court. The accused had to feed the makhzeni’s mule and give the makhzeni provisions before going to court. At court he would be fined hard if found guilty. So anyone being accused would implore the plaintiff not to press charges because he knew that he would spend a lot of money. So, the neighbour accused of stealing the rooster was willing to do whatever the man told him. He agreed to make an oath at Sid l-Bdawi. When they went there and the man swore, the rooster crowed in his stomach.
A number of myths are told about Sid l-Bdawi. His authority is established through the myth that jinn hold the trance dance at his shrine every night.
To elaborate on oath-making at shrines, I may cite examples from the past. Until the seventies, the court used to allow people to go to shrines to make oaths (if the plaintiff asked for it). In the region of El Jadida, oaths used to be given at Ben Yeffu or Moulay ‘Abdella. Those who went to Ben Yeffu were sent there by the official court in Khmis Zmemra. Usually, an envoy would go with them to report the act of oath-making to the court. The importance of that ritual was that Ben Yeffu was considered as a mahkama where someone’s vow (‘had) was abiding, and in case of perjury the person under oath might incur the risk of the saint’s reprisal. So, the saint Ben Yeffu like other saints in the region (Mulay ‘Abdellah, for instance) have been used by people for making oaths. The standard formula people would say was as follows: “By Allah the ever great I have not done or taken this thing; otherwise Ben Yeffu may divulge my breach of faith and punish me for it!”
Up to the eighties, the tradition of making oaths at shrines was a common practice. Even some political parties used the ritual as a strategy to secure more votes in their favor. They gave voters gifts before elections, gifts such as embroidered slippers (shrabel)–usually one slipper before and the other after the election results–as they loaded masses of voters–especially women–in trucks and took them to Mulay ‘Abdellah to swear that they would vote for them. That tradition is no longer practiced. But people still carry on swearing at shrines to solve their conflicts with each other, especially newly married couples or couples suffering from violation of confidence.
When we say that, in the past, official courts recognized the ritual of swearing at shrines to have been legitimate, we are not saying that the court deliberately sent people to shrines, simply that courts allowed them to swear there if they asked to. From a judicial perspective, we understand the attitude of the court. It is obvious that it is looking for the most suitable solutions to solve people’s conflicts and settle their quarrels. But the practice of swearing at shrines may have its ideological effect if acknowledged by the official court as legitimate. The power of the saint is institutionalized as true. The official court has the power to reinforce and sustain this truth. When it accepts people’s oath making at shrines, it legitimizes the whole practice and its ideological implication. In this way, the saint’s authority is legitimized, which implicitly encourages the healers to exert more pressure on their followers to submit to their commands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy