In Morocco, Reviving the Storyteller

The number of master storytellers in the country has dwindled, but one man is instructing a new generation in the ancient tradition.

At Cafe Clock Marrakech, a modern venue tucked away in one of the ancient houses in the city’s medina, or old town, tourists and locals sit mesmerized by a man named Mehdi El Ghaly.

Ghaly is telling the story of a king who goes hunting and finds himself in a spot of trouble. It’s a thousand-year-old Moroccan tale with lessons of morality and justice. As he moves across the floor, lit by table lamps, he constantly turns his attention to new faces.

When the story reaches its conclusion, the audience bursts into raucous applause. Within just 10 minutes, Ghaly has attracted a roomful of new fans.

A university linguistics student, 21-year-old Ghaly is also an apprentice in the Moroccan art of traditional storytelling. He’s one of four young people who founded an organization called Hikayat Morocco in December 2013. Their group of storytellers shares its work at Cafe Clock every Monday and Thursday. Over a cup of thick Arabic coffee or a camel burger (really), guests sit rapt, learning about the country’s oral traditions.
Storytelling is an integral part of Moroccan culture. Stories drawn from the country’s mixed Berber and Arabic heritage have been handed down from master to apprentice over generations, the storytellers both gatekeepers and guardians of this living record. Traditionally, storytellers—and their listeners—are male.

Visitors to the famous square in Marrakech, the Djemaa el-Fnaa, may observe a crowd standing spellbound around an old man telling a story in Arabic. In 2001, UNESCO named the Djemaa el-Fnaa a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” for its mix of storytelling, acrobatics, dancing, snake-charming, fire-eating, and other entertainment. But the number of Moroccan storytellers has dwindled as the art faces competition from TV and, now, the Internet.

When the Hikayat project began, Ghaly’s group of aspiring storytellers enlisted the help of Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani—a master storyteller, now in his eighties, who has been sharing ancient tales on the streets of Marrakech for most of his life. Given the decline of the artform over his lifetime, Ezzarghani was surprised to find that there were Millennials interested in storytelling.

“These young Moroccans told me they wanted to learn, and I said, ‘Why not?’ From that time, we have been working together to preserve the tradition.”

The apprentice storytellers meet with Ezzarghani once a week to learn his cherished stories, and some have undertaken the task of translating them from Arabic into English and French. The young people are eager to preserve traditional storytelling, but sharing their cultural heritage isn’t without its challenges, especially when it comes to translation.

“It is hard to translate certain cultural images and jokes, which are only Moroccan,” Ghaly explains. “So we brainstorm to find the best comparison. We have the knowledge of [other] languages and cultures, which makes it easier for us to do this.”

The revival of storytelling in a technology-driven era comes with new problems. While Hikayat has taken advantage of social media to promote its work, online sharing complicates things. “When I’m performing a story, it doesn’t help if the whole crowd already knows it,” says 23-year-old Malika Ben Allal, another of Hikayat’s apprentice storytellers.

Hikayat has developed beyond a simple apprenticeship. In less than two years, the organization has established a solid reputation for its mix of education and entertainment. As well as regular nights at Cafe Clock, the storytellers perform at public events, art festivals, and private gatherings. One of their programs uses storytelling in confidence-building exercises for groups and individuals.

“We show people that they can do a lot of things, once they are inspired by these ancient stories and by the experiences of those before them,” says Ben Allal.

Because telling stories in public has historically been a male role, Ezzarghani’s willingness to train both men and women is significant. Women traditionally told stories only to children, in the private, domestic realm. In recent years, however, the Moroccan storytelling scene has become more inclusive.

“Both men and women have always told stories [in our culture], but each one of them has had their own stage. Today, that is changing,” Ezzarghani says. “To be working with both genders is an enrichment to this art.”

Family perceptions, too, have progressed. There’s a shared understanding that the continuation of storytelling in Moroccan culture is more important than old social restrictions about who performs the stories. “Our families are our number-one fans and they support us every step of the way,” Ben Allal says. “For them, it’s awesome to see that someone is paying attention to this art.”

Originally published by The Atlantic's CityLab. Image above by Paul Stocker (CC BY 2.0).

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