Great question. In the course of my research, I’ve encountered all sorts of answers from the Masters, but I’m also interested in what the younger generation has to say on the matter. So, I spent several afternoons shooting the breeze with Nacim Haddad and Zakaria Aktoui, on the other side of the Bouregreg River in Sale. Nacim is a Moroccan taking on a Masters degree in “Science Informatique” at the local University, but moonlights as an ethnomusicologist (and a phenomenal haj houj player). Zakaria is a Gnawi. Meaning, his parents are Gnawi, he was raised in a house of night rituals, spirits, and possession. Local lore has it that Zakaria’s mother went into labor and gave birth to him while in a trance. He is a full-time Gnawi. It’s his life, his culture, his religion, and his profession. There are no delineations between these areas of his identity. His son just turned one and is already following in his father’s footsteps (See video). So, who better to ask than these two?
Before jumping into the process of becoming a Gnawi, we revisited the basics: what does “Gnawa” even mean? The actual origins of the word still perplex historians, resulting in an etymological free-for-all. Many say it is derived from the word “Guinea,” which was once used by Moroccan mapmakers to label all sub-Saharan countries. Still, Gnawa scholar Abdel-Hafid Chlyeh notes that the citizens of a medieval Ghanaian kingdom were called the “Djinawa.” Anthropologist Viviana Paques points to a possible origin in the Berber word igri ignawan. It means “the field of cloudy skies,” and could possibly refer to the star Aldebaran, which translates literally to “the follower” in Arabic. This is presumably because it appears to follow the Seven Sisters star cluster in the night sky, and is the star from which the Gnawa are said to hail.
In my own research I have heard that it is a transmutation of the classical Arabic word for slave, Ghin, or obviously taken from the word Djin, referring to the spirits they summon. And although they are called the Gnawa today, other monikers have been applied in the past. Many newly arrived slaves were required to take an oath of loyalty and swear their allegiance by placing one hand on the Kitab Bukhara. The book was a collection of prophetic hadtih gathered by Ibn Bukhara and said to be most true by virtue of chains of transmission. Hence, by swearing by it, the Gnawa earned the title of abeed Bukhara, meaning slaves of Bukhara. I’ve found that the mystery surrounding the origins of the word “Gnawa” is a fitting start to research in the field, because the same uncertainty applies to nearly every other aspect of Gnawa history and ritual.
Now, as for the question: “What makes an individual part of the Gnawa community? How do they come to possess tagnawit (meaning Gnawa-ness)? The answers are legion and address all manners of traits. For example, Genealogical: A Gnawi is a descendant of a sub-Saharan slave. Religious: A Gnawi is a Muslim and a slave to God. Informed: A Gnawi knows their peoples’ history. Experiential: A Gnawi trances. Geographical: A Gnawi is from southern Morocco. Acquired: A Gnawi has sought mentorship from a M’alem, and so on. At a glance, it seems that almost anyone can become a Gnawi, so long as they possess tagnawit, which can be attained in a limitless combination of ways. I’ve even been told that through my research I’ve become a Gnawi without even knowing it!