Popular Imagination of Justice in Morocco: The Ritual of Cursing, part 1

By Dr. Mohammed Maarouf*

It seems that the modern societal institutions of justice in Morocco have not yet ploughed the rocky soil of maraboutic culture, and structured the grassroots social subject because the masses at the bottom of social space still take the effort to travel and supplicate Moroccan dead saints for giving them justice. The maraboutic ritual of supplicating for social and economic rights delineates how a large segment of the population perceives and imagines social justice and how cultural imagination and ritual practices shape it.

From my ethnography of various saint protectors in Doukkala and the High Atlas, I have come to the conclusion that Moroccan pilgrims use their own popular idioms of justice to understand and construct their relationship with saints and the political system they represent. Enduring the lack of justice in their social world, lots of Average Moroccans go to saints to seek mythic justice. Maraboutic clients as they are, they do not perceive social justice as part of the real world they belong to, that is as a human right to be struggled for, or a principle pertinent to a ruling state that should be accountable to its citizens for the administration of justice. Instead, it is an occult gift that relates to the anonymous power of saints and spirits who possess the miracles to make it true.

The cultural construction of mythic justice as a gift offered by saintly figures may have effects on the practice of justice in society as a whole. It may conduce in shaping communities of supplicators and touring pilgrims in whose cultural imagination justice is shaped in terms of charity. Moroccan supplicators thus place emphasis on their compliance rather than resistance in their quest for justice. The state and its apparatuses are absolved from accountability regarding the administration of justice. To the contrary, the saint, sultan, judge and apparatuses where justice may be manufactured are complied to and transformed from external and potentially exploitative forces into positive and benevolent protectors.

There is no effective agency of obliging them morally to ameliorate the social conditions of the poor. It is rather a form of therapeutic resistance for the poor to relieve their social world from tension and conflict by escaping to the miraculous to look for extraordinary solutions to ameliorate their social conditions. In maraboutic culture, the authority of a Moroccan saint is embodied in his power to respond to the supplicants’ variety of wishes from fertilizing the land and women to cursing enemies and punishing their lot. As an example of performing feats of justice, some saints are believed to impart irrevocable curses.

Beattie maintains that in African societies, the elders’ curses are feared because “they are the closest of the living to the ancestral ghosts. And where there are religious specialists, such as shamans or priests, their blessing or curse is often thought to be the most potent of all” (1964, p. 237). This more or less explains why people consult shurfa and ask them to curse their enemies on their behalf. Like elders, priests and shamans, shurfa have a close relationship with their ancestral spirit (the saint) because they descend from him and from the holy lineage of the Prophet.

At Ben Yeffu, a saint in Doukkala region, healers keep relating narratives to convince the visitors of saint’s capacity to strike back. One of the legends they are fond of reiterating time and again is the quarrel on land boundaries between the saint and Mul l-Bergi. Informants say:

Ben Yeffu settled in the place in al-Gharbiya region and started cultivating the land. But Mul l-Bergi was not a friendly neighbour. After the death of his father, he started quarrelling with Ben Yeffu and his sons on the borders (l-hdud) between the two estates. One day, Ben Yeffu wanted to end up these rows and suggested that he and Mul l-Bergi would get up at dawn, mount their horses after dawn prayer, and meet each other at a particular place. The place of their meeting, they agreed, would mark the frontiers of each one’s land. Mul l-Bergi welcomed the idea. The following day, he got up earlier than Ben Yeffu, mounted his horse without praying and rode speedily towards Ben Yeffu’s place to gain as much land as possible. Ben Yeffu played a fair contest. He rode on his horse after doing his dawn prayer at the mosque. And so he was late, and could not go beyond Daya al-Bayda (about five kilometres from the shrine), since Mul l-Bergi had already reached it. Ben Yeffu did not gain much land but recognized his neighbour’s trick and cursed him: “You have left me without land and I have left you without descent.” God accepted the curse for Mul l-Bergi did not leave any descent.

From then on, the Buffis, especially the progeny of Sidi ‘Ali, Ben Yeffu’s brother saint, have been quick to retaliate with curses like their grandfather who had a sharp tongue (“fummu skhun,” “hot mouth”). During the moussem, I observed that some healers would swear and curse people. One of them threatened a beggar in the shrine with the power of his ancestor, telling her that he saw the saint every night in his dreams and that his curse was irrevocable. The woman was stealing candles from the pile. He told her that, if she kept harassing him, he would curse her with banishment from the shrine.

Also, when I was sitting in the mahkama (court of jinn), a woman came and asked the healers to curse her neighbour who seduced her husband. The woman was from the Buffi lineage. She told the healers “I will bring you a sacrifice if you make her crazy so that she walks naked outdoors!” They looked at me before they looked at her, telling her that Allah would take revenge if her neighbour had really been unjust to her. I had the impression that the answer was due to my presence, and that they would have said different invocations if I had not been there. Moreover, the Buffis have an institutional apparatus of curse incarnated in the saint Sidi ‘Ali who is famous for his always fulfilled curses.

*Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is with the Department of English Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Chouaib Doukkali University, El Jadida, Morocco