The Eyes of Gnawa


We are four Americans on a rooftop in Chefchaouen, the blue pearl of Morocco. Our gaze shifts toward the mountains freshly dressed in snow. The residue of a heavier morning rain drips thick from carpet shingles framing our view. Joe is hungry for music. He is Irish red, an understated Brooklynite. And I can hear the old world in his dialect. 

‘Last night we listened to the djembe,’ I let Joe know.

Some friends, strangers only yesterday, drummed for us over whiskey and kief. They abandoned their own party in search of more accomplished musicians. I couldn’t tell Joe where they went. 

Tourists keep asking me about music, but I’m not looking for it. During my post-retreat recovery, I’m in search of spirit. Native soul. It finds me…in the music.



Sayid wants to know my name. I tell him and he sings.

Oh, Lalla Malika, Lalla Malika, Lalla Malika, Lalla Malika.

“There’s a gnawa* song named after you. You know it?”

Lalla Malika, Lalla Malika.

I don’t know gnawa. Nor do I know why Sayid is here. The souk owner sent his son to guide me to the ATM. Sayid followed. He resembles a Dathriki poet. The mama dragon in me does not mind this company.

Oh, Lalla Malika.

“Gnawa is black people’s music,” Sayid is teaching now. “It’s like the blues.”

‘Everywhere we are in the world,' I think aloud, ‘we sing the blues.’ 

In Sayid’s eyes, the blues also lives.


Azzedine has eyes that dance. Dark pupils glazed over in merriment. Energetically he is a fiesta. He’s agreed to lead me to the Spanish mosque at the top of the hill overlooking our little village. Instead, we stand together under a dangling instrument in the Medina. It mesmerizes, twirling from a string on its own accord, hypnotic.

‘What is that?’

“It’s a toy for kids.” He plucks it. It spins some more. “It’s not the real thing. My friend plays the real thing. I'll take you there.”


Omar has perfectly painted eyes, brushstroked by God. I want my eyeliner to do for me what the heavens have done for him. He is a maalem, a master musician, though I don’t know this yet. I’m invited inside where two people sit teasing one another in Darija. At my entrance, they pause and size me up. 

“Timberland boots. Good quality, heh?” 

I’m also wearing a wig, platinum blonde with the edges dipped in blue. The wig garners more questions.

“Did you make that?”

“I bought it.”

Azzedine assures me it’s quite alright to buy my hair, but I already know that. I sneak glances at the other woman in the room. She is Non-hijabi, her hair dyed auburn, she puts me in the mind of Nuyoricans. 

Omar offers tea of dried figs and herbs. A candle is lit. We are now in sacred space. He tunes his guembri, the grown up version of the toy that led me here. It’s constructed from wood and camel skin. It’s not as melodic as I'd hoped, but Omar opens his mouth to sing and everything comes together nicely.

The man from Fez stomps the ground with his feet - a dance, a rhythm ensues. He is priest, though I don’t know this yet either. He curses his clothes, they are all wrong for the occasion. I let him know I admire his style. He is Gentleman’s Quarterly in wool turtleneck and tailored denim. The compliment permits a little trust between us. Omar plays on. 

I close my eyes and wonder if the Nuyorican is Omar’s woman, and so I ask, “Are you family?” He tells me she’s from Casablanca and he’s from the desert. I imagine him wild and free against the Sahara. Omar returns to song and I close my eyes once more. His strings envelope me. I am wrapped in sounds. 


“Gnawa is happy music, Malika. Why are you crying?” Omar asks this.

The tears I cannot control. I do not tell him that when I close my eyes, I see ancestors. I don't want these Moroccans to think I’m insane. I keep the vision to myself, but the tears keep falling.

The dancing priest from Fez looks at me. "Everything is alright now. You have a future. The past is the past. We don’t have jobs. We’re still here singing gnawa. You came out okay in the end.”

I accept this and stop crying.

The musicians change into traditional garments. There is an order to everything. Chico, the house cat cozies up to me. I’m in his seat. I scoot a little closer to Fez to make room for the cat. Fez tells me I smell like a flower. I smile. I’ve won him over. 

Some kids from Tangier drop in. They pass around hashish and the music plays on. Fez explains that since they’re not allowed to drink or enjoy women, marijuana is permitted**. 

Hours pass and I remember my promise to Julia, an Italian expat, hopelessly in love with Sayid. I’m due at her table tonight for homemade gnocchi. I give thanks for the music and stand up to leave. 

Omar meets me at the door with an invitation to share a tajine with him later. I regret my appointment with Julia, but keep it, and all my vows remain intact.

*Gnawa music is a well-preserved spiritual practice originating from enslaved Africans of the Sahel region.

**Marijuana has been illegal in the Kingdom of Morocco since its Independence in 1956.

Words & Photographs by Malika Ali Harding