The Legend of the Kasbah Gnawa (and the French Circus School)

Not too long ago, Nacim, Zakaria and I strolled out to the coast of Sale to explore the Kasbah Gnawa, a fort that dates back hundreds of years and once held newly arrived slaves. It’s a truly remarkable site that is quickly losing its historical significance. Due to a variety of external pressures, ranging from commercialism to Wahabbism, the sacred aspects of Gnawi culture have been marginalized, and – in the words of Professor Deborah Kapchan – their “historical relation to slavery now only occupies a place in contemporary Moroccan imagination,” even though the practice of slavery was not abolished in Morocco until the early 20th century. What’s more, the very fact that Moroccans point to Essaouira as Gnawa’s sole epicenter highlights the folklorization of a people through festivals and concerts.

Facing these external forces, the Gnawa community has taken an active role in defining “original” places, songs, rituals, and individuals. This task has proven to be complex, in that no common rubric exists for determining authenticity, or tagnawit. As mentioned in my last post, “What does it take to be a Gnawi,” there are plenty of arguments within the Gnawa community that allow for anyone to become a member, and thus possess tagnawit. However, tagnawit is not limited to individuals, and can be passed onto locations, styles, timelines, and bloodlines. As far as historical sites of importance go, the most influential places are determined by the path of migration that many slaves followed from sub-Saharan areas, as shown below:

Those that came overland, crossing the Sahara desert either as traders or captives, established communities and cultural focal points in southern Morocco, in Marrakech, Essaouira, Taroudant, and Zagora, to name a few. However, when retracing the steps of the Gnawa, it is always important to remember that area defined today as Morocco was not the only North African territory settled by sub-Saharan migrants. Other spiritual sub-Saharan black cultures similar to the Gnawa include the Bori in Nigeria, the Stambouli in Tunisia, the Sambani in Libya, and the Bilali in Algeria.

Returning to sites of historical significance within Morocco, those who came from the ports (by sea from West Africa), point to Rabat and Sale as locations rich in authentic history. In my research I’ve found an interesting case in the Kasbah Gnawa on the coast of Sale that demonstrates the occasionally transient nature of tagnawit. Today, only the fort’s walls remain, and its interior has been reconfigured to house a French-run circus school for Moroccan youth, the Ecole Du Cirque Shemsi. The occupation of this space by one of Morocco’s former colonial powers presents such a layering of embattled histories that it could serve as grounds for another Fulbright research project altogether.

Clockwise from top-left: Kasbah Gnawa Entrance; Walls Of Fort With Circus Tent; Trapeze Inside Fort; Walls With Carvings; Ghar Aisha Entrance

That aside, it is rumored that certain M’alemin are permitted to conduct the lila on the Kasbah Gnawa grounds to celebrate special occasions. The outer walls still bear several well-preserved areas with plaster carvings of the Shahada, and fragments of script in what is believed to be pre-modern sub-Saharan languages.

The Shahada: No God, But God

Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the Ghar Aisha (cave of Aisha) located in the back-left corner of the fort. The cave entrance is connected to a man-made tunnel that runs several kilometers underground and exits in the neighboring town of Sidi Hajj Ibn Ashr. Very little is known about the ritualistic uses of the cave, or the purpose of the tunnel, which has been sealed off for over a decade. In terms of tagnawit, the historical significance of the site has become suspect since lila rituals are no longer performed there. Now, the urban myths surrounding the cave of Aisha Qandisha are more prominent than the narrative of the sub-Saharan slaves that were brought by sea.

This supplanting of tradition by Moroccan folklore represents an existential dilemma to the Gnawa. Their oral histories are susceptible to co-option and retelling by external forces. As one M’alem once told me, the difference between urban legend and oral history is only a matter of time.

P.S. Who is Aisha Qandisha? Great question. In a nutshell: she’s the most powerful spirit venerated in the lila. Her color association is black, and she is always summoned last. Her origins are murky; some stories trace her back to Spain (where she was known as Aisha the Countess), while others point to Sudan. Today, in Morocco, she has entered the world of superstition. I’ll save the details for another blog post. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “The Legend of the Kasbah Gnawa (and the French Circus School)

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