I Saw Some Gnawa

On one of my last few nights in Rabat, I returned to our host family’s house from a typical evening downtown doing who know’s what. Music rose from within the neighborhood, wafting towards me, until I spotted the source half a block from the house. I convinced my roommate to come out and investigate with me and found a crowd gathered around the musicians. The performers sang, chanted and played qraqebs (Moroccan castanets). They danced, occasionally picking up items, such as mirrors, framed pictures and knives. I had read about Gnawa and conceptually knew what a laila is, but having never seen one, was unsure what I was observing. Inquiring with other spectators confirmed that this was a Gnawa laila.
Gnawa is a spiritual practice brought to Morocco from Sub-Saharan Africa (possibly Guinea) through the pan-African slave trade. It is based on pre-Islamic traditions involving the invocation of spirits into possessing the participating gnawis and their m’allem (Gnawa master). The selected spirit is drawn into possession through the performance of its favorite music and is then consorted and appeased through said music, dance and its favorite objects, in order resolve issues related to the spirit. Such rituals are called “lailas,” literally meaning “night,” as they tend to last a whole night. When brought to Morocco, Gnawa incorporated Islamic saints and the Prophet himself, giving it an Islamic facade. It’s hard to argue that Gnawa is anything, but heretical to Islam, but it gained popularity among Moroccans of all classes and is now an accepted as an integral part of Moroccan culture, at least for the music. It has gained much attention from Western anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and musicians and is often exoticized. I try to be wary of exoticism, but cannot say I don’t share the anthropologist’s fascination.
Well, I did not think I would ever get to witness a laila myself, especially in the middle of my street. I could hardly get an impression of the attitudes of the spectators, whether they viewed it as an obscene spectacle or something to be revered, but they watched. Cars would occasionally try to pass through the street, but back out as if fought off by the dancers. This was contrary to my usual expectations of Moroccan drivers who would honk their way through or even try to navigate through the crowd, with complete faith that everyone will get out of the way. Maybe the attitude was respect. Eventually, the gnawis withdrew into the home of the host in need of spiritual healing. From there they continued well into the night. I was periodically wakened to hear them continue, until about 4 in the morning. If it was any other party I might be peeved, but I was to excited to be upset.

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