If a man could grasp the bliss of his secret
he would shed a tear with every breath he breathed.
Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Habib, Diwan
When we arrived in Meknes I had no idea where the Zawia was but after some quick messaging to my friend in Edinburgh we worked out that it was just around the corner. I was so grateful for these instructions because the entrance is not marked and there is no way we would have found it without them.
We entered through the narrow alleyway and into the main room. After visiting Sidi Ali al Jamal in Fez I was again struck by the simplicity of the Darqawi Zawia’s in comparison with the opulence of some of the more famous Sufi orders. The space was empty except for an old man seated by the foot of Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Habib’s grave. We gave salams and as poor Zeph was still feeling sick we asked if we could use the bathroom. The old man who was both blind and deaf led us to the door and unlocked it for us.
A little later we sat down on a majlis area and Zeph fell asleep.
The old man started reciting from the Diwan of Sheikh Muhammad ibn al Habib.
This is a very special place.
Later Zeph woke and it was time to pray maghrib. The old man made the call to prayer and a younger man who obviously loved him very much joined him. We prayed with them and then Zeph asked to go home.
I really longed to know who the man was, to know his name. The whole experience had been wonderful. Because I am not connected to any groups where there is an actual physical presence between teacher and student these kinds of events are enormously significant to me. They are impossible to write about and there is no need really other than as a marker of gratitude and a means of recording details for later times when the memories may not be as clear.
Later back in Australia and scrolling through Facebook I suddenly saw a photograph of the old man and I was delighted to find out his name.
From Signs on the Horizons (THE CARETAKER)
I first met Sidi Ali in 1973 and heard this story from his lips. He was living in the zawiya, helping Sidi l’Ayyashi to take care of the premises. When Sidi l’Ayyashi passed away during the 1980s, Sidi Ali became the guardian of the zawiya. Completely illiterate, he has memorized large parts of the Qur’an and the entirety of the Diwan of Mohamed ibn Al Habib in addition to many Prophetic traditions, wisdom sayings and odes from the Sufis. He’s now totally blind and mostly deaf. He carries a card from the Moroccan government certifying that he is officially indigent (miskeen) that entitles him to beg, which he sometimes does when the guests in the zawiya need to be fed and there is no money. He flashes this card with a mischievous laugh. When I saw him in 1981, he told me proudly and with a chuckle, as if he had achieved the impossible, “You know, I got married.”
I don’t have permission to post the photograph but it doesn’t matter because not so long after this I finally purchased a copy of The Meaning of Man and there amongst the photographs he was again.