Sufism, Tunisian style

Time for a positive spin. Sufism! The ‘inner mystical dimension’ of Islam. In Tunisia, they don’t have Dervishers, which is a pity, because they look so cool. Well done Turkey. Great PR.

Plus Sufi has great poets like Rumi:

Come, come, whoever you are,.
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair

I love that line: ‘Ours is not a caravan of despair‘. It’s become a bit of a mantra for my adventures in transition.

A while back, I went to hear some sufi singers at Musiqat the annual festival organised by the Centre de Musique Arabes et Méditerranéennes – based in the Palais Ennejma Ezzahra. Great perfomance by Alim Qasimov, a traditional Azerbaïdjani singer, check out his video on the Musiqat site. Some see him as the successor to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. At such events (in the absence of spinning-top dancers to watch) I tend to close my eyes and go with the flow. Anyway, when Qasimov  was performing  I got so wrapped up in the trance that I fell off my chair. The mark of a great evening.

When drafting this post, I just followed the thread and checked out Nusrat  and some Divine Dervishers.  But then the youtube loading icon got stuck in a trance  at minute 3.48. where the skirts are swirling like a Dulux colour chart. Still at it 8 hours later. Youtube equivalent of falling off chair. Sufism. It gets to you like that.

In Tunisia, this mystical side of Islam is found in the hundreds of ‘mausoleums’: tombs / burial sites / shrines to various marabouts and ‘saints’, dotted all over the country, and in particular on hilltops. Mausoleum-spotting is becoming a theme of my time here. Sort of symbolic of the end of all transitions. I’m ticking them off like the Munros. Except there are more than 282 mausoleums. This may be a long journey.  Inch Allah.

We often hike up to the Mausoleum at Zagouan, shrine of Sidi Bougabrin, the ‘saint with two tombs’ .Except no-one knows where the other is.

The guardian of the mausoleum is a really happy guy, living with his family up on the hillside, surrounded by nature and cracking views. He explained how in the past, under the dictatorship, there was a representative of the Ministry of Interior (mukhabarat – security) who was posted there to watch over him, watching over the mausoleum. Listening to conversations, preventing anyone engaging. Once the Arab Spring kicked off, the guardian kicked him out. Now the mausoleum gets hundreds of visitors. Not sure what these guys up to, but they look like they having fun and the guardian is with them so that’s the seal of approval.

Although Sufism is alive in Tunisia it is more ‘kicked’ than ‘kicking’. The current tendency towards Wahabism (‘Saudi model of Islam Heavy’ as opposed to ‘Turkish model of Islam Lite’) has led to attacks on these sites.  In particular, the burning of the Sayyeda Manoubia Mausoleum, a 500-year old shrine that pays tribute to a female Muslim saint, reported in English here.

This article (from which above photo taken) explains in more detail that:  For centuries, local women have visited the tomb of the saint to ask for help with problems or to cure diseases, and many poor women seek sanctuary there.

Of course, before we get too outraged, remember back to 1842, when  the British consul to Tunis destroyed the entire Libyo-Punic mausoleum at Dougga. Just in order to remove the stone tablet with the inscription to ‘Ateban, son of Ypmatat, son of Palu‘. Thankfully, the story has a happy ending: in 1910, a French archaeologist rebuilt the mausoleum.

But without the inscription, which Nessie and Amine are looking for here:

Haha.. it is now in the British Museum. Probably stored alongside other famous ‘protected’ items like the Parthenon / Elgin marbles. For an interesting article on this issue, read: A History of the World with a Hundred Looted Objects. .

The other mausoleum which figures large in my mind is the  tomb of Sidi Amor Abbada, a blacksmith with a taste for prophesy and forging objects on a grand scale: not least the set of giant anchors that were supposed to secure Kairouan to the earth.

Given the heady ambiance of spiritual flights of fancy, the anchors were perhaps essential. This merits a separate post. To be continued.


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