The storyteller of Marrakech

By Richard Hamilton
BBC News


Storytelling in Marrakech is a practice with ancient roots, thought to date back to the 11th Century. But has it been superseded by modern life?

The Cafe de France in Marrakech is something of an institution. It is the oldest and most famous of the slightly louche establishments that surround the main square, the Jemaa el Fna. Dating back to the days of the French protectorate, it sometimes feels as if its decor and staff haven't changed since then either.

Wobbly ceiling fans rotate languidly trying to dispel the stifling heat. Portraits of King Mohammed the VI hang at odd angles from its blue and white tiled walls. Inside customers sit on faded wicker chairs sipping mint tea and strong coffee. On the veranda tourists try to avoid eye contact with the encircling shoe shine boys and hawkers selling single cigarettes, while the locals sit and stare at the hot teeming square, making their drinks last for hours.

It was here - back in 2006 - that I first met Abderrahim El Makkouri, a tall man, with a red Fez hat, dark beady eyes, goatee beard and a prominent nose. Abderrahim is a storyteller - one of the very last surviving "hlaykia" as they are called. Of an evening, when the sun went down and the muezzin called the faithful to the mosques, he would recite ancient myths, legends and folk tales to rapt crowds in the square, and if they enjoyed them, they would pay him a few coins.

There is a saying in Marrakech that "when a storyteller dies, a library burns." For most of the stories exist only in the heads of their narrators, who take their repertoire to the grave. Abderrahim has seen many of his fellow hlaykia come and go. Most have died, some have retired and one even took up shoe shining. Very few can make a living any more. The crowds who used to gather would rather watch TV.

In the 1970s there were 18 hlaykia recounting their narratives in the Jemaa el Fna. In 2006 there were only two: Abderrahim and Moulay Mohamed. Sadly the latter, a quiet, kindly old man, has passed away. So I spent many hours with Abderrahim in the Cafe de France recording his stories for posterity - and a book.

He was hoping his son Zoheir would become a storyteller too. A German film-maker even made a documentary about them - the master storyteller and his apprentice - which was shown at the Marrakech International Film Festival. But Zoheir couldn't cope with this sudden exposure to fame and he suffered some sort of mental breakdown. His mother and father would wake up to hear him screaming in the night. They had to take him out of school, and they struggled to pay for his medication.

If Zoheir recovered maybe he could tell stories in the square, I suggested one day last year, as we sat on the cafe's veranda again. "Look," said Abderrahim, "can't you see? There's no space anymore for storytellers," pointing at the crowded stalls of merchants selling everything from mystical aphrodisiacs to false teeth, "and besides it's too noisy".

He was probably right. The storyteller's art - thought to be around 1,000 years old - was a nuanced one, that had not kept pace with the noise, new technology or the general madness of Marrakech which had engulfed them and drowned them out. What had happened to Zoheir seemed like a sad metaphor for the decline of the storyteller in general; he has seen modernity and it's killing him.

When I returned home I wrote a letter to the royal palace, more in hope than expectation, explaining to the King's advisers that Abderrahim was struggling and that he needed somewhere he and his son might tell stories in the future to save this ancient tradition from oblivion.

I went back to Marrakech a few weeks ago and found out that a British man had started up a new cafe that might one day be as famous as the Cafe de France. Here the art of storytelling is being revived, with young Moroccans learning ancient tales from the older generation. I arranged to meet Abderrahim in the Cafe de France to tell him the good news. "I have some good news too," he said beaming beneath his red Fez hat. "The King got your letter… and he has bought me a house!"

I was staggered but then another Moroccan saying came into my head. "Nothing is certain," they will tell you here, "but everything is possible." Marrakech is the strangest place I know. Truth here really is stranger than fiction. Where else can you buy aphrodisiacs and false teeth? Where else can you hear stories that are older than the pink walls and ramparts of this medieval city? And where else does the king end up buying a storyteller a house?

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