From Fes with Love: Bridging Cultural Divides with Music, Art, and Dialogue

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Katherine Marshall Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University

At sundown, the barn swallows twirl in loping circles around the ancient walls of Fes, darting in and out of holes in the earthen walls where they build their nests. At the foot of the walls, people gather in the glorious light of early evening, strolling and chatting. It's a peaceful and inspiring scene that evokes the magic of Fes. One of the world's most ancient cities, probably the largest and most authentic living medieval town that still lives today, Fes proudly savors an extraordinary array of culture, crafts, and spiritual gifts. It's past and present in a seamless fabric, religious and profane, west and east.

I was in Fes this weekend for the annual Festival of Sufi Culture. I have for the past decade been part of a daring venture whose aim is no less than bridging clashing cultures through music, art, and dialogue. After the first Gulf War in 1991, Moroccan anthropologist Faouzi Skali conceived a festival of world sacred music that would bring together music from different religious traditions. The array of music would demonstrate the rich heritage and diversity of world religious traditions and their common power to stir the soul. The Fes festival as a formal institution now is 15 years old.

But Skali's vision went much further. He was convinced that music could help in breaking through the barriers between cultures, institutions, and people. Stirred by what we have come to call the alchemy of Fes, people who were sparring and hurling insults would stop and listen to the "other." I was a chance invitee to a first Fes Forum in 2001, not long before September 11, and was hooked by the vision. At that time, some shock troops of the anti-globalization movement met representatives of institutions like the World Bank (where I was at the time) and not only listened; they learned from each other and shaped a different view of what the controversies were about.

So I became Skali's partner in moderating the annual Fes Forum. It has taken on some of the world's toughest issues: Jerusalem, climate change, Jews in Morocco, abused women, science and religion, and the responsibilities of business leaders. There are no magic solutions, but no one has emerged unchanged from the honest encounters that take place in Fes.

Faouzi Skali has moved on from the formal music festival, and for the past three years his work has focused on something he sees as even more powerful: exploring the role of Sufi culture within Islam, both to bring forth what he sees as the essence of his faith, and to bring that essence to the challenge of "giving a soul to globalization." The annual festival of Sufi culture thus brings great Sufi musicians, poets, and artists together with public intellectuals from around the world. It's a harder sell than global sacred music. By its nature, the mystical strands of Islam that Sufism represents are not easy to bottle and sell. The links to challenges of public health, water, and education, for example, are not obvious. And Skali's contention that Sufism is the true heart of Islam with almost universal appeal is not universally accepted.

But on Saturday morning, at the Baatha Museum in Fes, beneath a giant, ancient Barbary Oak tree, a panel of three women and two men (one Morocco's Minister of Culture) engaged in a lively dialogue about the significance of lumping countries together as developing and developed, about whether spiritual matters belonged in discussions about international development, and about what human development means for Morocco. During the evening, before Iraqi and Jordanian musicians performed, the artists visited an orphanage together with a team of doctors participating in the festival to share their art and science. And on Saturday evening two Moroccan Sufi ensembles performed to a packed crowd who sang along as the ecstatic rhythm of the music built to its intense climax.

Morocco is a proudly Muslim country, proud also of its ancient traditions. Fes celebrates 1500 years of history, and Moroccans remind us often that theirs was the first country to recognize formally the fledgling independent United States. The Andalusian music is a reminder of a cultural heritage that goes back to the Iberian Peninsula, where there once was what many celebrate as one of the golden eras of genuine religious tolerance in world history. But Morocco's culture also includes the Sufi Samaa groups and glorious eclectic singers in a more modern tradition, like Karima Skali.

But Morocco is a country that faces many challenges. Some are deeply familiar -- disappointing schools and stubbornly high unemployment rates, for example. The struggle between modernity and tradition, the impact of migration, and insecurity are real. What is central in Fes is the tension that some call the battle for the soul of Islam, between what Moroccans call extremists or Islamists and the more embracing Muslim vision of the Sufi Festival.

We reflect together on these challenges in Fes. We explored, for example, the current tension in Morocco around the role of Evangelical groups. There is a kerfuffle about Americans abruptly expelled in recent months, accused of proselytizing. The view I heard in Fes is that Morocco is a Muslim country that celebrates religious freedom, that individuals are free to practice their faith. But they hear about a plan, a strategy to convert Muslims to Christianity, even with targets and numbers. And the sensitive topic of religion and children was sparked by rumors around the religious practices in an orphanage. What I found most encouraging in these discussions was a determination by my colleagues to dig deeper into the facts of the case and to find out what was really happening.

Over the decade of my Fes partnership with Faouzi Skali, we refer often to what we see as a magic of Fes. It is, in many respects, the magic of a vision and an ideal of a diverse and just world where different cultures and religions celebrate and learn from one another. It is an ideal that must contend with the harsh realities of war in the Middle East, the tragedy of Morocco's loss of its Jewish population, and the grinding poverty that can be seen in the medina of Fes. But the vision is also real.

What the alchemy of Fes represents is something that is at the very heart of what so many of us who speak of social justice are striving for: a willingness to listen and to hear, to understand and to learn across cultures. The idea that music can help unlock frozen hearts is powerful. The spiritual traditions of Fes are alive, too. Fassi children speak of a time where Muslims and Jews lived side by side. Senegalese pilgrims visiting shrines of Sufi masters are just one reminder of the interconnections in our world.

What better place can there be to grapple with the hatreds and tensions of our world than under an ancient tree where birds sing, with the muezzin's call to prayer wafting from the medina? It restores hope that indeed we can bridge the divides if we want to do so and set out to listen to what others say and try to see the world from where they sit.