7. Exhibit Three: Possessed by Documentation

When words are written down, they become social facts, they have a material power, a power to affect things, a power of contagion even. In Moroccan practices of magic, for example, words from the Qur’an are written on small pieces of paper and either worn on the body as amulets, or put in a glass of water where the ink dissolves and is ingested. Words conjure presence.

Calligraphy is also a very developed art in the Islamic world. Although representational art is rare, as it is hubris to depict what God alone can create (and of course the images on the walls provide an interesting counter-point to this), centuries of care have been given to the art of calligraphy (Messick 1993). There are Sufi prayer exercises, for example, that instruct the believer to envision the word "God" as if projected behind their forehead. The letters themselves are used as portals to mystical experience.

It is in this context of the power of print that we can read Si Abdullah El-Gourd’s luha.

A luha is technically a board or slate. It is what children write upon when they are memorizing verses from the Qur’an in Qur’anic School. A luha is in this context a place for the consecration of sacred words.

When I first discovered Abdullah El-Gourd’s luha I had an epiphany of my own. I had been attending lilas for years, had recorded all-night ceremonies on my Marantz, had listened to my tapes for hours trying to get the order of the invocation to the spirits, to transcribe the words of the songs.

Abdullah displays his luha

I had interviewed Gnawis trying to get them to dictate the lila to me. We had some good starts but never got far. Here, however, in Dar Gnawa was a poster-size chart of the lila from beginning to end, the names of the myriad saints and spirits written out plainly. What’s more, the m’allam was extremely articulate about his tradition and vocation. Well, Randy Weston had been telling to go to Dar Gnawa since I met him.

Usually Abdullah El-Gourd wakes from his afternoon siesta, gets out his draftman’s tools – rulers, calipers, stencils – orders a large glass of steaming mint tea from the café across the street and gets to work on his luha. This is a chart where Abdullah El-Gourd meticulously records the progression of the lila, from the playful songs sung before the ceremony (l‘ab), through all the spirits. There are two-hundred forty-three qita’, "cuts" (or segments) in the Tangier lila, which, unlike Gnawa ceremonies in other cities, is performed over two days and nights.

The chart is coded by color – white, green, black, red, pink, yellow, violet, orange. Each spirit is associated with a color. There are several spirits in each group, all sharing the incense burned with that color. Each spirit has their own song, and each color, or group of spirits, has a food or drink associated with it, something which is imbibed, or incorporated into the body.

An old luha, a newer one, and a work-in-progress in Dar Gnawa

There were three luhas in Dar Gnawa when I was there. The m’allam was working on a new one. There was an old one from 1980 – he was not pleased with the aesthetic presentation of that – and a half-done luha that was, he realized well into his work, short one slot for the songs of the black spirits (each group of spirits has a color that unites them into a class, or family). So he started again. Around the edges of the diagram in the older luha Abdullah El-Gourd had written the names of the countries where, he said, the Gnawa came from: Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda, Conga, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Zaire, Niger, Sudan, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso. Inscribed in a small box on the lower right hand corner, he had written the following words, in English:

The Way of the Gnawa
The Ancestor’s Heritage composed and ordered by Dar Gnawa for [its] preservation from dust. Dedicated to all koyatis and Gnawa lovers.

Here was cultural preservation, self-conscious, self-proclaimed – a way to possess heritage and, tellingly, to order it. Abdullah El-Gourd was creating precedent by committing the oral tradition to paper and ink, so that it would not turn to "dust" when the bodies of its bearers were no longer. Ironically and predictably, his efforts come at a time when the treq lila, literally the path or progression of the ceremony, is transforming dramatically because of its commdodification, both at home and abroad. By consecrating the lila to script, Abdullah El-Gourd does not possess what he calls the "heritage" so much as he is possessed by the act of documentation. The index that he is creating, much like the "folk maps" that Palestinians make of destroyed villages (Slyomovics 1998:7), provides a symbolic placement for the Gnawa and their traditions. It is not an index to the imaginary and symbolic geography of an individual (Pandolpho 1997), but to what Abdullah El-Gourd is careful to delineate as a regional tradition. "This is the Tangier lila," he repeated often. Writing, Abdullah El-Gourd is propitiating the spirit that desires to capture tradition before it disappears with the last of its practitioners. Present-day Gnawis, it will be remembered, market the music but have little knowledge of the ritual context from which it sprang. Abdullah El-Gourd still remembers. The consecration of this memory to writing creates what Nora calls a "lieux de mémoire," a symbolic residence for the Gnawa identity (Nora 1989). But he is also propitiating the spirit of capitalism, of rationality and modernity, entering the tradition-qua-tradition into a trans-national index. For what is an index if not a way to locate, to define and to classify? "While memory is the raw material of history," Slyomovics reminds us, "a document is what remains" (ibid: 18). The index is the objectification of this memory. Not surprisingly, with the help of Si Said and his European agent, Abdullah has created a web-site for Dar Gnawa, for example (www.dargnawa.myweb.nl). His preoccupations with the luha are intricately related to giving order and – more importantly – public and official recognition to the Gnawa cultural identity.

My reactions were perhaps predictably tinged with 11th hour anxiety as well. I also wanted to own this luha, to possess the "facts" that I (and, I should mention, several of my close colleagues) had been trying to "get down" for so long. I wanted to lay claim to that luha, and to Gnawa culture as I knew it had not been presented or codified before. As you might guess, my desires were thwarted.

Nor was I alone in my desire to possess this object. "I wish I could get a copy of that luha," the saxophonist from the Royal Orchestra said to the m’allam one night, gesturing to the chart. "No one gets a copy. No copies," said the m’allam. "It’s not ready."

Abdullah El-Gourd would not part with a copy of a luha (though he had several from previous years), nor would he allow me to photograph the whole thing. "It’s not ready," he kept repeating. "ma zal," not yet."(7)

The luha, in fact, is not very useful to the non-initiated. It is an index, a farras in Arabic. Listing the names of the songs, it acts as a mnemonic device for those who already know the tunes and the lyrics. Implicit in the idea of an index is that there is a reality (a text, a performance, a repertoire) outside the index to which it faithfully corresponds. The concept of the "indexical" is inseparable from that of referential association (Silverstein 1976). But it is also true that the index (as a representation) constitutes its object (Hall 1997, 1980). And in fact, Abdullah El-Gourd is codifying a ritual that, in corporeal practice, may be far more malleable than the index infers. What’s more, most often, the names of the songs are the names of the spirits they are propitiating. An index of proper names, the luha does not lend itself to translation. Following Derrida (1985), we know that proper names resist translation utterly. They are icons of difference. For whom did Abdullah El-Gourd create the index, then, and why?

Mastering the progression of these names and consecrating them to print, Abdullah becomes the author of the Tangier tradition. The more I got to know Abdullah El-Gourd, however, the more I realized that he himself was possessed by documentation, almost obsessive about his task of writing down the path of the ceremony, and protective about the knowledge that he alone has transcribed. I saw three luhas, but there had been others. None of them were technically on display, but had been discarded to make room for the new. The current luha was exhibited, but only as a work-in-progress. Yet every day for years, Abdullah El-Gourd worked on his luha in the presence of the visitors and apprentices who frequented Dar Gnawa. It was an idée fixe.

Why, when all the music and images in Dar Gnawa were so accessible to my photography and questions, was this luha coveted? Did Abdullah El-Gourd’s years at Voice of America sensitize him to the power of information? Did the act of writing imbue the luha with a special status? Or was it his travel in Europe and the U.S. that exposed him to the possibilities of eventually commodifying his knowledge in a form a foreigner might appreciate, even pay for, or at least publish? I didn’t know, but I hoped to find out. I asked Abdullah El-Gourd if he would mind if I interviewed him on tape and he agreed.

I arrived at four o’clock the next day, an hour before Dar Gnawa opens its doors to the public. When I got there, DAT-recorder in hand, I found that Abdullah El-Gourd had already set up a video camera and intended to record my recording of him.

"You don’t mind, do you, if Si Said videos our interview?" he asked. Si Said was the ma‘llemam’s producer-in-training.

Ma kayn mushkil, "No problem," I said, not completely sincerely. I was already nervous about this interview, for although the m’allam was always polite and helpful, he insisted on speaking a formal Arabic with me, always maintaining a professional distance. For my part, I was fluent in Moroccan Arabic, but less practiced in classical Arabic. I felt like I was being interviewed. Okay. Post-modern ethnography. The camera turns on the anthropologist. I wondered how those images would be disseminated after my departure.

In our spoken interview the m’allam read from many parts of the luha, reciting to me the names of the African spirits, the Haussiyin (from Haussa) for example, – Baba Madani, Fulani, Busunana, Malgatu, Mamario – and all the qita’ in the color blue, Sidi Musa, Saint Moses, the color that Randy Weston pays homage to at every concert. But he stopped short of reading all 243 titles. Bizaf, he said. That’s too much [to recite].

That Abdullah El-Gourd wanted to capture my interview with him on film speaks to his awareness of film as an important medium of documentation. Yet day after day, year after year, he carefully writes the names of the songs to the saints and spirits on his luha. It is, for him, a kind of meditation that he returns to daily. It is also a way for him to excavate what until now has only lived in the recesses of bodily memory. Whereas setting up a video camera at a lila would capture the order, the words, the process of the ceremony, visual representation does not have the same effect. Images are like mirrors, and we may wander among their halls in a kind of somnambulism of the senses. Writing, on the other hand – especially the act of writing about the body and about the spirits that inhabit the body – demands reflexivity, what I referred to earlier as a "coming to terms" with culture. What’s more, Abdullah El-Gourd might be less able to control the circulation of images, which are easier to reproduce.

Ironically, spending time at Dar Gnawa is not an immersion into tagnawit in the strict sense of the term. Surrounded by images of great jazz musicians, as well as photos of secular Gnawa performances (frajat) in Spain, France and the U.S., there is no pervasive feeling of anything resembling "pure" Gnawa-ness. The soundscape is equally diverse. The music of jazz musicians, West Africans, Latinos and others, fills the space, entering the body through the vibrations created by the high decibels. We might say that Abdullah El-Gourd is inhabited by the spirits of the jazz ancestors just as Randy Weston is inhabited by the spirits of the African ancestors. Indeed, when I asked Abdullah El-Gourd if his own music – the music in his non-ritual repertoire – was affected by his encounter with jazz, his response was an immediate affirmative. The same is true for Randy Weston, who makes regular pilgrimages back to Morocco, whose career and life path have changed definitively because of his encounters and inhabitations.

There is little anxiety about cultural loss in Dar Gnawa at the level of image and sound. The history portrayed there is an international one – not just Pan-African, but also one that reaches across the Straits to Andalusia in Spain, and across the Atlantic to Brooklyn. There is no protectionism here. Historical influences are fluid. Like the jnun, the spirits in the ceremonies, they come from different parts of the globe, from different time periods and different regions. Some, like Sidi Musa or Moses, from the Levant; others, like Sidi Bilal, from Africa, still others like Abdulqadr Jilani, from Iraq. And then Thelonius Monk, born in North Carolina but raised in New York, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, others. Inhabiting the bodies of those they possess, these spirits dance and sing history into the present. For the Gnawa there is no danger that spirits will be lost. They simply ARE. Their incarnation has always varied – Sidi Musa may possess a young Moroccan girl or an American-born African jazz composer. The images, then, the representations of the spirits, will also always change. The photos are symbols for spirits-ancestors. Since spirits never can be actually represented, however, Abdullah is free to engage in infinite substitution. Following Roland Barthes, he is helped by the medium of photography itself, which because it is invisible – we see through the photograph to the image – always points to the referent, "repeating mechanically what could never be repeated existentially." (1980:15).

This is true of the sound as well. It comes through each musician differently. There is no one right way to play.

If an embodied musical culture does not exist, tradition dies. Abdullah El-Gourd knows this, which is why he has virtually created a school for the instruction and practice of Gnawa traditional music. After working on his luha, he always takes out his ginbri, and though they listen to recorded music from all over the world, they always play their own songs. Yet the luha – as representation of the rational, the literate, the modern – becomes the object that is kept from circulation on the cultural market. It has, for Abdullah, great worth as an item of symbolic capital. Dedicated to the koyatis, the Gnawa dancers or apprentices, and to all those who love the culture – the written record of the luha exists to save what he calls (in English it should be noted) the "Ancestor’s Heritage" from dust. It is not the memory of the ancestors that he is preserving with the luha, for they are remembered perennially in the dances and songs, in the bodies and breath of the Gnawa; it is rather the tradition that they have bequeathed that is being preserved, it is a particular Tangier practice that he intends to save by codifying it in print. That he is the only one to consign such knowledge to print puts Abdullah in a privileged relation to this genealogy of ancestors. He is both a critic of Gnawa tradition as practiced nationally and a custodian of his particular tradition. The treq lila, the path of the ceremony as Abdullah El-Gourd learned it, is changing rapidly. In other cities, whole colors are deleted from the lila and parts of the ritual once considered essential are dispensed with completely. Abdullah El-Gourd’s luha is a memorial to a specifically local way of honoring the spirits. Disembodied and consecrated to the luha, the spirits would seem to inhabit a new medium in ink and Abdullah El-Gourd come to possess the tradition. But does this act of authorship signal the death of the spirit?

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