Where and how scripture shows up- literally, on what surfaces, in what media- is something that interests me as much as the question of how it is being used in ways we recognize more readily as ‘textual.’ These are some textual/architectural/public uses of scripture I’ve come across; their application of the scriptural voice is at once similar to and different from more ‘conventional’ employments of scripture, whether in sermon, commentary, theology, liturgy, etc. These sorts of public, ‘architectural’ inscriptions operate on different levels, speaking on different registers, depending on their surroundings while also penetrating their surroundings and forming them (much as sacred scriptures both shape the reader/exegete even as she shapes them). Where these texts appear works hand in hand with the texts’ significance within the wider tradition, as this sampling hopefully shows. As usual, I am very much thinking out loud here, and have only given this topic the briefest of thought, though it deserves a lot more.
Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Summer 2008: The scene: big swathes of empty green, where there used to be a neighborhood. There are hardly even bones here now, or if there are they lie beneath the switchgrass and caney reeds and brush. The air is thick, heavy, silent, except for a thudding hammer from one of the few centers of human habitation left here. The text is also crying out, even if its voice looks a little muffled, the vicious heat and humidity of the Deep South no friend to plywood and ink. No matter. The emotional power of the original passage is amplified here in this space of dry (or wet and humid perhaps) bones; it fits the place and fits the place to it.
Sihrij Madrasa, Fes, Spring 2009: This is a somewhat neglected Marinid madrasa (these madrasas being rather more like dorm complexes for the educational activities that took place in the neighboring mosques); but the calligraphy is still bright and compelling. It of course fits the space: besides the continual pre-eminence of the Qur’anic text in Islamic societies, the institutional setting makes the choice of Qur’anic text (operating both as edificational/educational material and edifying decoration) all the more apt. As the students- whose study would consist primarily of Qur’an and hadith- come in and out of the space of the madrasa, the selected texts of the Qur’an (which unfortunately cannot here identify- if anyone in Fes who might happen to read this would like to go by and transcribe, that would be truly wonderful) would become part of the architecture of the student’s daily life, daily perception, daily thought, action. Written on the wall, written on the heart…
Lower Ninth again. The text resilient, always speaking, in the midst of storm, decay. The flowers of the field may fade…
Moulay Idriss Shrine, Fes: This is one is rather different from the madrasa. The calligraphy is somewhat sparser, and the setting is not an enclosed, institutional- particular- space, but is on an external wall. Albeit still within the sacred precinct of the shrine, this now worse-for-the-wear (yet still holding on, like the battered scripture text of the Lower Ninth) slice of scripture shows itself to the passing crowds. It helps mark out the sacred space around and especially within it, and create it, and reflect it. Even to those passing by who are unable to literally read the text, it is readable as a particular thing, a sacralizing thing. It is recognizable as being part of the sacred, even to those who do not know its literal, strictly textual meaning. It still works. This is, I think, one of the important parts of public scripture, of scripture made stone or wood or whatever and placed on display, grafted into signs and walls and amulets and so on. It blurs the line between literate and non-literate reception and what comes in between- all have some reception of this text, some access to its power, to its meanings, and themselves help construct the meaning.
Down a dark, narrow little side street in the Fes medina there is a tunnel, old solid cedar beams straddling overhead holding up whatever structure stands above- what exactly is not clear when coming down the street from Tella Kabira, the main drag through the medina. Upon emerging on the other side, if you look back and up, you can see one of the most remarkable little architectural gems in Morocco, in my opinion, the Ayn al-Khayl Mosque, which dates back at least to the time of the 12th-13th century Muslim mystic and esoteric philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, and is presumably older than that. While I know of at least one other mosque in Fes that straddles a street- it’s way across the valley in the Andalusian quarter- this little mosque also stands out for its octagonal minaret (I only saw one other in the rest of Morocco), and the evocative flame-shaped moldings around the tiny windows that march up the minaret towards the sky. That, and it was in this mosque, its tiny prayer hall perched above the street, that Ibn ‘Arabi spent much of his time while sojourning in Fes, and where he experienced repeated mystical visions. It is also home, within its elevated courtyard, to a spring- the Ayn of the name- in which, it is said, a mysteriously large fish appeared one day, some thirty years ago. And while there’s no word of al-Khidr having shown up in the area, there is a wonderful vegetable and fruit market a couple blocks over.
The road here passes alongside the big green liminal space that lies between Fes al-Bali- the oldest part of the Old Medina- and Fes al-Jedid, the rather newer (fourteenth century) construction that once housed the Sultan and Fes’ Jewish community. Today the King still has a residence but all that remains of the Jewish community are a couple synagogues and the white-washed cemetery.
The region between the two halves of the city is mostly covered in green space, with the old water channels- the restructured pieces of the streams that made Fes a desirable city in the beginning. Now they are home to at least a few frogs, who start to show up as spring evenings warm and lean towards summer. I passed through one evening as the crowds along the avenue were thinning out and the frogs starting up, down in the warm, mucky green water of the canals, fresh and vigorous against the late medieval bulwarks behind. I thought- here, at the edge of the desert (the dust was already starting to intrude, coming in through the open window of my bedroom, and the shopkeepers beginning their war upon dust in the streets), under the weight of the centuries of the city, are frogs, singing, as they have no doubt been singing under these walls for centuries, as the mulberries come into leaf. Kids run by, one chasing a ball (maybe they are the same kids I would see climbing the mulberries gathering fruit and leaves?); a single car mumbles by, the crowd moves along, laughing, calling, the snatches of Maghrebi Arabic ring in my ears. Frogs, children, the vigorous clip-clip of Maghrebi, spring over all- life, wonder, the ancient, the eternal, what I know, and what I can only listen to, and feel.
A few weeks ago the weather briefly- it’s now turned back cold- warmed, the sun came out, and the weeks of bitter cold passed into memory. It was warm enough that, for a few days at least, the frogs came out along the banks of the French Broad River at the Seven Islands Refuge, a Knox County park east of town. I was coming down the big limestone ridge towards the river when I heard the frogs singing, filling up the still wintry looking woods and fields. I scrambled down to the edge of the little flood-water pond, its quiet waters having swallowed up part of the trail and the clumps of weeds and brush. This also is a sort of liminal space, stuck between the wooded ridge behind and the river banks beyond, the pond precarious and temporary, the frogs unexpected- frogs in February? Where did they come from- I suppose frogs hide in the mud during the cold- what woke them?
The frogs seemed to be spread out in a line up and down the little pond, rising and falling in their song. I squatted beside the water and listened, closed my eyes, breathed the spring, the return to life, the womb of water and the song, all things bright and beautiful and alive.
The images below come from a card-stock poster I found at a miniature flea-market of sorts an elderly Fassi would hold pretty regularly on the north side of the Qarawiyyin Mosque. He had, among other things, a couple other similar posters, along with random booklets, magazines, spoons and forks, and various trinkets and odds and ends. The iconography is what caught my eye- while iconography of various kinds is common enough in Morocco, this particular example stood out for its colorfulness and the sheer volume of visual activity in one piece of card-stock. I don’t know the origin or the history of this document, other than that it was probably produced in Fes, as one of the scenes is of Ahmad al-Tijani, whose zaouia is only a few streets over from al-Qarawiyyin.
Ahmad al-Tijani, on of the most prominent saints in Fes these days. His zaouia is particularly popular with pilgrims making the Hajj coming from West Africa. The Arabic text next to the picture- not pictured here- reads: ‘The sheik Saint Ahmad al-Tijani was a man virtuous, pious and (qūran– not sure of this word), a Sufi and the sheik of the brotherhood (ţariqa) that traces its origin to him. Originally from Algeria, he immigrated to the city of Fes and adopted it as his residence. Many followed after him in Morocco and in black Africa. Finally, he died in the city of Fes around the year 1165 of the Hajira and was buried in it; God have mercy on him.’
A scene depicting ‘The battle of Said ‘Ali with Ra’s al-Ghul (the demon’s head, al-ghul being the source of the English word ghoul, incidentally).’ The caption inside of Ali’s halo reads ‘our master (saiduna) ‘Ali.’ John Renard writes concerning this particular iconographic subject: ‘Pictures of ‘Ali engaged in combat against the demon of woeful countenance known as Ra’s al-Ghul are among the most prominent North African examples of this first type [images of religious heroes]. Here Muhammad’s son-in-law displays the essential trait of the religious hero, willingness to engage the forces of evil and injustice. ‘Ali usually dispatches the demon with a stroke of his forked sword, Dhu ‘l-Faqar (the cleaver), which he inherited from Muhammad. The sword provides a natural iconographic clue to the hero’s identity.’ (Seven Doors to Islam, pp. 97-8)
‘Ali, along with his two sons, is also featured in another panel on the poster, with ‘Ali seated and his sons standing next to him- not nearly as exciting as the one above. If you are at all familiar with Islam you will probably be aware that veneration of ‘Ali is most often associated with Shia Islam; however, Sufism in general from its initial stages had a high place for ‘Ali, and continues to do so in various forms. This is especially true in North Africa: ‘North African tradition, particularly in Tunisia, regards ‘Ali as a high exemplar for youth. He was “the first adolescent to have embraced the new religion without ever having previously bowed down to any idol or worshipped a deity other than God.” ‘Ali is morever the father of two sons who model ideal behavior for young people. Before they were martyrs, Hasan and Husayn were children of a heroic father. And as youthful martyrs, the two embody innocence and purity standing firm in the face of evil.’ (Ibid.)
Here we have a picture of the tomb of Muhammad, ‘the exalted prophet’ according to the text above the tomb. Obviously, this an image that would resonate all across the Islamic world, though I suspect it has a special resonance in North Africa where the tombs of saints are particularly important as sources of baraka, blessing/grace/power.
One more- the famous Buraq, the winged creature that features in the story of Muhammad’s Night Journey.
Swirl and swarm, the swallows
Fling themselves, they thrust and pary
The air, flee the ramparts, and swim
The crowds in the great square.
I catch a spiral, a rising gyre, and my eye
Follows the dust of the city up,
On a bird’s wings, it flies, skirts
The white-washed minaret, up past the
Gates, and there it meets, on swallows’ tails
The sun’s last rays: earth and
Heaven mingle, whirl-
Still the swallows gyre on-
Losing sense and sight of which