A scene takes place at Souk Semmarine. A drum sounds. The air fills with the shimmering sound of qraqeb (castanets) accompanied by the syncopated cries of Gnawa musicians in fiery red robes. They parade like pied pipers along the main thoroughfare of the market, drawing a wave of people in their wake.
Marrakech has been almost silent this winter – the borders were closed to tourists in November as Omicron spread – so the sound of music and human voices is uplifting. Shopkeepers appear on their doorsteps under gleaming brass lanterns and brightly colored slippers, smiling, taking photos, curious about the crowds. Who are these people with extravagant outfits? Where do they come from?
In fact, they are storytellers, here for the inaugural Marrakech International Storytelling Festival, a week-long event that has emerged as a silver lining to the difficult past two years. Mike and Lucie Wood, the British owners of three riads and a cooking school in the city, had planned to open a café with a storytelling performance space in 2020. When the pandemic hit, borders shifted are closed and work on the grounds of the café has come to a halt, they realized that storytellers in Marrakech and around the world would be out of work, while the public would be stuck at home. They decided to take the cafe idea online, attracting over 200 storytellers from around the world to perform during the lockdown months.
When the borders finally reopened last month, the momentum that had been building online could finally find concrete expression, with 23 professional storytellers from overseas, 18 Moroccans and many amateurs gathering for the festival. The sessions take place in riads, restaurants, conference rooms – and mark the opening, finally, of the physical Storytelling Café – but we start with the Djemaa El Fna square, cultural melting pot of Marrakech, where storytellers, musicians, charmers snakes and acrobats entertained travelers. to the city for over a thousand years.
Arriving in the sun-drenched square, we gather around Abderrahim Al’Azzalia in a haqa (story circle). A master storyteller, he embarks on the story of two brothers, and the haqa comes to life. It’s not a distant stage where the performers play repeated shows, it’s an encounter. The crowd is captivated; we lean, drift to the sides, the halqa expands and contracts as one storyteller after another tells their story in Darija, Amazigh, French and English.
Alongside Al’Azzalia and other Marrakchi masters – Mohamed Bariz, Mohamed Rguibi and Aaiachi Benjakan – there is Baba-C, a griot storyteller from Washington. Juliana Marin Fryling from Colombia delights workers with a comedic story about a wolf. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the British ambassador steps forward.
“I’m no storyteller,” says Simon Martin, but he weaves a deft narrative combining Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt’s visit to Marrakech in 1943 with a touching personal story of his own disabled father and his love for Morocco. and that of his wife. “Honestly, it was nerve-wracking,” he told me later, “but there are few things I’ve done that have had such an impact.”
As the haqa, the festival is growing, with storytellers from Casablanca and Agadir. Zahra Rezaei Afsah recounts Persian epics and fables under the elaborate painted ceilings of the Music Museum; there is a panel on the historical role of women in storytelling and engaging workshops at Cadi Ayyad University. Jaafar Kansoussi, president of Al Muniya, the storytelling association of Marrakech, speaks thoughtfully about the effects of globalization and religious orthodoxies on traditional storytelling.
Everyone hopes that the enthusiasm generated by the festival will also have a long-term impact. Before the pandemic, the hlayqi (storytellers) struggled to keep up with the noise and commercialization of the Djemaa El Fna square. In his 2011 book, The Last Storytellers of Marrakech, Richard Hamilton charted the decline of the traditional performer, unable to compete with the lure of television and the internet. Fortunately, it seems that a new generation is emerging.
When I join Zouhair Khaznaoui, the president of the Union of Storytellers of Marrakech, 24 years old, it is at the big gala dinner after the speeches, the impromptu stories and the songs. The guest of honor is Haj Ahmed Ezzarghani, Morocco’s most venerable storyteller, who has traveled the country telling stories since 1959. Thanks in large part to his mentorship, there are now 15 new storytellers, including Khaznaoui.
“Storytelling is not just a matter of tradition, it is fundamental to human health,” says Khaznaoui. “It feeds our imaginations and develops our values. It helps us heal and grow. It hits home. After the last few years of isolation, the intimacy, energy and connection generated by the festival is like a drink in the desert.
The next Marrakech International Storytelling Festival will take place from February 12 to 19, 2023, see worldstorytellingcafe.com. Paula Hardy was a guest at Riad Spice (marrakech-riad.co.uk), owned by Mike and Lucie Wood, where double rooms cost from £128 a night.
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