Walk along a Moroccan beach, and you often come upon groups of young men doing the most amazing acrobatics. One day last autumn on Salé beach I stood and watched in wonder as half a dozen youths, apparently under the eye of a coach, performed a series of huge running vaults, turning once, twice, even three times in the air. Their only equipment was a large red rubber ball three-quarters buried in the sand, which they used as a springboard. It set me thinking about how people with little in the way of material possessions seem able to glory so splendidly and utterly in their physical strength and agility, to make their art from muscles, courage, spectacular co-ordination and a red rubber ball.
Gradually it dawned on me that Moroccan acrobats are a rather special phenomenon. There turns out to be a veritable academic sub-industry in the study of Moroccan acrobatic troupes in American, British, German and other circuses (where they appeared from the mid-19th century). It takes only a few moments to compile a bibliography of a dozen and more learned articles on the subject. Much of it is rather laborious, solemn in its Orientalist analysis, po-faced in its dissection of occidental voyeurism. None of it really accounts for the glorious sight of young men performing feats of elastic athleticism, with superb confidence and grace, on a patch of sand. But they are linked by a well-rooted tradition of acrobatics that is a part of Moroccan history. The Orientalist discourse of the circus historians is mildly interesting: the reality, much more so.
Recently I came across a lovely book called Taoub (Senso Unico/Sirocco 2012), an illustrated study of one troupe of modern acrobats – Le Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger – which has broken into the international big time with a series of very innovative, syncretic productions called Taoub (2004), Chouf Ouchouf (2009) and now Azimuth, which premières in Marseilles later this year. The photographs are sumptuous and beguiling, the accounts by directors and impresarios very interesting; but what I find particularly intriguing is the last part of the book which examines the deeper history of acrobatics in the Mediterranean and in Morocco. No doubt there are more academic accounts, but these 40 or so pages begin to answer my unformulated question of where the boys with the red ball come from – just as much as the lovely account by Mohamed Hammich, father of the troupe, who begins the book by saying “My family comes from Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa, and it’s there that my great-grandfather, Sidi Ahmed Idrissi, is buried.”
The Moroccan acrobatic tradition is old, and very particular to Morocco. For hundreds of years – since the middle of the 16th century – acrobats have formed part of a tradition handed from master to pupil and father to son, that begins with Hammich’s forbear, Sidi Ahmed Ou Moussa, a fighting sufi in the al-Jazouli tradition, who brought Sufism to the Ante-Atlas, and died in 1564. Sidi Ahmed seems to have been responsible for fathering two parallel traditions, each somewhere between a guild and a tariqa: the first was of acrobats, the second was rma, a brotherhood of equally disciplined and hereditary archers.
Sidi Ahmed’s acrobats, who still sometimes invoke him before undertaking a difficult routine, wandered from fair to fair, moussem to moussem, giving displays that had a religious as well as a gymnastic meaning, demonstrating the baraka inherited through literal and spiritual descendance from Sidi Ahmed. The leader of a troupe is called, like the leader of a branch of a sufi tariqa, the moqaddam (“c’est ainsi que les acrobats appellent leur maitre”) and it seems clear that the devotional nature of the discipline was, at least until recent decades, integral to it. This combined physical and spiritual quality is comparable to many of the more physical sufi disciplines, like the sema or muqabeleh of the Mevlevi dervishes. One writer describes it as “une philosophie virile et militaire au sein des compagnies acrobatiques maghrebines.” Much of the repertoire can be seen as spiritually symbolic, the colonnes reaching towards heaven, the human pyramids and portées demonstrating mutual dependence in doing so – and in the latter case where often five men will be carried by one, demonstrating too the way in which the individual adept supports a much wider world.
With the spiritual discipline came training. Every acrobat of the Ou Moussa confrérie had to master the entire range of traditional moves, the “jeu Arabe,” requiring absolute obedience, unquestioning trust and long, demanding repetition beginning in childhood. Some of the original repertoire has apparently been lost in the syncretistic “jeu” that now takes in themes and practices from across Europe – there is probably no less discipline involved, but the link with the past, the historic and spiritual ancestry, has been attenuated and largely lost.
What is unique about Moroccan acrobatics? It seems that one feature is the fundamental place of the curve and the circle in the body movements, where other traditions are much more linear. The most basic move is called tinzga, or kcher when it is performed in the air, a circular movement that can be repeated in series and is also called ‘the Arab Wheel.’ The other specific characteristic of the Moroccan tradition is the prominence of pyramids and portées, the heaven-reaching human constructions that recall the spiritual ancestry of the art. (The book ends with a chart illustrating the basic moves and displays, a fascinating catalogue of the moves and figures that make up the Jeu Arabe.)
But it is also part of a wider tradition of wandering performers around the Mediterranean, both shores of which have their traditions of itinerant artists and performers. On the northern shore much of the disciplined spontaneity has been lost as small family troupes have given way to a circus that is ‘ministèredeculturalisé,’ formalised, nationalised. In Morocco on the other hand the older tradition survives, perhaps particularly on the beach, where the halaqi are “un hymne al la vie. Ils sont acrobats parce qu’ils sont vivants …” Indeed the Frenchman behind the first show, Taouba, writes of two ancient traditions coming together after a long separation, of the Mediterranean itself as a “place of pathways going from one country to another but not permanent,” which offer, for the moment, a fruitful re-encounter.
All of which reinforces my respect for the athletes with their red ball. Watch, for example this little film: it makes me regret my own misspent youth … to have been able to do even a hundredth of this would be magic. Much too late!
A review by Andrew Hussey, in The Literary Review, which I found very interesting, of Algerian Chronicles by Albert Camus, edited by Alice Caplan & translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press 224pp £16.95).
“The singular importance of Algerian Chronicles is that it brings together for the first time in English all of Camus’s writings on Algeria, ranging over his early journalism covering the famine in Kabyle in 1939 to his appeals for reason and justice in Algeria in 1958. Beautifully translated by Arthur Goldhammer, they reveal Camus not so much as a philosopher (or ‘ponderous metaphysician’ as Said called him) but as something like a French George Orwell. Certainly, in all these essays he demonstrates a most un-Parisian aversion for abstraction and a taste for the concrete detail that reveals the reality of a situation …” (read the review)