Whilst having coffee the other day with the great Sandy McCutcheon – journalist, author of many a book, and curator of The View from Fez – and seeking his advice on the subject of water in the Fez médina, I was recounted one of the most bizarre and wonderful stories I’ve ever heard – the story of Aïsha Kandisha, whose full name most Moroccans hesitate to utter.
A Jinn (see Sir Richard Burtons translation of Arabian Nights or alf laïla wa laïla to encounter some examples from further East) – that is to say a sort of a mystic creature – Aïsha Kandisha is said to dwell underground in the waters of places like Fez or nearby Sidi Ali, where every year a sufi ritual takes place calling upon her and where people go to be cleansed by the natural waters of the spring. Appearing only to the majaneen, or those possesed by a Jinn – where we get the word for “crazy” in some dialects of Arabic, Egyptian for instance – she is said to be sixteen feet tall and have the legs of a camel. The sound of chains dragging on the ground follows her wherever she goes. She appears either as a young topless woman or an old hag and is said to have ‘married’ (possesed) some 30,000 men who all take her directives – wearing only certan colors, not cutting their hair or nails, and sometimes not washing. Some of these men, having visited Sidi Ali and performed the ritual cleansing and underwear toss (I can’t give this one away yet), are instantly released from their madness.
For those not possesed, much more quotidien Aïsha Kandisha stories persist. Popular mythology attests that if you pour boiling water down the drain, Lalla Aïsha will come up and ‘get you,’ so to speak.
With this development, we hope to explore the ways in which water is wrapped in urban legend, storytelling, and mystical practice as we explore the more ‘concrete’ aspects of Fez’s history with water. Perhaps we can get Sandy on camera next to a campfire telling the story — or better yet, maybe I’ll meet Aïsha Kandisha herself as I try to film in Fez’s subterranean water channels.
Let’s hope she lets me get away with it.