Celebrating Mawlid An-Nabaoui with Stambeli Trance in Tunis

31 October, 2022


On the day that cel­e­brates the birth of the Prophet, stam­be­li musi­cians and Tunis res­i­dents rejoice togeth­er with rit­u­al music and chants, wind­ing their way from Zaouia Sidi Mahrez through our cor­re­spon­den­t’s neigh­bor­hood of Bab Soui­ka to Place du Tri­bunal, a square in front of Palais Kheired­dine in Hafsia.


Shreya Parikh


I am in the crowd­ed court­yard of Zaouia Sidi Mahrez, the mau­soleum of the patron saint of Tunis. The air is thick with incense and the smell of sweat from the morn­ing sun falling on all our bod­ies. It is the eighth day of Octo­ber, 2022, which com­mem­o­rates Mawlid An-Nabaoui, the day of the birth of Prophet Moham­mad. As I elbow my way into the crowd, the only thing I see when I face the direc­tion of the drum and the sounds of shekashek (metal­lic clap­pers strung togeth­er with strings) is a sea of hands clap­ping, wav­ing to the beat, or film­ing the scene for a loved one who isn’t in Tunis today.

Place Tri­bunal, Tunis.

The push­ing throng brings me to the door of the mau­soleum, and so, like the women around me, I find myself swept inside to pay my respects. As we enter through the large door, the woman behind me knocks on the round metal­lic door-knob, mum­bling a prayer that I strug­gle to deci­pher. I con­tin­ue to be pushed into the hall where women are lined up, to my left, to drink from the sacred source of water. To my right, two giant bowls of assi­da bil zib­da (semoli­na-based creamy por­ridge with but­ter) sit on a table, sur­round­ed by women and men eat­ing spoon­fuls in contentment.

A beau­ti­ful young woman grabs my hand, brings me close to the table and asks me to join her in eat­ing the assi­da. An old man hands me a plas­tic spoon, and I quick­ly join the group to try a bit of the assi­da. The woman tells me that assi­da is Sidi Mahrez’s pre­ferred sweet, and that con­sum­ing it would bring me luck in get­ting mar­ried. I gig­gle mild­ly, think­ing of my non-desire for a mar­riage, and slow­ly move away from the table. I enter the room where Sidi Mahrez rests, search­ing for my scarf to cov­er my head in respect. 

There are more women than men pay­ing respects to Sidi Mahrez, as it has always been dur­ing my pre­vi­ous vis­its here. I’ve been told that Sidi Mahrez answers prayers about so-called women prob­lems — infer­til­i­ty, mar­riage, fam­i­ly dis­putes. Every time a woman there bless­es me, a part of me cringes think­ing about how, every­where in the world, cer­tain prob­lems have come to be con­struct­ed as belong­ing to women alone.

I spot the holy tomb of Sidi Mahrez and stand in the cor­ner next to a woman who is dressed in a bright pink dress, and who is slow­ly enter­ing the state of trance and com­ing to be pos­sessed by a spir­it. She looks around with enlarged eyes, and asks, in a thick voice, for water to be splashed over her face; women slow­ly gath­er to watch her, chant­i­ng “bis­mil­lah” or ulu­lat­ing. I stand there in the cor­ner, unsure of what to do except to con­tin­ue stand­ing and star­ing like every­one else around.

I try, in my head, to pro­duce a ratio­nal under­stand­ing of what I see in front of me, but fail. The mau­soleum and its vis­i­tors leave me in awe every time, touch­ing a part of me that my athe­ist self strug­gles with and recur­ring­ly denies. It might be some­thing about a sense of a past old­er than my body that rais­es goose­bumps on my skin. I think of Sidi Mahrez who lived here, in the neigh­bor­hood of Bab Soui­ka where his mau­soleum stands, a thou­sand years ago. I think as well of the peo­ple who will vis­it Sidi Mahrez long after I have left Tunis, and long after I have left the world. Will they think of us here, in this moment? I wonder!



Con­tem­pla­tions on the sacred

The drum­ming beats in the court­yard change and so I get dis­tract­ed from my ratio­nal­iz­ing con­tem­pla­tions. I walk back, hop­ing to catch a glimpse of the stam­be­li groups play­ing the drums and the shekashek at the oth­er end of the courtyard.

My first encoun­ters with stam­be­li were in books and arti­cles about the his­to­ries of Black Tunisians that I read in prepa­ra­tion for my dis­ser­ta­tion pro­pos­al. Schol­ar Richard C. Jankowsky, who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about stam­be­li, defines it as “a rit­u­al heal­ing music devel­oped by slaves, their descen­dants and oth­er dis­placed sub-Saha­rans in Tunisia.” He adds that, in stam­be­li, “music does not heal; rather, it facil­i­tates the heal­ing process…[and] attract[s] the spir­its to man­i­fest them­selves through induced possession.”

Richard C. Jankowsky’s Stam­be­li.

Most of the men per­form­ing stam­be­li are Black, indica­tive of their his­tor­i­cal links to Sub-Saha­ran Africa. Stam­be­li has been called the “her­itage of the Black peo­ple in Tunisia” as well as the “sound of African music in Tunisia,” where both these descrip­tions point to a sense of for­eign­ness of Black­ness and African­ness (both assumed to be syn­ony­mous in Tunisian ver­nac­u­lar) in Tunisia. The sight of these Black men and their fam­i­lies amidst the crowd of most­ly non-Black Tunisians is a reminder of the many migra­tions that Tunisia has wit­nessed, past and present. I won­der what type of cul­tur­al her­itage the most­ly-undoc­u­ment­ed Sub-Saha­ran migrant com­mu­ni­ties will build for the future?

Around 10 am, the stam­be­li groups make their way out of the court­yard into the streets of the med­i­na. Dif­fer­ent groups con­tin­ue to play their style of rit­u­al­is­tic music, accom­pa­nied by bod­i­ly move­ments that could be cat­e­go­rized as a form of dance. In most stam­be­li groups, two men play the tabla (a two-sided drum slung to the neck) and between six to eight men play the shekasheks. Two men car­ry long poles with col­or­ful flags embroi­dered with sym­bols spe­cif­ic to the group. I some­times man­age to spot the ma’alem (leader of the rit­u­al) of the group, lead­ing the chants that accom­pa­ny the rit­u­al­is­tic music. The stam­be­li group I am walk­ing next to chants the name of Halouma, an endear­ing way to address Hal­i­ma, the moth­er of the Prophet. Every­one around joins in the chant­i­ng, and the fam­i­ly next to me, to whom I have intro­duced myself as a hin­daouia (Indi­an woman) is amused to see that I have joined along as well.

The Mawlid pro­ces­sion from Sidi Mahrez is orga­nized every year by the Asso­ci­a­tion de la Cul­ture du Stam­bali Tunisie Sidi Ali Las­mar. It gath­ers stam­be­li groups from all over Tunisia. The exact his­to­ry of the pro­ces­sion remains unclear; a news arti­cle notes that it dates from “many gen­er­a­tions.” All the mem­bers of the stam­be­li groups gath­ered for the pro­ces­sion are men. Ages vary, and the multi­gen­er­a­tional nature of the pas­sage of the rit­u­al­is­tic knowl­edge is vis­i­ble in the pres­ence of two (and some­times three) gen­er­a­tions of men play­ing along­side each oth­er, with women from the fam­i­ly tag­ging along next to the group.

We maze through the streets of the med­i­na to arrive at Place du Tri­bunal, a square in front of Palais Kheired­dine in Haf­sia neigh­bor­hood; all the groups come to a halt here. A group plays in front of the door to Palais Kheired­dine, anoth­er plays in front of the Cul­tur­al Club Taher Hadded. I spot around sev­en groups, all spread around the square, some sim­ply play­ing the music, some per­form­ing the rit­u­al­is­tic dance, and oth­ers tak­ing a break from the performance.

This year marks the third time that I cel­e­brate Mawlid in Tunisia, and sec­ond that I attend the kherej el Moul­dia (the pro­ces­sion of Mawlid) from Sidi Mahrez. The pan­dem­ic-relat­ed can­cel­la­tions of cul­tur­al events meant that, dur­ing my first year in Tunis (in 2020), I nev­er got to wit­ness an event that remains the pride of my neigh­bor­hood (for I live around the corner).

Last year, in 2021, when I final­ly attend­ed the kherej, I was sur­prised by the diver­si­ty in ages, gen­der, and social class of the Tunisians join­ing the pro­ces­sion. Like this year, many had come from out­side Tunis. This year, I notice the joy and lib­er­ty with which women — hijabi or not, grand­moth­ers and daugh­ters, from Tunis and beyond — dance to the stam­be­li beats; I spot women danc­ing or falling into a trance next to every per­form­ing group as we walk the streets of the med­i­na. The streets and squares that weigh on women’s bod­ies, turn­ing their move­ment and sound into bro­ken silences, are today the site of fes­tiv­i­ty. Women bod­ies move more than men’s; women scream, laugh, and sing loud­er than men.

After around twen­ty min­utes of per­for­mances on Place du Tri­bunal, there is much con­fu­sion about whether the pro­ces­sion will con­tin­ue on to the decid­ed des­ti­na­tion of Zaouia Sidi Ben Arous, close to the Zitouna Mosque. A group departs on its own and is brought back to the Place by the ma’alem of the group from Sidi Ali Las­mar, the key orga­niz­er of the pro­ces­sion. The returned group pro­duce yet anoth­er per­for­mance on the Place, and I won­der how they expe­ri­ence this con­fu­sion and imposed return.

I find myself in front of a group dressed in dark blue jeb­bas (a long loose tunic cov­er­ing the whole body) with thick bright yel­low embroi­dery. They have stuck to play­ing the same beat for a while now, allow­ing women falling into trance to go deep­er. Every time the beat stops, these women fall to the ground in exhaus­tion. I start to move and to dance slow­ly, for the sight of the danc­ing bod­ies is infec­tious. Slow­ly, I find myself clos­ing my eyes.

I real­ize that if I were to real­ly con­cen­trate on the beats, I could pos­si­bly lose con­trol of my mov­ing body. Am I afraid of trance because giv­ing myself over to the sacred might mean los­ing con­trol? The ratio­nal self in me doesn’t approve of these thoughts and jumps in to dis­tract me from the music; so I tell myself to keep my eyes open and my mind distracted.

Jankowsky writes about his recur­rent strug­gle to (ratio­nal­ly) under­stand Stam­be­li and its rela­tion to trance dur­ing his appren­tice­ship under stam­be­li mas­ter Abdul-Majid Bar­nawi, and calls such moments of strug­gle an apo­r­ia. Tak­ing from Jacques Der­ri­da’s con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the term, he defines apo­r­ia as a “pro­found moment of doubt in which knowl­edge enters crisis…[and] expos­es our own epis­te­mo­log­i­cal limits…[urging] us to imag­ine mov­ing beyond them.”

At some abrupt moment, the halt­ed pro­ces­sion starts to move again, and quick­ly dis­ap­pears in the direc­tion of Rue Sidi Ben Arous. To con­tin­ue mov­ing with them would be a good dis­trac­tion, my ratio­nal­iz­ing-self con­tends. So, instead, I decide to stay in the Place, con­tem­plat­ing my own epis­te­mo­log­i­cal limits.


Shreya Parikh is a dual Ph.D. candidate in sociology at CERI-Sciences Po Paris and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Beyond Borders Fellow (2022-24) at Zeit-Stiftung and an affiliated researcher at Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain (IRMC) in Tunis. Her dissertation examines the constructions and contestations of race and racialization in Tunisia through a focus on the study of racialization of Black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan migrants. Parikh is interested in the study of race, borders, migration, and citizenship in North Africa and its diaspora. Her Tunisia research is funded by a Beyond Borders Ph.D. Fellowship granted by Zeit-Stiftung. Born and raised in Ahmedabad, India, she tweets at @shreya_parikh.

Black TunisiansMawlidSidi MahrezstambelitranceTunisTunisia


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