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Shaikh al-Alawi, Memories of Dr. Marcel Carret
English - Articles written
Écrit par Marcel Carret   
Dimanche, 03 Mai 1942 12:11

 

The narrative which follows is by Dr Marcel Carret. It speaks for itself and needs no introduction; and having read it, the reader will no doubt understand why I have chosen to begin with it rather than with anything else, although at its outset the Shaikh is already fifty years old.

I met the Shaikh AlAlawi for the first time in the spring of 1920. It was not a chance meeting, for I had been called in to him in my capacity as doctor. It was then only a few months since I had started a practice at Mostaganem.

 

What could have prompted the Shaikh to consult a doctor, seeing that he attached so little importance to the petty misfortunes of the flesh. And why had he chosen me, a newcomer, from among so many others? It was from him himself that I eventually learned the answers to these questions: not long after my arrival at Mostaganem, I had set up a clinic in the Arab town of Tigditt exclusively for the use of Moslems, and three times a week I gave consultations there for a minimum fee. Moslems have an instinctive repugnance for State-organized dispensaries, and my clinic which was set up in their very midst and arranged to suit their tastes and customs, was a success. Echoes of this came to the ears of the Shaikh.

 

His attention was attracted by this initiative on the part of a newly arrived French doctor who, unlike most Europeans, apparently did not look down on Moslems from the heights of a disdainful pride. Without my knowing it, and without the least attempt at investigation on his part, he was benevolently informed by his disciples as to how I looked, what I did, my movements, my way of treating the sick and my sympathetic attitude towards Moslems. As a result, the Shaikh AlAlawi already knew me quite well when I was still ignorant of his very existence. A rather serious attack of influenza which he had during the Spring of 1920 made him decide to send for me.

 

From my first contact with him I had the impression of being in the presence of no ordinary personality. The room I was shown into, like all rooms in Moslem houses, was without furniture. There were simply two chests which, as I found out later, were full of books and manuscripts. But the floor was covered from end to end with carpets and rush mats. In one corner was a rug-covered mattress, and here, with some cushions at his back, sitting straight upright, cross-legged, with his hands on his knees, was the Shaikh, in a motionless hieratic attitude which seemed at the same time perfectly natural.

 

The first thing that struck me was his likeness to the usual representations of Christ. His clothes, so nearly if not exactly the same as those which Jesus must have worn, the fine lawn head-cloth which framed his face, his whole attitude everything conspired to reinforce the likeness. It occurred to me that such must have been the appearance of Christ when he received his disciples at the time when he was staying with Martha and Mary.

 

My surprise stopped me for a moment on the threshold. He too fixed his eyes on my face, but with a far-away look, and then broke the silence by asking me to come in, with the usual words of welcome. His nephew, Sidi Muhammad, acted as his interpreter, for although the Shaikh understood French well he had some difficulty in speaking it, and in the presence of a stranger he made as if he did not know it at all.

 

I asked for some sandals to cover my shoes, so as not to defile the carpets and the mats, but he said that this was quite unnecessary. A chair was brought for me, but it seemed so ridiculous in such surroundings that I declined it, saying I would rather sit on a cushion. The Shaikh smiled almost imperceptibly, and I felt that by this simple gesture I had already gained his sympathy.

 

His voice was gentle, somewhat subdued. He spoke little, in short sentences, and those about him obeyed in silence, waiting on his least word or gesture. One felt that he was surrounded by the deepest reverence.

 

I already knew something of Moslem ways, and realizing that I had to do with someone who was not just "anyone", I was careful not to broach too abruptly the subject for which I had been called in. I let the Shaikh question me, through Sidi Muhammad, about my stay in Mostaganem, what had brought me there, the difficulties I had met with, and how far I was satisfied.

 

During this conversation a young disciple had brought in a large brass tray with some mint-flavoured tea and some cakes.

 

The Shaikh took nothing, but invited me to drink when the tea had been served, and himself pronounced the "Bismillah" (in the Name of God) for me as I raised the cup to my lips.

 

It was only after all this usual ceremonial was over that the Shaikh decided to talk to me about his health.

 

He said that he had not sent for me to prescribe medicines for him; certainly, he would take medicine, if I thought it absolutely necessary and even if I thought it would help him, but he had no desire to do so. He simply wanted to know if the illness he had contracted a few days previously was a serious one. He relied on me to tell him quite frankly, and without keeping anything back, what I thought of his condition. The rest was of little or no importance.

 

I felt more and more interested and intrigued: a sick man who has not the cult of medicines is rare enough as it is, but a sick man who has no particular desire to get better and who simply wants to know where he stands is a still greater rarity.

 

I proceeded to make a most thorough medical examination, to which the patient docilely submitted. The more circumspect I showed myself during this examination, the more confidently he put himself into my hands. He was amazingly thin, so much so that one had the impression of an organism in which life was only working at a reduced speed. But he had nothing seriously wrong with him. The only other person present at this exam ination was Sidi Muhammad who, with his back towards us and eyes cast down, stood sadly and respectfully in the middle of the room, translating the questions and answers in a low voice, but seeing nothing of what took place.

 

When I had finished, the Shaikh resumed his hieratic attitude on the cushions, Sidi Muhammad clapped his hands, and the young man brought in some more tea.

 

I then explained to the Shaikh that he had a fairly bad attack of influenza, but that there was nothing seriously wrong with him, that his chief organs were working quite normally and that probably all his troubles would disappear of their own accord after a few days. But although it was unlikely there would be any complications, there was always a certain risk of them in such cases, so that his illness must be closely watched, and I would have to come and see him again by way of precaution. I added that I found his thinness somewhat alarming, and that he ought to eat a little more. I had in fact learnt, in answer to my questions, that his daily diet consisted of no more than one litre of milk, a few dried dates, one or two bananas, and some tea.

 

The Shaikh seemed very satisfied with the result of my examination. He thanked me with dignity, apologized for having troubled me, and told me I could come to see him again whenever I thought it necessary. As to the question of food, his point of view was somewhat different from mine: for him eating was an obligation, but he was in the habit of reducing his diet to a minimum.

 

I pointed out that if he did not have enough to eat he would grow weaker and weaker and would have less resistance against future illnesses. I understood very well that he attached no importance to this, but on the other hand if he felt at all bound to prolong his life or simply to keep himself alive, it was indispensable for him to bow to the demands of nature, however annoying they might be.

 

This argument evidently impressed him, for he remained silent for quite a time. Then, with an evasive waive of the hand and a slight smile he said gently: "God will provide."

 

He was now sitting just as he had been at my entry, and there was a far-away look in his eyes. I retired discreetly, carrying with me an impression which, after more than 20 years, remains as clearly engraved on my memory as if it was barely yesterday since all this took place.

 

I have described this first visit to the Shaikh AlAlawi in all its detail because I thought that the best way to bring out his personality was to start by transmitting the impression he made on me at our first meeting. This impression is all the more reliable for my having known nothing about him before I set eyes on him.

 

I tried to find out something about this unusual person, but no one seemed able to tell me anything in particular. North African Europeans live as a rule in such ignorance of the inner workings of Islam, that for them a Shaikh or a Marabout is a kind of wizard, without any importance except for what political influence he may have; and as this Shaikh had no such influence, they knew nothing about him.

 

Moreover, on second thoughts, I began to wonder whether I had not been rather the victim of my imagination. That Christ-like face, that gentle voice, so full of peace, those courteous manners, might have influenced me into supposing a spirituality which was in fact non-existent. His attitude might have been a calculated "pose", and beneath this promising surface there might be nothing at all.

 

None the less he had seemed so simple and natural that my first impression persisted, and it was duly confirmed by what followed.

 

The next day I went to see him again, and also for several days after that, until he had quite recovered. Each time I found him just the same, motionless, in the same position, in the same place, with the far-away look in his eyes and the faint smile on his lips, as if he had not moved an inch since the day before, like a statue for which time does not count.

 

At each visit he was more cordial and more confiding. Although our conversations were fairly limited and altogether general in topic, apart from medical questions, my impression grew stronger and stronger that the man in front of me was no impostor. We were soon on friendly terms, and when I told him that I considered my visits as doctor no longer necessary, he said that he had been very pleased to make my acquaintance
and that he would be glad if I would come to see him now and then, whenever I had time.

 

This was the beginning of a friendship which was to last until the death of the Shaikh in 1934. During these fourteen years I was able to see him at least once a week. Sometimes I went for the pleasure of talking to him when I had a few spare moments, sometimes it was because he had had me sent for on account of some member of his family, and often also because his own precarious health needed my attention.

 

Little by little my wife and I became intimates of the house. After a certain time they made us feel altogether at home there, and eventually they came to consider us almost as members of the family. But this took place gradually and imperceptibly. When I first met the Shaikh the present zawiyah had not yet been built. A group of fuqara. had bought the ground and made a present of it to the Shaikh, and the foundations had
already been laid, but the troubles of 1914 had interrupted the work, which was not resumed until 1920.

 

The way in which this zawiyah was built is both eloquent and typical: there was neither architect at least, not in the ordinary sense nor master-builder, and all the workmen were volunteers.

 

The architect was the Shaikh himself not that he ever drew up a plan or manipulated a set-square. He simply said what he wanted, and his conception was understood by the builders.

 

They were by no means all from that part of the country. Many had come from Morocco, especially from the Riff, and some from Tunis, all without any kind of enlistment. The news had gone round that work on the zawiyah could be started once more, and that was all that was needed. Among the Shaikhs North African disciples there began an exodus in relays: masons some, carpenters others, stone-cutters, workers on the roads, or even ordinary manual labourers, they knotted a few meagre provisions in a handkerchief and set out for the far-off town where the Master lived to put at his disposal the work of their hands. They received no wages. They were fed, that was all; and they camped out in tents. But every evening, an hour before the prayer, the Shaikh brought them together and gave them spiritual instruction...(incomplete text)

 

A need now and then to gather together and to feel that their own ideas are shared by a great many others. That is all they are asking for now...(incomplete text)

 

To each movement, the Name "Allah". This began to a fairly slow rhythm which was given by a sort of choir leader at the centre of each circle, whose voice could be heard above the others...(incomplete text)

 

But I realized that there was a connection between what he had said and the incantations which I had sometimes heard and which had intrigued me...(incomplete text)

 

What I appreciated especially in him was his complete lack of proselytism. He expressed his views when I questioned him, but seemed to care very little whether they did me any good...(incomplete text)

 

"Because usually those who, like yourself, have no religion are hostile to religions. And you do not seem to be so."

What you say is true, but the people you refer to have kept the intolerant religious...(incomplete text)

 

Remained fixed in my mind. Sometimes the dialogue was limited to a few remarks interspersed between long silences; sometimes it consisted of an exposition of my point of view, asked for by him...(incomplete text)

 

When I had asked what he meant by it he had been unwilling to answer:

"What doctrine?"

This time he answered:

"The means of attaining to God Himself."...(incomplete text)

 

Death, the scene of this earthly life would become devoid of all interest for me and I should be utterly indifferent to it. I would live entirely in expectation of the true life yonder...(incomplete text)

 

The fuqara began to look at me in a special way. I realized that they were trying to make out what I thought of the Shaikh health. Usually I saw little of them. They knew who I was, and the friendship that the Shaikh...(incomplete text)

 

In 1932 we were badly shaken by his having a partial heart attack. I was summoned in all haste, and when I arrived his pulse was imperceptible...(incomplete text)

 

I am going at last to take my rest in the Presence of God."

He clasped my hand feebly and closed his eyes. It was a last farewell. 15 July 1934.

 

Marcel CARRET
TANGER, MAY 1942

Translation and commentary by Martin Lings in his book A Sufi Saint of the twentieth century - Shaykh Ahmad Al-Alawi - his Spiritual heritage and Legacy.