The cultural supplement of the newspaper "Al Maghrib" - No 5, p. 69 May 5, 1938 and No 6 p. 91 May 12, 1938
1. Description of the festivities
When spring arrives we quicken our pace to enjoy the hours or days we snatch from the passage of time. When spring arrives, life blooms to welcome its youth as the earth wraps itself in greenery. Flowers appear with a spectacular splash exuding fragrances that cuddle one's heart. Birds chirp on branches enjoining man to recognize the sacred beauty of nature and to enjoy the moment. It is not time to dwell on material issues but to direct all one's feelings to a universe where the soul bathes in a world of poetry and aesthetics. A world of imagination and wonder unlimited by social rules nor prodded onwards by corporal impulses.
In mid-spring, a youthful time, the human being rekindles his youth. He culls from its seas, rippling to a pleasant breeze under a radiant sun, moments of bliss which can be remembered as the best moments in life or indeed as just life itself. All our efforts during the course of our existence tend to exalt beauty and spring is none other than the cream of this beauty in full bloom.
"El Nouzha" (i.e. the picnic) that we organize during springtime in Moroccan society is one of the most pleasant times in our lives. It remains more engraved in our memory throughout the year than the rest of those times spent at work or in entertainment inside the city's walls. Nearly all of the latter fade from memory. We lose track of various milestones of our past. But the joyful days of those sorties are always present in our minds; they're destined to stay forever. They evoke memories of being amid excellent company. The eldest amongst us, sits in a corner of the room beside a warm fire. He hardly recollects much of his past even though it was richly eventful until he evokes the word "El Nouzha!" We see him sparkling with joy as if youthful blood was now coursing through his veins. He engages you in an account of a most pleasant spring day he spent in an outing with friends or with family members. Meanwhile the adventures he experienced in the city vanish completely into the void of his memory.
In our society, the picnic outing, is totally tied with spring which manifests itself in Morocco with great splendor. After the summer season with its hot winds, the fall with its lifeless fallen leaves, and winter with its wet tears, spring arrives with smiling faces and laughter. We hasten to erect a statue (of welcome) and make time to abandon ourselves in its invigorating air, in its magic colors and in its dreamlike awakening. As soon as spring arrives people leave their homes to gardens (or orchards) outside the city walls or to the banks of a river. Families sing favorite refrains with melodious voices as they head out in small groups towards their chosen spots for their picnic outing. This is El Nouzha that we organize with family members or close friends. But how does it manifest itself in the midst of students bubbling with the passionate blood of youth? It is here that one perhaps can see a miracle. Here is a lovely tradition that was bequeathed to us and allows our schools to differ from those of other countries. This tradition is the spring head of everlasting poetry from which flows the happiness of youth in the spring of their lives.
What other nation in all the world grants as much interest to the young students during the spring season? What nation organizes each year a celebration and the coronation of a student from its great university? What country has its King rush up to salute the "Sultan of Tolbas" (the sultan of students) showering him with gifts amid joy and elation? It is our nation that passed on to us this tradition of which we are proud and which we jealously maintain. It is our nation that sees to it that spring is a season of enjoyment. Our two capitals, the spiritual and the administrative, play an important role in perpetuating this wonderful tradition and offer upcoming generations of youth the nation's affection for its students through the vivid example of this rite of spring.
In the eternal city of Fez where spring comes in its glory and spreads its splendor along the banks of "El Wadi El Jawahir" (the River of Pearls) the students gather in the center of their university campus. They address His Majesty the King, long lasting symbol of the land, to request his approval to organize their traditional celebration. The beloved King grants his approval through his Grand Vizir. The students then hold several sessions on the organization and implementation of the festivities and announce the auction for the highest bidder for the sultanate amongst the students. The candidates left their birthplaces and families to come (to Fez) from all the far corners of the land intent to spend several years to perfect their education and cultural upbringing.
On Friday, the day following the royal grant, the students hold a plenary session in the afternoon in the wide courtyard of the University of Karaouine. The auction is officially opened with active participation of all students and lasts two consecutive afternoons before concluding with the designation of the winning candidate. The auction bids often reached 20,000 Francs or higher and the winner is proclaimed "Sultan of the Tolbas." After the proclamation, he returns to his dormitory to form his government and chose amongst classmates his Chamberlains and heads of various ministrial positions including the Mechouar (Office of Royal Allegiance). He also chooses a Treasurer, although the latter is not always a student, to oversee the expenditures for conducting the celebrations that could last up to two weeks. The expenses are covered by the bid that won the privilege of the sultanate, as well as by a government grant, and by donations from several institutions of Fez. Moreover taxes are levied on the notables of Fes by orders of the Sultan of Tolbas who issues notifications with his signature and seal. The Sultan of Tolbas designates his "Mohtasseb" (accountant) who must make good account of his mission with jokes and humor during his tours to audit the souks (markets). He audits pricing, validates weights and scales, reviews bookkeeping records, establishes a tax base and puts an end to any deliberate infractions. The merchants play along willingly and pay what is required. They encourage the students in their fine endeavor and contribute in this manner to the successful animation of this celebration of youth.
The following Friday at 11:00 AM, the "Sultan of Tolbas" leaves his campus leading a procession. His Majesty the King has sent him a complete regal outfit and a saddled and harnessed horse. The king delegates to him the services of his organizer of the palace celebrations as well as a troop of soldiers and aids of the Pasha (royal representative of Fez). Including the Sultan's chosen ministers and chamberlains, this procession heads first to the "Al Andalus" mosque for the Friday prayer and afterwards heads (out from Fez) to the tomb of Sidi Harazem where the Sultan meditates. Throughout procession's journey students sell dates at very high prices to the public spectators, sometimes exceeding 10 Francs a date. The proceeds of the sales are also included in the sum targeted to cover the costs of the festivities. Then in the evening the Sultan of Tolbas followed by his procession heads back to the campus.
The next day after midday prayers, the Sultan of Tolba and his retinue proceed to the "Souk of Attarines" (Parfumers Market) and the Talaâ neighborhood. They pass through the Mahrouk Gate move along the road between Fez New Town and the Cherada Kasbah heading toward the river. The Pasha of New Town erected tents to welcome the students and one for himself to personally vouch for their safety during the celebration. The biggest and most beautiful tents are reserved for prayers. They are installed next to the tent for the Sultan of Tolbas. The Treasurer distributes proceeds from the collected funds to students who leave in small groups to the various tents as the Sultan settles the expenses against his receipts.
The Fassi (people from Fez) find great pleasure to spend a couple of days in the company of the students. They arrive early to claim a suitable site along the banks of their beautiful river. They set up their tents and bring along the necessary provisions. The students spend Sunday relaxing and amusing themselves. Monday is reserved for the welcoming of a prince of the royal family who in the name of the King presides over the celebration and hands out cash and in-kind gifts to assist the students renew their supplies and meet unexpected expenses. Then it is the merchants turn to present gifts on behalf of their professions. Jewish residents and representatives of the European inhabitants do not fail to attend the gathering and offer presents as well. More recently, the Fassi Bar association donated a watch of great value to the Sultan of Tolbas. Throughout the day, intense 'royal administrative' activity are carried out inside the Sultan's tent. Ministers prepare drafts of dahirs (royal decrees) in collaboration with secretaries chosen from their peers. Humorous pranks are devised to amuse the students. On the sixth day of celebration, His Majesty the King leads his royal retinue on horseback to the banks of the River of Pearls where the students are enjoying the beauty of spring. The Sultan of Tolbas mounts his own horse to greet the King.
The "Sultan from the University" maintains all the prerogatives of his power. He plays the act to perfection so as to demonstrate to what point the Moroccan people and its worthy sovereign appreciate the sciences and show their interest in the world of students. This reflects a true democratic spirit. The government shows its great respect for the men of tomorrow, The King in front of whom nobody dares to raise his voice puts himself at the level of the students to have a good time with them. The Moroccan King, ruler of vast stretches of land and urban agglomerations, sees only humor and innocent banter from his students. He makes all kinds of concessions as he listens to their buffoonery. The head of the celebrations for the Sultan of Tolbas stands before the King in the presence of a dense crowd and hails him:
"How can you, ordinary king of Morocco, present yourself before the greatest monarch on earth, who rules over millions of mosquitoes, flies, ants, toads and other species?"
The King chuckles as he protests and the Sultan of Tolbas offers his welcome and authorization to stay in his kingdom. That done, his comical announcer, in the presence of a wide audience gives two speeches highlighting the coming great feast and thanking Allah for making it so as to satisfy the stomachs of the most glutinous of appetites.
After the two speeches conclude amid joy and cheers, the King requests permission from the Sultan of Tolbas to take his leave. The latter dismounts and kisses the King's feet and presents him with a list of grievances which could include (the likes of) the freeing from jail of a family member, request for employment or exoneration from paying (overdue) taxes. These grievances are written within the framework of decrees duly signed and sealed by the Sultan of Tolbas. Before his departure, the King grants the students his favor to prolong the celebration for one more week. On the very last evening, the Sultan of Tolbas, discretely steals back from the celebrations to his campus. He fears that his peers might playfully rebel against him at the end of the celebration, the moment when he becomes just another student like them with no recall to any preeminence due the title of Sultan of Tolbas.
A friend from Fez told me that about a dozen years ago, the Fassi youth had staged a play at a big theater in town. The actor who played the role of the King in this play became so convinced that he was above his common peers that he often clashed with them. This situation explains why the Sultan of Tolbas traditionally flees on the last evening of the celebration. He is no longer protected by regal immunity and therefore no longer has the respect accorded him during his two weeks of reign. Hence if the time to act on stage for one night was detrimental for our Fassi actor what can we say about someone who had to act in a play whose stage was the jubilant city of Fez for fourteen days?
2. Its historic origin
Now that I have described the celebration and cited a few passages of the speeches evoked, do you not see that this is a beautiful tradition which we have a duty to preserve? One to which we must show interest and be amongst the first to support? This event provides a lasting reflection of the manner in which our forefathers held education and scholarship. But what is its origin? How did it come about? How does one explain why the Kings of Morocco are willing to role play in order to elevate the cultural vision. What makes them appear to renounce their authority over the students under their sovereignty and to accept placing themselves at their level to hear jokes that sometimes touch too close to home?
The Moroccan historians have not shown the interest that this event deserves. They never attempted to research its origins nor to provide a detailed description of it. Nor have they made any effort to shed light on its symbolic values or lessons. Even as this is an event that time has immortalized through the will of Morocco and its rulers who have perpetuated it by renewing annually the authorization to the students to relive this secular tradition. If the day comes when historians speak to us about this celebration and provide a detailed picture of its evolution over the generations, then without doubt they will have enlightened us a bit on our cultural past. We dispose of only sparse information reported in some historical manuals to help us understand (elements of ) a folk story on the origins of this event. Perhaps this information and the folk story will allow us to learn more about this wonderful tradition.
According to the folk story, when Morocco underwent a period of instability during the downfall of the Saadians, there lived near Taza a wealthy Jewish trader named Ben Méchaâl. It is reported that he made an territorial incursion nearby and became the absolute master. He extended his influence all the way to Fez where he forced the residents to recognize his moral will and to send him each year the most beautiful young lady of the city as a gift to add to his harem.
During this period, there was among the Karaouine students one named Moulay Rachid. He rebelled against this humiliation especially since the young lady to be gifted to Ben Méchaâl that year belonged to his Alaoui family. He embarked on an extremely dangerous adventure by dressing up as a young woman and putting on a veil so that he take the place of the designated young lady. 'She' was accompanied by 'her' trousseau presumably distributed in forty trunks having taken care to hide in each a fellow student armed to the teeth. Ben Méchaâl welcomed the so called lady he was offered as a gift and let her in along with her belongings. But no sooner than he had closed the door, the students leaped out of their hiding places and Moulay Rachid with their help, dealt a mortal blow to Ben Méchaâl. These same students soon thereafter proclaimed Moulay Rachid their king.
Moulay Rachid wanted to immortalize the circumstances surrounding this act of allegiance and to honor the students who assisted the Moroccan monarchy to get rid of this despot. He decreed a coronation be held each year of one of the students from the University of Karaouine. Even though historical documents do not mention this folk story and the roles of the different actors nor the titillating undertones of the story, they don't refute that during this period there was a rich Jewish trader named Ben Méchaâl who lived near Taza and that Moulay Rachid had taken his life and all of his possessions.
In "Al Matani" published around 1170 AD one can read in brief:
Moulay Rachid came to visit a chief named Sheikh Lawati. While his host was presenting him with the honors of his house, he saw a man with great presence surrounded by a large number of followers and slaves on horseback engaging in a hunt with regal splendor. He asked who was this man and his host replied, "He is Ben Méchaâl, a Jewish national from Taza."
Moulay Rachid leaped up armed to his teeth. When Sheikh Lawati saw him in this (agitated) state he said, " I am at your service, My Lord. For you I bear affection for neither money nor (my) life."
Moulay ordered him to raise a force of about five hundred men among the heroes of his friends and make them available to him to kill Ben Méchaâl. Sheikh Lawati assured him that none of his heroes would do him wrong. It was agreed that they would approach Ben Méchaâl's home separately and incognito. The home was located in the wilderness half a league from Taza. Later he left the troops behind as he asked for hospitality from the Jew who deigned to receive him. The other assailants followed him and stealthily encircled the house when night fell, always at the ready in case Moulay Rachid was in need. Then taking advantage when his was alone with his host, he rushed him and delivered a fatal blow. The troop successfully sneaked into the house allowing them to seize valuable items and a large sum of money.
The chief officer and historian of the royal family, Ibn Zaydan wrote in his book "The Precious Pearls" referencing the book, "Allah's Wish or The Explanation of Ibn Al Wannan's Poem":
It was Moulay Rachid who instituted the celebration of students which is held in spring each spring in Fez or Marrakesh. After he had eliminated Ben Méchaâl and seized all his wealth he organized a grand celebration on behalf of students who accompanied him and number five hundred.
Since then, this celebration has become part of the national mores and is held each year during Moulay Rachid's life and after.