There are few emotions about places for which adequate single words exist: we have to make awkward piles of words to convey what we felt when watching light fade on an early autumn evening or when encountering a pool of perfectly still water in a clearing.
This sentence, written by Alain de Botton in his collage of wisdom The Art of Travel, kept turning over in my mind as I gazed out over dusty glowing mountaintops on a day trip to Moulay Abdessalam.
Let this be the awkward pile of words that I use to try to convey the magic of this place.
One of the many mysteries of life is that whenever you learn something new, some previously unknown bit of information or a person you had never heard of, suddenly this thing or person starts popping up everywhere you go. It could be because our attention is now so focused on it or it could just be one of those bizarre coincidences of fate.
Whatever the reasoning, I’ve been having one of these experiences lately. I was first formally introduced to Sufism, the mystical, devotional branch of Islamic thought, when my husband recommended that I read the book The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. While in all honesty, I wasn’t blown away by the novel itself, I was touched by the “rules of love” presented through the friendship of the spiritual teacher Shams Tabrizi and the infamous Sufi poet Rumi. The rules include nuggets of wisdom such as “Be thankful! It is easy to be thankful when all is well. A sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.” The book in this sense is a wonderful introduction to Sufism as a belief focusing on the spiritual side of religion and expressing it through artistic and emotive passion.
Ever since I read that book I seem to be seeing Rumi and Sufism everywhere. References in the podcasts I listen to, titles popping up in bookstores, taking a course through HarvardX on Islam through its Scriptures (more on this in a future post) that explored intensively the origins and theology of Sufi thought, and now, this past weekend, our close friends invited us on a day trip to Moulay Abdesallam, which until we got there I had no clue was a Sufi center of Morocco.
This small town is famous for being home to the first visited shrine in Northern Morocco: the tomb of the Sufi and Islamic leader Moulay Abdessalam Ibn Mashish. Born around 1146 and supposedly a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, he became one of the first Sufi influencers in the country and founded his own branch of Islamic pedagogy. Not only did we learn all of this from the placard just before the ledge of the mountain Jabal al-Alam where his tomb lies, but through the heartfelt stories generously poured out by the locals who wandered around this ancient pilgrimage site (which were then generously translated by Marouan and his friend Mohammed to my friend and I who just barely caught the words “good man” and “prayer” somewhere in there).
The tomb of Moulay Abdessalam is situated on the side of the mountain, a humble white and green structure built around a noble, overarching oak tree that is planted exactly over where he is buried. When approaching this area, everyone takes off their shoes not only as a sign of respect as you would in a Mosque, but because the ground is quilted with pieces of cork, taken from the local cork trees that spring up all over the countryside nearby. Padding around in our socks on the soft terrain, we saw prayer groups reading scripture and doing Duaa (specific, repetitive + wishful prayers read from the Quran) for people in need, families lounging underneath the tomb’s tree, basking in the shade, candles being lit on the window-ledge looking into the tomb’s interior, and finally, looking outward, a vast view of layered rolling hills swathed in mist, with a dusting of houses and villages far beneath. In contrast to the city air of Tangier, we all felt our lungs being cleansed and our eyes de-fogging the higher we climbed.
As we went further up to the very top of Jabal al-Alam, the view stretched further and further until we reached the peak and came upon the cave where Moulay Abdessalam was said to have meditated and prayed daily- a small, empty space with just a single visible circle of the hills in the distance. While Marouan and Mohammed were told stories and explored the cave, my friend Evie and I sat, staring at the scene before us, drinking it in and chatting idly, trying to make sense of this place we had somehow wound up in for the day. Even though there were aspects of the pilgrimage that were a bit lost on us, you could still feel that this place is charged. It has a soulful energy expressed in the sprawling cork trees, rock-strewn mountainsides, and through the kind eyes of the people living there. The Sufi values of love, open-heartedness, and devotion to Allah and nature are all palpable here.
Rumi wrote poems of love that have a multiplicity to their subject matter. Is he writing about love between two people? Between humans and nature? Between humans and God? I’m pretty sure it can be all of these things in one, as you feel in the spirit of Sufi people and places.
A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden's beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.
-Rumi, Kulliyat-e Shams, 2114
All of these poems on love, all of this focus in Sufism on passion and devotion. This kind of swooning over a certain place and waxing on about love has been criticized throughout history for being “namby-pamby” (Lord Byron when referring to Wordsworth), and “cheesy,” to which Paolo Coelho has the perfect response in this On Being podcast. He says to Krista Tippet: “ I’m talking to you from Switzerland, and here cheese is something that’s considered one of the most important things, you know? … So I’m going to defend the cheese itself, not as a derogatory word, but something that it is positive.”
So putting the fear of sounding cheesy aside, let me conclude this awkward pile of words by saying that no matter what religion you are or what background you come from, there are certain places on earth that have an energy that makes you feel connected to something deeper, whatever you may call that something. Even after a single day of exploration, we all agreed that Moulay Abdessalam is one of these places. We returned to Tangier that night buzzing with that lovely feeling of getting too much fresh air, and I was left with a feeling that my fascination and exploration of Sufism- and spiritual religions in general- is destined to continue.