The Lord of the Middle Atlas

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is adapted from Signs on the Horizons by Shaykh Michael Sugich.

“Standing to one side of the room was the strange, majestic figure of Sidi Swalih (q.s.), the founder of his eponymous community, the shaykh of this extraordinary Sufi order and spiritual lord of the Middle Atlas.  He was an incredibly romantic figure, conjuring images of Orson Welles in ‘The Black Rose’.  His most striking feature was his huge, oriental, kohl-laden eyes.  His face was luminous and quite beautiful but also slightly odd.  He moved with the languid ease and authority of a king, which, I suppose, is close to what he was in this district, yet his gestures had a jerky quality that I attributed to his mountain Berber upbringing.  He welcomed us warmly.  We sat and, finally, were served milky coffee and Moroccan biscuits.

I told him that we had been sent to learn horsemanship and the sacred dance, the hadhrah, also called imarah, of his Sufi order.  The moment I mentioned ‘imarah’, Sidi Swalih’s (q.s.) eyes lit up, he clapped his hands twice and, suddenly, the entire assembly of about 30 men leapt to their feet, formed a huge circle and instantaneously began the most extraordinary hadhrah I have ever seen or experienced.  It was a complex and pulsating dance with an incredible double bounce.  To use the parlance of my American generation, it rocked.

Young Hasan was in the circle with us.  On the outside of the circle children about his age or younger gathered.  They were a strange looking collection, many with their heads shaved, presumably against lice, but with tufts of hair left intact, sticking out in odd places from their bald scalps, apparently a pre-Islamic Berber custom.  These children, eyes closed, were swaying and rocking and bouncing at the back of the circle.  It was an utterly bizarre sight.  I glanced over at Hasan who was looking at these rapturous rocking children with wide-eyed wonder.

When the hadhrah was over, we were all reeling, intoxicated and exhausted.  And then a magnificent feast was served; a sheep upon a huge bed of couscous garnished with fresh vegetables.  While we were eating, bathed in the illuminated backwash of the hadhrah, it dawned on me why we had been waiting for hours. When we arrived unannounced, Sidi Swalih (q.s.) had ordered that a sheep be slaughtered and a feast prepared in our honour.”


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