Meet the master storyteller keeping Morocco's oral tradition alive in the internet age

Amid declining numbers of storytellers, veteran performer Ahmed Ezzarghani's ambition is to rescue Morocco's thousand-year-old tradition of storytelling from the era of technology.

The art of storytelling has been an integral part of Marrakech’s culture for generations. One of the most recognisable symbols of Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, the city’s main thoroughfare, is of animated men performing folk tales; stories about kings, families, lovers and beasts, each one meticulously crafted to educate, entertain and inspire.

But over the past decade, the number of storytellers present in the city has declined significantly. With the advent of new technologies and more lucrative revenue streams, many storytellers have retired from their profession or moved onto something new. For a while, it has seemed as if Moroccan storytelling may be lost completely. One man, however, has been fighting to keep this distinctive tradition alive in the modern world.

Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani is a master storyteller who has spent more than 60 years sharing folk tales as his profession. Now in his seventies, he’s training a new generation – a mix of university students and young professionals – in the skills of the ancient artform.

“As I have grown older, I have realised that storytelling is dying, because the new generations don’t give it as much attention as ours did,” he explains. “But these young Moroccans, they came to me and said they wanted to learn. So we have been working together to preserve this tradition.”

In Ezzarghani’s youth, storytellers made a viable income from street performances in cities all over Morocco. Ezzarghani himself spent time wandering from lively port cities in the north to quiet towns and villages in the south, sharing his stories with as many people as possible. He spent the last few years of his storytelling career in Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, but retired in 2009 after battling with young performers who would sabotage his performances with staged fights or loud music. “The square has become a place for business instead of art,” he says. “These young acts don’t know the craft [of storytelling].”

Though Ezzarghani accepts that society has changed significantly since his ancient stories were first told, he is keen to emphasise that they still have a role to play in modern life. He believes that storytelling offers two important things to audiences: pleasure and a sense morality. “Storytelling has always been about both entertainment and education,” he says. “By that I mean it has offered both a show and a moral lesson. Each story is about these two sides of a coin.”

At the centre of his work to ensure the continuation of Marrakech’s heritage is Hikayat Morocco, a collective founded by Ezzarghani and his apprentices: Mehdi EL Ghaly, Malika Ben Allal, Jawad EL Bied and Sarah Mouhie.

“We as Moroccans grew up on this form of art,” says EL Ghaly. “Nowadays there are fewer storytellers. Their spaces are smaller and they’ve simply disappeared from Djemaa el-Fnaa Square.”

It was the observation of this fading heritage that led to the creation of Hikayat. “We aim to preserve the traditional Moroccan storytelling, as well as giving back to society and encouraging people to pay attention to this ancient form of education,” he says.

One of the biggest obstacles that modern storytellers encounter comes from technology. Apprentice Ben Allal explains that when videos are posted online, it becomes difficult to make a performance compelling, because the audience may already be familiar with the story. “Technology can be challenging for us, especially with the younger generations, because their lives revolve around social media,” she says. “We love the live interaction we have when we perform a story. It’s very important for a storyteller.”

Hikayat runs popular storytelling events at Café Clock Marrakech every week, attracting audiences to their interactive performances. Michael Richardson, the British expat who owns the café, has been impressed by the diversity of their audiences and the positive public response to their storytelling. “We want to be as open to the local population just as much as we are to any tourist, and I think we’ve achieved that. The audience is varied, and we want to keep it varied,” he says. “We’ve actually had young Moroccans come and visit us who’d never even visited the medina, despite living in Marrakech their whole lives. That’s pretty amazing.”

Richardson adds that some of the older audience members have spoken to him about their childhood memories of Marrakech’s storytelling traditions. Many used to perch on walls in the square and watch the storytellers, fascinated by the epic tales and energetic delivery. For these guests, visiting Café Clock for a storytelling night brings back a lot of fond memories, and shows that the personal and social connections with this artform run deep for the city’s residents.

Among the apprentices, there’s talk of trying to make a career out of professional storytelling in the future, but this isn’t their first priority for the moment; they feel that the preservation of this culture-defining tradition is more important than their individual aspirations. “Our aim now is to put Hikayat Morocco and the work we do on the map – not any commercial thing,” Ben Allal explains. “We have a lot of goals to reach before becoming professional storytellers. But this will come with time.”

Originally published by New Statesman. Image above by Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech.

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