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The Aesthetics of the Invisible: Sacred Music in Secular (French) Places
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Figure 1. 

Listening deeply at the sanctuary, 2009. (Photo by Deborah Kapchan)

What kind of soil welcomes Islamic devotion and faith?

Most would conjure scenes of medieval medinas, the sound of the call to prayer wafting over adobe rooftops and into courtyards. The mosque, with its green-tiled minaret, a home to nesting pelicans. And inside the mosque, the cool quiet of bodies sitting on oriental rugs, the light click of beads counting off the names of God, the palpable breath of bodies prostrating together in prayer.

Such evocations are common, Orientalist clichés, especially in regard to Morocco.

One thinks less however of a little stretch of land in the south of France where the flat marshy Camargue with its white horses, flocks of pink flamingos, and solitary egrets meets the dryer ground, the rolling hills and vineyards of the Gard. Or where, venturing just a bit deeper inland, the Cevennes mountains begin. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Arabs ruled here, before being pushed south by the Christians. But even now in the 21st century, between the sea and the mountains, the Sufis sing.

These contemporary Sufis are also robed, with scarves encircling their heads, but they wear their robes only inside their houses, donning tight jeans and loose shirts outside. These women live in little villages from the coast to the mountains, from the Petite Camargue to the Cevennes. They are mostly in their 20s and 30s, French citizens of North African descent, but there are also a considerable number of French converts to Islam. Only a minority speak Arabic, and almost none of them read it. Yet they chant the Qur’an, sing songs of praise to the prophet Mohammed and to their shaykh in a beautifully inflected Arabic, almost as if they were native speakers.

How does Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam with roots in Persia, come to play the role it does in the lives of these women? What do we have to learn from an examination of “transnational Sufism” in Europe, and its performance in France? Can the performance of religion in a secular state change both the religion and the state?

How does what I call the “aesthetics of the invisible”—in this case the performance of listening, and specifically “invisible” aesthetic practices like Sufi samaʿ, or sacred listening—impact the public and secular spaces of contemporary France? In analyzing the aesthetics of the invisible, I bring attention to listening and tasting as performative events. Most accessible to me are my own sensate experiences as a symbolic member and acknowledged researcher of a Sufi order in France. In order to define Sufi aesthetics, I focus particularly on audition as both a mode of initiation and a form of perception, examining the performance contexts of audition—that is, the interior (home) and the exterior (stage) spaces of listening— to question the political viability and performativity of sacred listening in a secular nation.

Samaʿ

Listening with and to the Sufis

In 2005 I spent the summer in a house in a little village in the south of France (Kapchan 2007b). On Sundays there was and is a regional market in the village square, where merchants set up tents for cheese, olives, local wines, vegetables and fruit, bread, paella, clothing, jewelry, soap from Marseille, and other sundries. In 2005 there was also a tent of Moroccan goods—babouche slippers, little copper mirrors, skin-scrubbing gloves, and pottery. A North African couple stood behind these wares, and, knowing Arabic, I struck up a conversation with them.

“Salamu alay-kum,” I said.

“Alay-kum salam,” they both responded.

I asked if they were Moroccan, to which they replied that they were. “Where in Morocco are you from?” I continued.

“From the north, near Oujda,” they said.

“Oh, that’s where shaykh al-Hamza’s sanctuary is,” I noted. Not all Moroccans know Sidi Hamza, the aged shaykh of the Qadiriyya Boutshishiyya order in Morocco, but those in the north are more likely to recognize the name than others, since thousands upon thousands of pilgrims come to his sanctuary every year on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday (al-milud), and local...



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