The Mashdud (episode I)

The Mashdud (episode I)


Mohammed Maarouf
Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor of Ethnography and Cultural Studies at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco. [/symple_box]

This is a short ethnographic serialized story published by installment with each episode coming forth approximately every Saturday.

ben yeffu

Now he is buried in one the cemeteries near Ben Yeffu in al-Gharbiya region. He died a natural death, I was told, a few years ago. He was the imam of the mosque and the Koranic teacher of the children of the duwar when I met him. I was conducting my research on Ben Yeffu investigating the mysteries of jinn possession more than a decade ago when I came across an old man named Abdessalam in his sixties who looked respectful, sincere and righteous. Under his gaze, my role of ethnographer and objective witness to the other was obscured; when I sat listening to his story and rhetorical language, I doubted the very existence of anthropology as a realist science, and the mirror of mimesis began to shatter into pieces of discourse. He was not an informant but an ambiguous narrator. He represented new “structures of feeling”, a new form of ethnography. Sitting close to him and hearing the sonority of his words, I realized how excluded we were both from the conceptual science of the European social institution of ethnography. He was a simple native storyteller, a witness of his own era who found in narrative an emancipatory form of self expression. Was he telling facts or was he telling fiction?

Abdessalam invited me home, honoured me with his banquets. We sat for hours talking about the social problems he had with one of the inhabitants of the duwar, a haram-belly man who incited people against him and publicly challenged his religious legitimacy. When I first saw his contender, he looked sympathetic but pretentious and crafty in deception. When he greeted me, I recognized his social brand with a tongue jetting out in search of sweeteners. I understood he was a looter foraging for booties. When the King used to send a royal donation to the shrine every year to distribute to the Koran reciters (tulba), the man squeezed anonymous beneficiaries on the list to benefit from the donation, and share with them the plunder. He cooked all the concoction with the Qaid.

In fact, the imam did not only suffer from social grievances but also from a mysterious corporeal sickness that tossed his fate to come and seek asylum under Ben Yeffu’s protection. The imam told me that he could never leave the vicinity of the saint for fear of jinn attack. He was caught (mashdud) by the saint. When I met the imam, he had been the saint’s servant for about thirty-seven years.

Now, he was a familiar face in the landscape of the region. He had six children, one girl and five boys; two were born in Casablanca and the rest at Ben Yeffu. His eldest son, a nice man who invited me for lunch, was an adult in his forties. As a servant, the imam was required to work for Ben Yeffu. He had to work for him in order to obtain his baraka, and remain healthy and virile. He had to work for him like a servant working for his master, or rather as a son working for his father.

When he used to sit by a tree near the mosque in afternoons, he chanted a few lines from Buffi folk poetry: “You, who stand before the master, be patient! (ya l-waqef quddam shaykh kun sabbar)! Work faithfully to be safe from misfortunes (khdam b-nniya tenja men l-wzari )!”Failure to work for the saint, the imam whispered in my ears, opened the way to the loss of baraka, and exposed the servant to jinn attacks because the saint might withhold his guardianship.

I actually witnessed at Ben Yeffu that people considered the baraka of the saint as essential to protect them from the constant persecution of jinns. Well, since there are good grounds in society for anxiety and people live in constant fear of actual or potential danger, the shelter of the shrine may always provide an acceptable alternative. It may provide a way of coping with situations of misfortune and of relieving anxiety though it may be a temporary relief. For the imam, it was also psychologically satisfying in that his wrongdoings were blamed on jnun. He was temporarily released from the potential burden of guilt towards his failure(s).

The imam did not seem to be aware of those sophistic explanations; he was trapped in a mythic world of spiritual beings where he attended invisible trials and tribulations that traditional curers name invisible jinn eviction (sri’ al-ghaibi). The mythic court has its premises at Ben Yeffu, Bouya Omar, Sidi Chamharouch and other saints. At Ben Yeffu, it operates through an assembly of jinn presided by the Green Sultan who issues its verdicts. Ben Yeffu was called the Green Sultan in a binary that opposed him to the Black Sultan. He was given the name by Abdeljalil, a Majdub from Safi, who came to the saint in a fit of possession and talked to the saint in person; the latter introduced himself to the patient as the Green Sultan.

The saint appeared to him in a vision as a knight on a white horse. When he lifted his gown, there were tribes of jinn living under his arms, all paying him allegiance as his servants. Like the social Sultan, Ben Yeffu receives his obedient servants in an annual ceremony of allegiance when jinn drive their hosts from far and near to pay the Green Sultan tribute on a ritual day during the moussem in Summer.

Even the architecture of the saint designs a special space for the court of mythic justice where the hufdan (descendants) sit and prosecute jinn defendants possessing patients who visit the saint in litigant supplication. Often jinns attack their human brothers/enemies if the latter violate the norms of social conduct. The space and time in our culture are already mapped by the binary of jinn vs. human. They occupy the deserted places and we do not. We are active during the daylight and they are not. They are living with us, it seems, and thus deserve our respect and care. Transgression of cultural laws can only unleash jinns’ wrath on us and unmask our self-poise.

Ben Yeffu is a typical dome-shaped sanctuary surrounded with small cells where patients stay waiting for their trial, and the whole square scene looks like Bentham’s panopticon penitentiary. It is this court (mahkama) that sentenced the imam and reconstructed his cultural identity into a servant of a sharifian saint.

In front of such magic events, the imam was unable to live without being released from feelings of weakness, frustration and impotence; he endured psychological burdens that pushed him to cling to the help of the saint and live under his protection. The mythic court of the saint sentenced him to stay for life in the region. The sentence in fact made the imam undergo a change in social status, self-image, and social identity.

This maraboutic framework provided the imam with occasions to discharge and release his tensions in socially acceptable avenues of possession but also enthralled him to devote himself to the service of the saint. There was a cloud on the horizon, no permanency to the cure. His life was shackled by the chains of a destiny to perform periodical dramas of his sufferings… (episode II).

This is a short ethnographic serialized story published by installment with each episode coming forth approximately every Saturday.

Click on the following link for Episode II: click here