Cornerstone – Zawiya

by A-R  Eatwell

The bus ploughed on along the dusty track, stopping irregularly to pick up another smiling peasant. I looked at what the man in front of me was wearing. His bright, colourful rags perfectly mirrored the attitude of these Moroccans; ‘Patience in adversity’, I thought to myself. That sounded familiar. I was filled with happiness as I remembered my mother telling me this so many times not so long ago when we lived for many years in Tangier, a thousand kilometres west of where we were now headed. We slowly progressed. The sun beat in through the windows. I opened mine, careful not to cut myself on the sharp glass. I stuck my head out, aware that not one person would even turn their heads. How much like England, I thought sarcastically as the rushing wind brought tears to my eyes. I surveyed the surroundings and smiled wryly. For it all looked so familiar: the blue sky, the dry fields and the green water in the irrigation canals. The bus jolted. The hard plastic seat dug into my back. We slowly progressed. I smiled at the half finished road as we forced a moped off the narrow track. Here was I, totally incongruous amidst these poor people on this rickety bus, but I felt so much happier and more secure than I would have done had I been sitting in comfort on an English bus in silence. The atmosphere here was buzzing. I scanned the people in the bus to see whether I knew any of them; whether any of them were getting off at our stop, at the stop. I looked across at my parents, and then my two brothers. I knew that each was thinking as I was. I caught the words ‘…amazing’ and ‘…incredible’ amongst the familiar sound of twenty energetic Arabic conversations at once, before my Dad caught my eye and winked. He was as excited as I was. With no great surprise, I realized that the old woman in front of me was spending most of her time staring at me. I smiled politely and she grinned back. I craned my neck out the window to see if it was visible yet. I felt a wave of butterflies as I wondered whether it would be the same as it was last year. It always amazed me how the ‘centre of the universe’ could be situated in such an unlikely place. I suppose that that is the miracle of it. We turned right off the half-decent road where the sign stood on the corner:
ز١وية بودششية  (Zawiya Boutchichiya).

The waves of butterflies turned into a constant feeling of excitement as it came into sight. There it was, just as it had been last year. It invoked such a feeling of warmth in me that I was forced to sit down and breathe deeply. It became larger and larger as the bus drew closer. I looked at the high balcony with the pillars and knew that he was up there. At this point, I had no clear idea in my mind, just a flurry of images from all my previous experiences. I knew that whatever my preconceptions were, I would have a totally different experience once I arrived. The bus slowed. I looked across to the café outside and saw with a jolt all of my friends from last year talking and laughing. The doors hissed open (yes, unbelievably the bus doors were automatic) and a few of us got off. I realized that every single time the bus stopped here, at least one person got off, and vice versa. We carried our two week supply of luggage down the steep steps off the bus, onto the road, and stopped. The bus groaned away in a cloud of dust and fumes. We had arrived.
This was the main Zawiya of the world and the home of both the Boutchich family and the‘Secret’.
A Zawiya quite literally means a cornerstone, as it establishes the orientation of a building, and in this case society. It is a place of spiritual retreat, but unlike any monastery, convent or ashram known to other religions, it embraces everyone, regardless of race, creed or faith. For me, this visit involved playing football, drinking at the café and listening to modern music, as well as the optional study of the Holy book, invocation of God and other religious obligations that forms part of the incredible situation here. The reason for this is that simply being in the proximity of the Master is a spiritual experience; even sleep is not devoid of it.
Boutchich is the surname of this remarkable and unique family. They are ‘believers’ in the purest sense of the word, embodying unconditional love and service to whoever comes to their door. This is the true spirit of religion and at this time it is attracting people from all walks of life to reassess and upgrade their inner and outer selves.
The secret of all this is the ‘Secret’. This is the legacy left by the last Prophet to humanity. Not a material artefact, or even a spoken word, but the Divine permission to transmit an unseen spiritual education that can only be felt by those with pure intention and a pure heart. This secret was once commonplace (but hard to find) and the seekers were subject to stringent tests and conditions. Today, however, only one man holds the key and the conditions are to have good intention, the desire to remember God and the willingness to accept what comes, believing it to be the will of God.
I have many times now mentioned the word ‘he’ or the ‘master’ and I feel that I must write a few words about who he is. Sidi Hamza Qadiri Boutchich is the current head of this spiritual way, following an unbroken line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him). He is the one who decides on the invocation and he is the one who is responsible for the direction that the path takes. His state is a result of many years of constant invocation of God and living according to the Law as revealed in the Holy Book. He has both a physical and a spiritual link with the last Messenger. As I have mentioned before, it is to be in his proximity that has the greatest spiritual effect on one, and this is surely the reason that he is described as a living Saint.

I first visited this remarkable place with my mother at the age of six, but while living in Tangier, Morocco, I went regularly to meetings at the small Zawiyas located all around the country. This main Zawiya is situated in Madagh, a small farming village north of the town of Berkane, near the Algerian border. I have seen this Zawiya expand from a much smaller building than is shown in the photos to what it is now to accommodate the many thousands of visitors that come here every year. I have also witnessed the remarkable increase of followers on this spiritual path. Perhaps the best aspect of it for me is the hundreds of friends that I make with every visit. These are not the type of friends that one finds elsewhere. This is partly due to the Moroccan culture but also due to the relationship that is forged from the heart when one does something that is not for worldly or material gain. Maybe this simple factor is the key to true peace between people. There should be a balance between the spiritual world and the material world, and this is the basis of the teaching in this unique path. These friendships are not dissimilar to those found within close families. Indeed, the word chay (brother) in Arabic is often used when calling someone, as is the word, faqir, which literally means poor, but in this case implies that we are in need, but God is rich beyond need. As every religion has its own hidden inner teaching, so does the religion known as Al Islam, and the Zawiya of Madagh embodies the core of the spiritual teaching left by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him). I have intentionally not specified a religion up to now to highlight the fact that in this place of spiritual retreat religion by name is not a necessity. This inner teaching of Muslims is known as Sufism. I feel that without this the religion of Islam is not complete.

I still have fresh and vivid memories of my latest experience in the Madagh Zawiya, having only just returned from a visit this summer, when these photos were taken. I feel that the only way that I can let you taste some of my experiences there are by detailing some events of a typical day.
After arriving by the cheap bus that I spoke about earlier, I stood by the side of the road with my family and, like them, sighed with happiness at the realization that we had finally made it here. I said goodbye to my mum as she walked off, for women have a separate area within the Zawiya confines, although we share the same food and take part in a similar program. Sufis believe that women have the same access to spiritual knowledge as men and can reach the same goal – cognizance of God. Anyway, as I said earlier, even at this stage of our arrival, we did not know in which area of the Zawiya we would stay. This indigenous spontaneity forms an integral part of Moroccan culture and the tourist is often put off by their apparent lack of organization. No organization is sometimes the best organization, for then it is certain to be God’s will. As was expected, one of the appointed men of responsibility ushered us to the house of the master’s son, Sidi Jamal, who will be the next head of the Order (God Willing). This was, of course, after an expressive hearty welcome from the man responsible (we remembered him well of course).
I followed the rest of my family indoors, glad to be out of the baking heat. We designated an area for ourselves by laying down our belongings on the typical hard Moroccan sofas which I had become so accustomed to in my lifetime. These areas would become our beds at night. I forced myself to rest for a few minutes, before the excitement and curiosity overcame me and I ventured outside. The heat was intense. I felt it soak into my skin as I walked along outside the house towards the main building. I was in the middle of jumping over a large rock when –
I smiled before I had even looked up. A group of some of my best friends (around my own age group) were sitting, talking and drinking at the café. I walked over and greeted them as they prepared a place and instantly ordered a drink for me. I could not help but think wryly of my friends in England as I kissed each of these close friends on their hands, and drank the drink very slowly so that another would not be ordered on my behalf. We caught up, in between my trying to insist that I paid for the drink, and eventually I left the café with the grandson of the Master. I can pronounce his name perfectly in Arabic, but the closest I can get to spelling it in English is: Ouaoub! The photo above shows him on the left, me in the middle and another close friend on the right. We crossed the lower part of the Zawiyya, but not before greeting nearly everyone we saw (most of whom we knew). My flip-flops were onomatopoeic on the scrubbed red tiles. Flip, Flop, Flip –
We turned as we heard a slight commotion. A group of men were leading a sheep towards us. I knew what was to come, and decided that I would prefer my trousers to remain the colour they were, as opposed to them being red. So we moved on (but I could not help looking forward to lunch).

We walked. The sun beat down. The dust kicked up around our feet, rising and scattering. The distant mountains loomed grey, flat like a watercolour wash. The deep green crops separating us masked them. The midday sun caught the tips of the corn, turning the leaves a golden yellow. A larger cloud of dust rose in front of us, and I looked to see the wholegrain wheat being winnowed and gathered for our bread. We grabbed a corner of the mat on which some lay, and with a sweeping movement sent the wheat to the middle, causing another cloud to rise. I smiled at the state of the mat, for it showed clear signs of age and constant usage. We tipped the wheat slowly into a basket, carefully avoiding spillage. We carried it over to a large rustic sieve, and sitting on crates, sorted slowly through it, looking for small rocks (and anything else for that matter!) This is as organic as it gets, I thought. Ironically though, in Morocco this is not considered any great asset, and it is only used because it is the cheapest available. This reminded me of the barley we used to eat in Tangier because it was so cheap, whereas the exact same product in England costs twenty times as much (simply because it is organic and from Morocco).
My friend went off upstairs to his family quarters, while I walked to the main mosque of the Zawiya (avoiding the red patch on the tiles) and made my ablutions for the special Friday prayer. After this, I found myself joining the stream of people making their way out of the Zawiya and walking down the hill to the nearby mosque in the local village. Although there is a mosque in the Zawiya itself, we attend the Friday prayer so as not to be a separatist group and so that the local people can mix with the fuqara (pl. for disciples).

Rubbish lined the right side of the narrow road we walked down, and a shepherd watched as his sheep nosed the black plastic bags searching for scraps. The bus came roaring down the hill, bringing with it a welcome breeze, despite the smell of the fumes. I felt grateful that I was wearing a qasaba, a long flowing robe that is worn for ease, for the heat made the air heavy. The narrow irrigation canal followed the road , and I could almost understand how the suntanned local kids could bathe in the green water. I looked in front, then behind. It could have been a scene from the Bible: hundreds of robed figures, walking in the shimmering heat on this dusty road, all intent on arriving at the mosque before the call to the prayer began. I glanced at the men staring at me from under the shade of a nearby tree, and wondered how their hearts could not be moved by such a spectacle. These were the local people, who were simply not interested in what we were engaged upon. It was ironical that we had travelled so far to be here, I thought, yet these people were living within metres of the Zawiya and not seeing anything.
I caught sight of my dad in the distance, and I realized that in this place I had become independent, for all of the fuqara were my family. I dodged a chicken in the road, and stepped over a stream of liquid emerging from a nearby cluster of straw houses. We arrived at the small mosque, which looked even smaller now that it was overflowing with worshippers. I tried to listen and understand some of the talk given by the leader of the prayer (but without much success because it was in classical Arabic). Eventually, we prayed, but I was glad to be out in the open again, for at least there was some moving air. The photo shows the fuqara returning a few minutes later, on the way back to the Zawiya, where food was being prepared.

I scooped up my slippers and placed them together, before putting them in my usual place. I knew that food was imminent, for there were very few people inside the Zawiya . Over the noise of simultaneous conversations, I still managed to catch the shouts of the kitchen staff as they organized food for this large number of people. I stepped inside and –
I tried desperately to recognize the caller, but it was no use. It didn’t seem to matter though, for he knew me well enough. I suddenly became very interested as he told me of how he had known me as a little boy, how he had seen me grow up…

During the night, amidst the mass of sleeping bodies. I knew that it was very late, but my mind and body were still racing. I saw my dad lying asleep – so were my brothers. I thought briefly of England and felt sure that no-one that I knew was having as good a time as I was. I lay down on the hard sofa and listened to the snores. I turned onto the cool side of the pillow and smiled at the warm feeling in my heart. I realized that these trips to the Zawiya have been the most amazing times of my life. They have been the foundations for my life, both spiritual and otherwise. I realized that this religion is more than simply a religion; it embodies all aspects of life at the same time. I looked forward to the morning, to see what God would bring…

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Sat 10 November 3pm onwards
£12 / £10 concession
Book tickets


Brought by the Qadiri-Boutchichi Order , this festival consists of a calligraphy workshop, poetry, spiritual songs and theatre, using art as a means of spiritual and personal upliftment.

Poetry will be delivered by Avaes Mohammad and Zahidah Dodwell. Contemporary calligraphy will be exhibited, with workshops lead by Muhammad al-Amine Eatwell.  Members of the Qadiri-Boutchichi order will perform Spiritual songs as well as the play, The Madjoub’s Box, along with special guests.  A talk introducing the Qadiri-Boutchichi Sufi order will also feature as part of the events.

The play, ‘The Majdoub’s Box‘ tells the tale of a Sufi’s death, prompting locals to gather at his grave and lay claim to his only possession – A Box. As they imagine what might be inside, often to comic effect, they discover a deeper secret waiting for them…

Avaes Mohammad:
Muhammad al-Amine Eatwell: