After my first Ramadhan as a Muslim in London, I was invited to visit the zawiyya of our Shaykh in Morocco. I travelled alone, flying to Tangiers and then took the train. The little station at Meknes, called Sidi Abdal Kader, seemed to be waiting for me. It must have been early December and the orange trees with their blossoms already out, gave it the air of a garden rather than a train station. The scent wafted fragrantly over me, filling my nostrils. I clambered down off the train and, amongst pushing Moroccans in djellabas, handed in my ticket.
As instructed, I took a Petite Taxi down the hill to the zawiyya in the Medina, saying “Zawiyya, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib”. The taxi driver immediately knew where I meant. After a short drive through the rather scruffy, once French ‘Nouvelle Ville’, we descended a hill and took the right fork alongside a park, a large space with few scrubby trees and a lot of unswept rubbish. The taxi soon stopped outside an insignificant little green door on the left that was open and led up an alleyway, just next to the police station. I grabbed my small bag of belongings and the driver, seeing my confusion, indicated I should go up the alley. I walked up the incline that was dim in comparison with the bright sun outside.
There was a door on the left that opened on to a large light room, full of men sitting and drinking Moroccan tea in small huddles. They waved me back, and then one of them came over, extracting his yellow moroccan shoes or ‘babouches’ from a pile on a high shelf. He came out and shuffled to a small door that I had missed in the dark at the corner of the passage. He knocked loudly on it for me with the flat of his hand. Eventually there was a response, a woman’s voice shouting what sounded like: “Schoon!” He shouted something I did not understand, and the door opened onto a whitewashed courtyard with a fountain in the middle and a lemon tree in the corner. The woman looked like a travel poster advertising Morocco, with two glittery scarves tied in a wild knot on top of her head, a hint of hennaed hair peeping out over her ears, layers of frothy, coloured kaftans all tied up at her waist by a large plaid apron, and some flowery baggy trousers below; the whole outfit was completed by a pair of fluorescent pink plastic sandals. Her face broke into a wide gold-toothed smile as she grabbed my bag, kissed me on both cheeks and pulled me in through the doorway.
We entered the kitchen that was a large high-ceilinged room, mostly empty of what I knew of kitchen appliances, except on the far side there was what seemed to be a huge, cream coloured, old-fashioned refrigerator with four doors. Opposite the door through which we had entered, there was a tap and a drain; this seemed to be what passed for a sink. There were three charcoal-fired pottery burners, obviously used for cooking, with large shiny aluminium kettles on them. These, I found out later, provided all the hot water. The faded cream-coloured walls were lined with women of all shapes and colours, sitting on simple threadbare bunks covered in patterned cloth that had obviously seen better days. In front of them were a few low wooden tables covered with huge piles of vegetables they were peeling and throwing into large aluminium pots for the midday meal. One had an enormous pile of mint in front of her; she was sorting the leaves from the stalks and tossing the stalks on the floor. It took me a few minutes to focus on the almost medieval scene. It was evident that I was in, what I would now hesitate to call the ‘harem’ given its negative connotations to those of us educated with western Victorian colonialist values. It was obviously the women’s quarters.
Being naturally shy I was not quite sure what I should do next. The woman who had opened the door led me to two ladies who were sitting together on the left side of the kitchen. The younger of them, sensing my confusion, rose, kissed me on both cheeks and led me with my bag out of the kitchen along a narrow passage to a small courtyard at the back. I soon discovered that she was the Shaykh’s fourth and youngest wife, Lalla Zulaikha. She knocked on the door to the right of the courtyard and my English friend, opened it.
I had come to the right place.
After much greeting and “Goodness, you made it on your own!” and “How was the journey”, I looked around the room. Apart from her, there were two other women I knew from London. I was completely unprepared, I had had no idea what to expect. They were in a little damp room with a small high window for light. There were some straw filled mattresses on the floor covered with Moroccan blankets, a lot of bags and clothes in what seemed to be total confusion. My friend’s nine-month old child was crawling amongst all this with a terribly runny nose. The whole scene was somewhat daunting and not nearly as exotic as the kitchen.
As I was taking all this in, there was a knock at the door and a polished silver tray was presented by one of the women from the kitchen with a teapot, four glasses and a plate of hard flat sponge cakes. My friend took it and poured the mint tea. They all looked thinner. They had spent their days fasting and doing dhikr, in the contained and protected world of the zawiyya. Their only outing was to the kitchen to eat, where in the evening, now that Ramadhan was over, they recited the evening wird and sang the diwan of the Shaykh. I on the other hand had come from London and the struggle of daily life. I was more than a little sceptical. They all seemed a little high and what we called – ‘full of light’. I do not wish to be cynical because they were. It was just that I could not see it; all I could see was the room I was going to have to sleep in.
They told me of the miracles they had experienced, small things that had happened to them, mostly to do with food; cups of coffee that appeared almost miraculously when they thought they could no longer bear the diet; boxes of muesli (something that was impossible to buy in Morocco in those days) that had arrived unexpectedly one day. I realized, later on, that partly the reason they spoke of these small ‘miracles’ was because they could not speak about the greater ones; they were things that happened in the heart and were only related to the Shaykh or his muqaddim.