3. Metaphors of Possession

Spirits in Morocco are called al-mluk – the possessors, from the verb ma-la-ka, to own. There is a relationship of power within the body of the possessed, which is often a conflictual one until the possessed submits to the possessor. As Fuson has noted (2001), there is the metonymic relationship between spirit possession and past experiences of slavery; they are clearly linked. Spirits cannot be exorcised in Moroccan belief. They inhabit the host. Indeed, a possessed person is said to be meskun – inhabited by the possessors. The body becomes a residence in which the spirits dwell and that they also change irreversibly. This is why propitiation is so important. If the body is not a welcoming host, the tenant will cause troubles for a lifetime. Conversely, by placating the spirit, one also partakes in his or her power. Accommodation is necessary for co-existence, but the possessed person is not diminished by being inhabited; she may even come to master the spirits that reside within her.

There are two ways to interpret the verb "to possess". A spirit possesses another, one is possessed by an incorporeal being, who animates the limbs, causes the mouth to move, the vocal chords to sound. Colors are often related to states of possession, auras appear; incense, or at least certain smells accompany the transition from being one’s self to being embodied by a spirit, "inhabited" (meskun) by an other. This relation is a corporeal one, the senses, their synapses and responses, are infused with difference, like barium shot into the blood stream, the body becomes magnetized, transparently dense. Possession requires an alchemical reaction, a transmutation of subtle and dense matter as two different substances encounter and change each other.

But one can also possess culture like one possesses a car, a coat, or a pet. This relation involves an exchange – money for goods in the case of an object, or food and shelter for affection and companionship. Possessing an object does not require the possessor to be reflexive and conscious of her possessiveness. To possess culture, however, is often qualitatively different. In order to possess culture – to really "own" it, own up to it – one must "come to terms" with it, that is, one must create the terms of culture, to define it, to be self-possessed, to be possessed by an idea of culture. As numerous studies have demonstrated (Casey 1997; Csordas 1993; Feld 1982; Serematakis 1994), culture is embodied, imbricated in the layers of the self. It thus must be excavated from the veins and sinews of the body, drawn out and made into a specimen. Culture, because it lives in the unconscious recesses of the nerves and organs, comes to light when it encounters difference – as when liquid hits air, or water turns to gas.

This story is premised on such an encounter between Gnawa master Abdullah El-Gourd, the proprietor of Dar Gnawa, and African-American jazz pianist and composer, Randy Weston. Their collaboration may be seen as the catalyst for a dual possession of culture that redefines cultural histories and imaginations.

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