In Tunisia, it threatens a high place of Sufi music

It is at the end of a hidden alley at the bottom of the medina of Tunis that you reach the sanctuary of Sidi Ali Lasmar. Passing through the typical little yellow door, visitors are greeted by Riadh Ezzawech. Every Friday, some people come to read the Surah of the fatiha (which opens the Koran) on the tomb of the saint it houses. But these days, anxiety can be read in the features of the guardian of these places steeped in history. Because the zaouia Sidi Ali Lasmar, the Sufi oratory, is in danger of extinction.

In 1964, the religious center was sold by the Tunisian State and bought by a private individual. Riadh Ezzawech then manages to rent it out, privately, restoring the home to its original use. In 2016 he founded the association for the culture of stambeli Sidi Ali Lasmar, to bring together musicians and followers of this Sufi rite, mixing dance, music and song, and democratizing it through public ceremonies. In fact, the stambeli it has long been perceived as almost esoteric.

Today, the premises could be resold, which would be “a real tragedy” in his eyes. Especially since it is the last high place dedicated to stambeli in the medina of Tunis. For this reason, it demands that the State intervene and allow the association to accept foreign donations to buy back the place, which was sold for 150,000 dinars (46,000 euros). The man with the gaunt face would like “May this art be protected like the gnaw »its Moroccan equivalent.

One of the many paths of Sufism

Visibly moved, Riadh Ezzawech contemplates the photographs, on the red-panelled walls, of his evenings spent in the courtyard of the zaouia. Repetitive chant invoking Allah, the stambeli“incites the spiritual trance”. It is one of the many paths of Sufism, practiced mainly by Tunisians from sub-Saharan Africa.

was not born in stambeli. But this boy from the medina fell there as a child, “following the neighborhood black musicians”. Over the years it has become price, that is, a dancer, and commits body and soul to its preservation. he owed “running after every grant”, stubborn despite the negatives. And, since 2011, the situation has deteriorated. He even had to flee in 2013, threatened by Salafists, when post-revolutionary tensions were at their height.

Today, he is undergoing another test: Suffering from cancer, Riadh Ezzawech fears that his life’s work will disappear with him. Next to him, several representatives of this art share his restlessness. Samir came from Sfax, 300 km away, to oppose the closure of a place “who united us all”. With the face of a good man, this fifty-year-old enumerates the difficulties shared by all his colleagues: the racism of the authorities, marginalization, the lack of subsidies…

“The authorities almost never ask us to play in religious ceremonies, favoring other Sufi forms”laments Mohamed, a charismatic musician from Kairouan. In this holy city, there is no longer any place dedicated to stambeli. He never made it his livelihood, but his whole life vibrated from this passion.

A part of the culture of black Tunisians

” In it stambeliwe believe in the virtues of the land, peace, love, emancipation and freedom”explains this man in a beret. In a country where racism against black people is prevalent, this Sufi art also allows you to assert your identity.

With the association, Mohamed had found hope. “But if this zaouia close, our art is in danger of dying”, he warns. I teach him to play gombria kind of lute, in a house dedicated to this art, now disappeared. “Before we preserved the stambeli but now the children are no longer educated because they cannot find where to learn”he laments.

Riadh Ezzawech had great ambitions for the future: to organize an international festival, to open a school to train musicians from an early age, and to multiply the ceremonies. Everyone fears the disappearance of this art, as well as other Sufi music likeAlaouiaI’excitementthe taibia… Which would mean the erasure of a part of the culture of black Tunisians.

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