An enchanted evening in historic Fes
by Salim Mansur
As I wait in a crowded square at one of the entrances into the old town of Fes in Morocco for musicians to take the stage after evening prayers, the scene before me is as far removed as it can be from quarrels of the world beyond the Atlas Mountains.
I have come to Fes to take in the sights and sounds of the most fascinating city in Morocco, likely in all of Africa. The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, held annually at this time, is unique as musicians and poets from around the globe gather here to celebrate the language of the heart that transcends any and all divisions among the children of Adam.
Fes was founded by Moulay Idris, a descendant of Muhammad, around 789. His son Moulay Idris II extended the town during his reign from 807 to 828, and he is buried in the centre of Fes inside a mosque remarkable for its interior art work and exquisite calligraphy in marble.
The old town of Fes is a labyrinth of narrow streets, shops and homes where, except for electricity and its working facilities, one is immediately transported back to the times of Maimonides, the revered Jewish sage from the 12th century, and earlier.
Maimonides and his family found refuge in Fes after leaving behind trouble-infested Cordoba, as did generations of families later — Arabs, Berbers and Jews, from al-Andalus (Spain). They came to Fes and added to its fame and fortune.\
Commerce and philosophy were joined together in Fes. Here stands one of the grandest mosques in Africa, al-Quaraouiyine, and it houses one of the oldest universities in the world, opened in 859, where Ibn Rushd (Averroes) lectured.
Fes is also the centre of Sufism — the path of mystics in Islam that connects with all faith traditions through the language of the heart — and the gateway to Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.
The mosque and shrine of Sheikh Ahmed Tijani is a short walking distance from al-Qaraouiyine, and this is traditionally the first stop for pilgrims to Mecca from Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
The Sheik established the hugely popular Sufi order, al-Tijaniyya, in Africa. When I entered the shrine to pay respect to him and perform my mid-afternoon prayers, I found myself surrounded by a congregation of black Africans in robes of vibrant colours visiting to honour their beloved Sufi master.
In my travels through Muslim countries, visiting homes and sharing meals in such remote places as Ajmer in India or Samarkand and Kashgar in Central Asia, I have unfailingly noticed the quiet dignity of people in sharp contrast with the hateful politics of Islamists.
I find the dignity of people in Fes, consistent with the city's history, appears as a rebuke to Muslims across mountains, deserts and seas who have turned their hearts from being an oasis of tranquility into a snake-pit of bigotry and violence.
The musicians return and a singer from Mali fills the air with his love song to Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and the people around me respond in rhythm to the music while the starry night unfolds above me in an absolutely enchanting Fes.