Page last updated at 09:46 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 10:46 UK

Fez music festival builds bridges

By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Fez, Morocco

US opera singer Jessye Norman
US opera singer Jessye Norman was one of the main festival attractions

The week that Saudi Arabia held its first ever conference on interfaith dialogue, Morocco was hosting its 14th festival of World Sacred Music.

Artists from all over the world converged on its ancient city of Fez, to the east of the capital Rabat.

While the Saudi gathering was made up of only Muslim clerics discussing a framework for future dialogue with Christianity and Judaism, Morocco has for years been opening its arms to musicians from all over the world.

The aim of the Fez festival is to promote better understanding between cultures and faiths through exposure to some of the most sublime expressions of faith - sacred music.

The difference between the Saudi and Moroccan approaches to dialogue between faiths could not have been more stark, a reminder that notions of the Muslim or the Arab world are in fact an oversimplification of what is fundamentally a complex and heterogeneous reality.

Religion and society

"Religion is too important to leave to clerics alone," says the president of the festival, Mohamed Kabbaj, echoing a famous phrase by Napoleon Bonaparte about war not being left to the generals. "Writers and philosophers should also have their say on the role of religion in society."

Throughout the 10-day long festival and alongside the daily concerts, Western and North African writers, artists and academics met every morning to debate various aspects related to the role of the sacred in society and the arts.

I want the event to shed light on Islam as a civilisation, not only an ideology, but as a civilisation that has philosophical, artistic, urban, architectural and humanistic sides
Fawzi Sakkali,
Former president of festival

When I ask Mr Kabbaj whether Morocco is in a better position than other Arab or Muslim countries to host such event, he answers with an unqualified yes.

He argues that not even Turkey - a part of which is in Europe - has had Morocco's long history of close ties with Western Europe.

The Moroccan coast on the Mediterranean is only a short distance away from Europe's southern borders. Both geography and history qualify Morocco to play the role of a bridge between the East and West.

Spiritual capital

The city of Fez in particular speaks with the weight of history behind it.

This year's festival coincided with Fez marking its 1,200th anniversary.

The old town - where the main shows of the festival took place - is designated a world heritage site by Unesco.

Fez was for centuries the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco and the Islamic empire that flourished in Andalusia, today's Spain, for centuries.

The city has the oldest university in the Arab and Muslim world, al-Qarawyeen. Luminaries of the golden age of Islamic civilisation, such as the Jewish philosopher Maimoindes and Ibn Khaldoun, once lived and studied here.

Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir
Ghada Shbeir sang in the language of Jesus Christ (Pic: Georges Nader)

Against the magnificent backdrop of one of its ancient gates, Bab al-Makina, artists from Africa, Asia and America performed.

The programme included for the first time joint performances of Muslim and Christian devotional music, thus underlying the fundamental message of the festival.

Sufi chants from Pakistan by Faiz Ali Faiz and his ensemble - known as the Qawwali - shared the stage with one of America's best known Gospel music artists, Craig Adams of New Orleans.

It was a thrilling performance that brought together some of the most vibrant devotional music from both faiths.

Elites talking?

On a similar but less sparkling note was another joint performance the following night by Greek Orthodox choir, the Athens Tropos Byzantine Choir, with a Syrian Sufi ensemble, al-Kindi, led by Swiss convert to Islam Julien Jallaledine Weiss.

The sonorous tones of the Greek choir offered a sombre contrast to the powerful and lush Syrian orchestra in a show dubbed as Muslim and Christian homage to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.

But despite the lofty goals of the festival and the impressive shows put on by foreign and local groups, the event has its critics.

Some say that far from being a wide open dialogue between faiths, it is in fact a narrow exchange between the liberal Moroccan elite and its Western counterpart.

But organisers say that extremists are not interested in dialogue. They also point out that efforts have been made to make the festival more inclusive by organising free concerts for Moroccans who can not afford the evening performances at Bab al-Makina, where tickets cost around $80.

Moroccan singer, Abdelwahhab al-Doukali, voiced a similar kind of criticism.

Speaking to journalists ahead of his concert, Mr Doukali said local and visiting artists never get the time to really know one another and exchange views simply because of lack of resources. Visiting artists usually arrive for their performance then head home.

Cultural tourism

But a more serious criticism comes from the former president of the festival and its chief architect, Professor Fawzi Sakkali of Fez University.

He fears that commercial interests are driving the agenda, turning the festival into yet another tourist attraction.

Throughout the festival, a free Sufi concert is held every night - a very popular event for both Moroccans and foreign tourists.

Moroccan musicians at Fes
Critics of the festival say it is becoming a dialogue between elites

Dr Sakkali acknowledges that cultural tourism can play a role in promoting world peace, but fears that commercial interests can reduce Sufism - which he believes is a more tolerant and open interpretation of Islam - to folklore, a touristic curiosity.

This would divest the festival of its original objective of promoting better understanding between faiths, according to Dr Sakkali.

To counter this tendency Dr Sakkali has launched a new initiative, the Fez Festival for Sufi Culture.

"I want the event to shed light on Islam as a civilisation, not only an ideology, but as a civilisation that has philosophical, artistic, urban, architectural and humanistic sides," Dr Sakkali says.

"All of this comes from what is in fact an enormous legacy of Sufi Islam in Asia, black Africa and the Arab world. The aim is to offer a better understanding of Islam as a civilisation with its own profound ideas, its own literature and music."

The city of Fez, he says, is a microcosm of that form of civilisation, where Christians, Jews and Muslims once lived and worked together during the golden age of Islamic civilisation in the Andalus.

Language of Christ

Noting that there were hardly any Arab journalists from the Middle East to cover the event, I ask him whether the voice of Fez is loud enough to reach the eastern part of the Arab world.

He answered that it was not, because Wahhabi Islam is still dominant there. In fact, the monolithic and literalist interpretation of Islamic tradition practised in Saudi Arabia continues to gain ground among Muslims around the world because of Saudi financial muscle.

But despite the criticism it is hard to underestimate the festival's enormous potential for being a venue where creativity and faith can meet and exposure to new ideas can take place.

A performance by Lebanese singer Ghada Shubeir, was one to remember.

Accompanied by the Qanoon, an Arabic string instrument, she chanted Christian hymns in Syriac (a liturgical language used in some Middle Eastern churches which is related to Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ).

The performance was incredibly crisp, and its spiritual roots stretched back hundreds of years.

Ms Shubeir said after the concert it was the first time she had been invited to perform in a Muslim country.

On the sixth night of the festival, a Tunisian group put up a stunning performance in the form of a Sufi Hadra (a recital with powerful drum beats that can leave participants in a trance) mixing oriental and Western instruments such as the piano and the saxophone.

Led by Tunisian Lutfi Bushnaq the group included female performers, thus breaking with the traditional male-only ensemble for devotional music in Muslim societies.

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