Tamara Turner

Moving Towards Painful Feelings: Notions and Suffering and Healing in North African Popular Islam


The Algerian ritual practice known as Diwan of Sidi Bilal emerged out of centuries of the trans-Saharan slave trade, with the forced displacement of various sub-Saharan ethnolinguistic groups. Particularly during the Ottoman Empire, the Black diasporic communities in North Africa co-created “Sufi-esque” music and ritual practices with the intention of addressing mental-emotional pain and suffering. Here, music is understood to ignite bodily-affective responses that then must be worked through the body in semi-codified practices of trance dancing. Moreover, the goal is not to “cure” illness or pain and suffering or to necessarily even “transcend” these experiences, but rather to engage with them, vibrating pain and illness physically and affectively, in order to find a way through. Pain can be agentive, critical to personhood, and, as Talal Asad puts it, a “kind of action.” Drawing from extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco and Algeria with Afro-Maghribi Bilaliyya Sufi “orders,” this talk examines how sound vibrations and music are not only social as part of a symbolic order, but how they are materially agentive: they affectively impact bodily matter, oftentimes regardless of human agency. That is to say that music is often thought about medicinally, as not just temporal, aesthetic experience but as vibrating agents in ongoing wellbeing and health maintenance. Indeed, diwan epistemologies force us to ask what “healing” means when illness, pain, and suffering are not considered adversarial to a meaningful, rich, and flourishing life. Particularly given the historical trauma of slavery at the root of diwan, what does it mean to be “healed” when certain kinds of suffering resist closure?


Tamara Turner is an interdisciplinary anthropologist and ethnomusicologist working at the intersection of psychological and medical anthropology, sound/music studies, affect/emotion and expressive arts. She is particularly engaged with relationships between the arts and mental-emotional health, race, religion, and postcolonialism in North Africa and its diasporas. Her award-winning doctoral thesis was the first ethnomusicological research to thoroughly document the musical repertoire, practice, and history of Algerian diwan, a nocturnal trance ritual of the Bilaliyya Sufi Order that emerged out of the trans-Saharan slave trade.


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