Droves of men, in traditional Tunisian garb, flooded the entrances of a café from every direction, beads in hand and donning the famous white barnous (cloak) of the Maghreb. Outside, walking down the narrow white and blue steps from the Zawiya of Sidi Bou Said, were several more murids exiting the weekly group worship. The low humming chants of the Divine Names could be heard, along with the signature Shadhili dhikr, the prolonged, low, shaking chant of ‘Allah’. The white of their turbans and cloaks blended in with the white walls of the city. As they entered the café, the men formed a circle around the centre of the room.
Inside, old stone benches with palm fiber linings, decades old, still served as seating. The walls of the café were decorated with Beylical Turkish pillars, coloured in a red and green spiral pattern, from the ceiling to the floor. In the centre of the room was a large mabkhara, or kanun (incense lamp), burning a naturally smoky and sweet fragrance. The smoke rose to the ceiling in a cloudy spiral, as though conspiring with the pillars and the tongues of the murids in the remembrance of God and the exultation of His raised status. The men suddenly changed their chant to one faster and more vigorous, la ilaha ila Allah (There is no God, but Allah), faster and faster as the burning incense rose, dancing with the spirals of the four pillars. The power of the dhikr increased as the circle was filled with more and more men emerging from the Zawiya above. Suddenly, the dhikr stopped, a prayer was made, and the men sat as a zezoua (Tunisian coffee pot) with a fragrant and tasty Turkish coffee (Qahwa ‘Araby) was passed around with a bowl of Jasmine flowers, fresh sweets, and blossom water. It was Thursday night, the ‘eve of Jummuah’ and this was a gathering that was centuries old.
Al Qahwa al Aliya (The High Café) of Sidi Bou Said has always been an integral meeting place for the sufi turuq (orders) of Tunisia and the Maghreb, particularly the Shadhili tariqa which has deep roots in the town itself. In the late 10th century, a man by the name of Abu Said al-Baji, a simple tailor from the mountains of Tunisia, settled in the city of Tunis to study at al-Zaytuna Mosque. It was at this institution, that he began his path to knowledge, dropping his trade to study with some of the brightest and most spiritual individuals in North Africa and the Islamic world. After completing his studies in Tunisia, Abu Said ventured to Mecca and Madina, followed by al-Sham (Syria and the Levant). His studies also took him to Morocco where he studied in the circles of the esteemed ascetic and knower of God, Abu Madyan (the famed scholar Imam al Ghazali uses as a reference in his Ihya’ Ulum al Din). It was even said that he rubbed shoulders with the great mystic and spiritual guide, Ibn Arabi, during his time in Mecca. It was not until Abu Said had reached a high spiritual state, Ma’rifa, with his Lord, that he finally took to the hills of Tunis to teach the masses. In the mornings he would retreat to the moutains, Jabal al-Manar, to be with God in solitude, and thereafter descend to the local mosque to teach. It was in these circles that he taught another young student of Abu Madyan, one with whom he would have a close relationship in the future, Imam Abu Hasan al Shadhili, the founder of the Shadhili tariqa. It was in the circles of Abu Said al-Beji, under the orders of his teacher Abu Madyan, that Imam Abu Hasan would take the first steps in becoming the great ‘Knower of Allah.’
Abu Said’s greatest role came during a period of confusion in Tunisia, as Christian forces began to invade the land of Tunis and beyond. Abu Said, in response to the situation, retreated to the distant mountains just north of the city, where he set up a Ribat, (military and spiritual outpost) watching over the thousands of residents below. There, he could warn Tunis of an incoming attack and still remain vigilant in his spiritual state with God.
After his passing in 1231, he was buried in the outpost he established, which was eventually renamed after him- the modern day town of Sidi Bou Said. In the 18thCentury, Mahmud Bey, ruler of Tunis, built the Zawiya (small mosque or sufi outpost) and the complex seen today, surrounding and distinguishing his noble burial place. The Bey, in addition, built his own home several metres away to be in close proximity to Abu Said’s grave.
As the teacher of Imam Shadhili, Sidi Abu Said’s Zawiya and the small town, are important to the murids and murshids (
Every Thursday night, the café would be filled with visitors from the Zawiya above. It was after the building of the Zawiya, in 1700, that the café was added to the compound to cater to the growing presence of visitors. Upon its completion, it immediately became the iconic ‘face’ of the town, eventually attracting visitors of its own. It was the first thing people saw when they entered the town, and the warmest of sights for many. It is considered an extension of the Zawiya itself, where visitors would go to remember Allah. Surrounding the compound are the resting places of several other awliya’ (saints or ‘friends of God’) who were contemporaries and students of Imam Abu Said. Simple black, metal mesh windows mark their resting places along the walls of the café. It was essentially a ‘coffee house of worship’, a place where the seekers of guidance would come together, after their group worship, to reflect, drink their coffee, and further continue their awrad (litanies).
Al Qahwa al Aliya is also one of the birth places of Tunisian Malouf, a melodious version of an epic. It was where poets and grammarians would challenge one another in fluency of language and speech. Poems praising the Beloved of God were recited inside the walls to increase the blessings of the gatherings. Visitors from the capital and surrounding boroughs would come to Sidi Bou Said to retreat from the intense summer heat, as the air on the mountain was cool and light. Armed with several cups of Turkish coffee, poetry battles would ensue, deeper and deeper into the night, until people could take no more.
Despite its esteemed status, with modernization, the future of al Qahwa al Aliya is uncertain. Though more and more people are visiting Sidi Bou Said every year (read about its reputation as a ‘trendy’ spot here), it is not murids or the poets of old who line its streets, but rather tourists, both domestic and international, who are unaware of the town’s spiritual past. While the café remains as iconic as ever, bustling with coffee drinkers, it no longer serves as the entrance to the Zawiya above. Instead, a new visitor to the Zawiya would have to ask two or three locals before finding one with knowledge of its existence, who could point them towards a narrow white staircase in an indistinct alleyway.
When I visited the café, I found it hard to believe that with the history of the town its spiritual significance could be left unnoticed by the people. Yet that is exactly what has happened. You can almost feel the awliya‘, buried just beyond the mesh windows, yearning for just one line of poetry, one verse of Qur’an, one Divine name to be recited as they were before. It is as though the murids of the past have faded into the obscurity of history.
Rather than remaining in the café, I took my mother to the balcony above, where the entrance of the Zawiya now is. Nearby, Sidi Abu Hasan lies in rest. There were two women, caretakers, sitting at the small entrance to the grave, conversing. When I approached, they smiled and let us enter to pay our respects and pray. I had a yearning to recite the Wird of Abu Bakr bin Salim, a well-known litany of the Ba’Alawi tariqa. As I recited the prayer, the words and letters on my tongue felt thicker and thicker, until it felt too heavy to move my mouth. Pausing for a moment, I looked at my mother who was busy reciting Qur’an. A feeling of warmth suddenly overtook me as I remembered where I was standing, the miles I had traveled and the company I was in. We recited al-Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Qur’an), and then returned back to the balcony, where I understood what had happened to the town.
Ibn Ata’illah, the great knower of God, wrote, “Bury your existence in the earth of obscurity. If something sprouts before it is buried, its fruits will never ripen.” The awliya’ of God are the closest people to Him; their efforts, lineage, history, and legacy are all preserved through His divine wisdom and will. The Zawiya, once prominent, now sits in obscurity, tucked away on the hilltop, without a single thought from the people below. And yet, it is not totally forgotten; though its café is now filled with visitors who have no knowledge of its spiritual connection, it is still given a Thursday evening, a blessed evening, to be used for the remembrance of God and His Beloved (peace be upon him). No, the Zawiya of Abu Said and his students has not faded into the obscurity of history; it lies in wait, until the moment is ripe.