The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was born with an idealistic hypothesis: the diversity and wonder of music from different faiths and cultures can break through barriers of intolerance and misunderstanding and create harmony among very different people. Another core belief is that the world and especially the phenomena we call globalization are badly in need of spiritual succor.
So today (June 7) I am in Fes awaiting the Festival's grand opening, an outdoor performance of an original opera inspired by this year's theme: Andalusia. That's another ideal, a Camelot type memory of a golden age of religious tolerance where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked side by side. The link is that when Ferdinand and Isabella completed the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula many fled to Morocco and especially to Fes, where artistic traditions especially live on. Meanwhile, the jacarandas are blooming, the ancient city bustles, and the magical light of Fes are reminders of beauty, even as I saw two veiled women scavenging in a garbage bin.
A wonderful thing about festivals is that they can bring together so many different threads and a distinctive feature of Fes is that the artistic elements, which are the main attraction, are balanced with intellectual and political ideals. My role is as co-moderator (with the Festival's founding genius Faouzi Skali) of a dialogue forum that takes place for four Mondays. So there are a smattering of intellectuals among the musicians, artists, producers and so forth.
My aperitif to the festival was a lunch at a round table at the Festival headquarters with a wonderful mix of people who are part of the event. The talk wandered from the significance of a Friday couscous, the Portuguese tradition of fan art, the spiritual core of the number seven, sufi groups and their unifying beliefs, Chinese movement therapy as a route to happiness at a cancer center in Yucatan, Mexico, and hand movements in Indian dance. All this in a beautiful oasis in the ancient medina of Fes with a pink painted door, an explosion of roses, a heap of glorious fresh fruit and the sound of a Sufi group warming up for the evening outside.
The joy of diversity is what a festival like this is all about, but the lunch conversation converged on an exploration of what that involves. Questions about the situation in the Maghreb today sobered the group. Algerian professor Mustapha Cherif took an informal stage as he reflected on what's become of the Arab Spring. It's not a spring, he said, it's too dark. It's a revolt, not yet a revolution. And, argued Cherif, it comes back to a concept that is deeply embedded in the Quran, but also in Buddhism and in Chinese philosophy. The word he used is wassat. It has different but related meanings: a balance (as on a scale), an equilibrium, a central point, a basis for justice.
What's happening in this region is a struggle between people who seek two extremes. One is a values-driven society, pure and lived on religious principles. That is the Islamist perspective. The other, the secular, takes the opposite extreme, and would reject all things religious as superstition, relics of the past. But both are essential and they are so interwoven that they cannot live without the other. Democracy and rule of law are essential but need to draw both on the understandings of science and modernity and on the core of faith and values. Faith is individual but religion here, argued Cherif, belongs in the public sphere. The instrumentalization of religion, meaning its use to gain power or to exert social control, won't work. But ignoring religion won't work either. The international scene also enters into this challenge. The group, with looks askance to the sole American, stressed that solutions cannot be imposed from outside and grumbled at the feeble democracy of international relations today. Finding a "point juste," or a sweet spot, is finding a balance and that cam only come with true appreciation of diversity and even more respect for the fact that it is the essence, the very nature, and the beauty of life.
So, on the festival's eve a lunch conversation foreshadowed a feast of sensual experience, wonder at new ideas and underlying challenges in the very different lenses through which different people view the same world.