Sacred Dissonance


Sufism, the inner mystical dimension of Islam, aims to repair the heart and turn away from all else but God. The Sufi path leads to the presence of the Devine, where one can purify the inner self from filth, and have it be beautified with a variety of praiseworthy traits. Sufism is non-dogmatic, flexible and non-violent and so is considered to be particularly suited for interreligious and intercultural dialogue. It is seen as a symbol of tolerance.

“Is it real?” This is the question I get asked the most, in all contexts. The answer is always yes. It may not be what they think it is. But it is real. Their interpretation may be incomplete or mislead, or too literal, but it is real outside the hierarchy of truth they have in pace in their minds. It is this hierarchy that is not real.
Focussing on this question gets in the way of understanding the essence and meaning of the thing in question. Is it real? Does that matter? Is real better than not real? What we found at the Mouseem was realer than reality TV. Realer than KD. Realer than LV. Realer than the mass produced cultures most of us live in. If the women in the lilas were not really in trance, not really moved by the spirits then what were they doing? Would a counterfeit trance have less meaning? Could one fall into a prosthetic trance? Would they be less able to rinse out and beautify their spirits had it been merely cosmic placebo? The truth is, these alleged trances would do their tricks whether we believed in them or not.

Perception is reality and skepticism is a very dull place to live. Students of science know that recognising that our perceptions are not accurate proves that reality does not wear its heart on its sleeve and allows us to believe things beyond what we can see. A student of Sufism is encouraged to suspend disbelief absolutely in order to truly experience the spiritual teachings.

Many people had made the pilgrimage to Sidi Ali to pay respects to the saint and to cohort with a gang of Jinns and spirits. The favorite was Aisha. A beautiful woman said to be able to make men fall in love with her. Everyone we met had something to say about Aisha and not two stories were the same. Aisha was a woman who used to make the pilgrimage to Sidi Ali. She would stay in a cave in the town. She had not been seen in decades, but it was impossible to know if she had died, or just not come back. She had made many men fall in love with her and had married them before they noticed her hooves. Most people described personal experiences with Aisha. It was hard to understand if people were talking about a real person, a ghost, or a god. It seems like Aisha is many people and that the idea of Aisha exists in many forms, so the stories of her are malleable. Just like any memory, rumor or folk tale twists and grows as time goes on, spiritual stories are distorted by a sort of mystic licence necessary to use words to describe transcendental concepts. A westerner might say he was married to “the devil’ but he does not mean literally that he married the one and only Devil, only that it felt that way, the experience could be had by many. The characters in this kind of anecdote are archetypes and metaphors.

Spirituality is personal and ambiguous, and to focus on the semantics is what the Buddhists compare to looking at a finger pointing at the moon. “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.” Questioning the facts of a story inhibits the ability to understand its meaning. To speak spiritually, is to speak of abstraction to another’s intuitive mind. It does not matter in what realm the story ‘happened’ the story is real. To question the authenticity of the words distracts from the meaning and undermines the essence of the message, like asking the magician to reveal the secrets to his illusions.

There were as many magical ingredients for sale as offerings in Sidi Ali as there were smells on parade. Invisible spirits wafting through the crowd down the narrow streets between the processions of drummers and sacrificial sheep being lead to slaughter. Somehow it was
difficult to smell the difference between burned hair, chameleon and incense just as it was difficult to distinguish between the Jinns and spirits. There was a constant reminder of the obscurity of the lines between things, the edges of things bleeding into one and other.

The one line that seemed to never waiver was the one separating the genders. Women in Sidi Ali were not shop keepers, not cabbies, not musicians nor cooks. All the visible positions were held by men. The women did not tell fortunes, or make tea in public, they did not look after the animals or sew the djelabas and many of them were unhappy, their souls sick. So they organised lilas, gatherings designed for the community to support emotionally unhealthy women while they purged their turmoil. Musicians drummed, sang, fluted and strummed to encourage the women’s dancing, head banging, thrashing, and retching. They would dance until their scarfs fell to the ground. Sometimes freeing the hair that was normally secreted away. Other woman would pick up the scarf and tie it around the trancer’s waist and casually hang on to it in case the trance caused her to fall onto the floor or thrash into a dangerous place. The group would keep her out of harm’s way and encourage her trance by clapping and singing. Blessings were given though out the ceremony. Incenses were burned to help induce trance.

This phenomenon did not seem to translate across genders fluently. Some men seemed to have appropriated the trance dance taking away from the attention the women were getting, to facilitate something a little more like a tantrum. I feel like this is what some of us interlopers expected to find when we were looking for the counterfeit trance. A performance. An act that resided as much in the eyes of the beholder than in the souls of the trancer. The line between exorcizing the demons and exercising them or indulging in them was a fine silver thread stitched deep into the glitz of the event.

At first I saw these actions as corruptions, deformities. I could not tell if it was me who had misunderstood the function of the trance or if they had. I thought I saw the masculine spirit oppressing the female spirit. I felt angry at the men who had barged into the ceremony and were taking money from the women for blessings. These men performed self-harm and entertained a crazed state making the group cringe and turn away. These people danced the same dance but in a different dialect. They danced slang and profanities including burning their faces, cutting their tongues, stabbing and hitting themselves with knives. It seemed to me that to some men, the meaning had been lost in translation. The trespasses of the male performers into harmful taboo as opposed to liberating taboo seemed to transform the roles of the non trancers in the room from supporters to spectators, giving them the spiritual heeby jeebies. The locals could see it too, obviously annoyed by the inconsistency, they made rude gestures to each other to announce their displeasure in the bastardisation as if to say “that’s crrrazy”. But we all watched fascinated, attracted to the extreme nature of the display.

I believe that the women were supporting each other as they tranced as a remedy for depression, purging evil spells while the men competed with them, trancing to show the symptoms of their evil spells, fiendishly preying on the attention. If this was the case, who was it that had launched a holy war against their souls? The musicians supported both, but not blindly. They tolerated the contradiction, they could see the balance. Weather it was harmony or dissidence there was value in the dichotomy, the power of the paradox and the necessity to invite both good and evil to the party. My search for the profound often unearths the profane. The two seem to be synonymous. I’m not sure if it is because the profane feeds on the profound, or if they are entangled on a metaphysical level. Perhaps the sweet spirits and the savory ones need each other. Like the bubble-gum on the couscous. Perhaps the sick men attracted to the lilas were collecting the evil and turmoil that the women were expelling as a spiritual cleansing. Clean up on isle Sidi Ali.

We were warned to be careful with magic. That it was easy to cast a spell instead of undoing one. That it was difficult to know if the spell you were removing was essential to some part of your being. We were out of our element. Not uninvited, but foreign bodies in a very intimate, sensitive place. Like the nail wandering up the mentalist’s nose. The knife sliding across the butcher’s tongue. The homosexuals slipping out of their heteronormative roles and transcending into something taboo. The visceral crossing of a boundary generating a feeling of unease in a spectator. We were crossing a line, venturing out into a place not intended for us. The unease produced by our presence was represented by Popeye, the city councillor sent to keep an eye on us, never sure if he was protecting the museem from us, or us from the museem. I felt embarrassed that we were not participating, our voyeuristic presence transforming this sacred ceremony into a spectacle. We were like virgins watching porn fascinated by the primal, instinctual behaviour. It did not need to be learned, but encouraged. I shamefully thought we should not have been there snooping but perhaps the tabooness of our presence, the awkwardness of our naivety provided a raw innocence and stimulated the kind of discomfort that seemed to attract the spirits to the ceremonies.

For more about this expirience read CounterBalance

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