I had read somewhere years ago that Morocco was one of the last places in the Arab world where storytelling still existed as an art and entertainment. It was evident then that my search for a "master storyteller'" or Hikawati, would lead me to Marrakech's famous Jemaa el-Fna square, Morocco's greatest outdoors theater but to my surprise, they are all gone.
"There are no more Hikawatis left here! Presently they're all either too old or dead," said Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani, a master storyteller, who retired from the square in 2009.
21-year-old college apprentice, Ghaly is a humble student in the Moroccan craft of storytelling and my translator. He's one of four youngsters who established a project called Cafe Clock.
Wearing a long white robe, embroidered cap, a small leather bag, and traditional Moroccan slippers, Hajj Ahmed invokes the typical style of a master storyteller from my research - a man who has committed his life to remembering and relying on hundreds of tales, commonly including honorable rulers, plotting alchemists or cunning thieves.
Before retiring, he spent decades performing in squares openly around Morocco, meandering from the clamoring urban port communities of the north to the lethargic towns and villages in the south. But it was Jemaa el-Fna where Ahmed did most of his performances before retirement.
At Cafe Clock Marrakech, a present day stage is concealed in one of the old Riads in the city's medina, tourists and locals sit hypnotized by Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani. He is telling the story of a king who goes on a hunt and finds himself in a spot of trouble. It's a thousand-year-old Moroccan story with lessons of moral quality and equity. As he moves around his stage floor, lit by table lamps, he continually turns his attention to all the new faces with a smile.
At the point when the story achieves its end, the small gathered blasts into boisterous applause. Inside only 15 minutes, Ghaly has pulled in a roomful of new fans.
This is Hikayat in 2017. A small gathering of storytellers share their work at Cafe Clock every Monday and Thursday evenings. Over some thick Arabic espresso or a camel burger (no joke and good), visitors sit riveted, finding out about the nation's oral traditions that have entertained people for centuries.
Storytelling is a fundamental piece of Moroccan culture. Stories drawn from the country's blended Berber and Arabic legacy have been passed on from master to disciple over hundreds of years. The storytellers being the watchmen and gatekeepers of this living record. Storytellers—and their audience members—are typical male. But that is changing fast in modern Morocco.
Visitors to the famous square in Marrakech, the Djemaa el-Fnaa, can watch a small crowd standing enchanted around an old man recounting a story in Arabic if you are lucky. In 2001, UNESCO named the Djemaa el-Fnaa "A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" for its blend of Hikayat masters, acrobats, snake-charmers, exotic dancers, fire-eaters, and other amusement. Be that as it may, the number of Moroccan storytellers has dwindled as the traditional art confronts rivalry from TV and, now, the Internet.
When the Hikayat project started, Ghaly's gathering of yearning storytellers enrolled the assistance of Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani, now in his eighties, who has been sharing old stories in the city of Marrakech for a significant portion of his life. Given the decay of the art form over his lifetime, Ezzarghani was shocked to find that there were Millennials inspired by this art.
“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 apprentices meet with Ezzarghani once a week to take in his esteemed stories, and some have attempted the errand of interpreting them from Arabic into English and French. They are very eager to safeguard these old tales, yet sharing their social legacy isn't without its difficulties, particularly with regards to interpretation.
"It 's hard to interpret certain social views and jokes, which are just Moroccan," Ghaly clarifies. "So we conceptualize to locate the best translations. We have the information of [other] dialects and societies, which makes it a little simpler for us."
The restoration of traditional storytelling in a tech driven era accompanies new issues. While the Hikayat project has exploited web-based social networking to advance its work, web based sharing entangles things a little bit.
"When I'm playing out a story, it doesn't help if the entire group definitely knows it," says 23-year-old Malika Ben Allal, another of Hikayat's disciple storytellers.
Hikayat has gone beyond a basic apprenticeship. In under five years, the association has built up a strong notoriety for its blend of training and stimulation to the community. And Hikayat evenings at Cafe Clock are just a small piece of the pie; the storytellers also perform at public events, art festivals, and private social events. One of their classes uses storytelling in confidence-building exercises for groups and individuals.
“We show people that they can do a lot for themselves, once they are inspired by these ancient stories and by the experiences of those before them,” says Malika.
Since recounting stories in public has generally been a male role, Ezzarghani's willingness to prepare both men and women is critical to the art's survival. Women customarily recounted stories just to youngsters, in private, or around their domestic realm. Lately, the Moroccan storytelling scene has turned out to be more inclusive to female storytellers.
“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,” Ahmed says. “To be working with both genders is a giant enrichment to the art of Hikayat.”
Family perceptions have also changed in recent years. There is a shared understanding and respect that the continuation of Hikayat in Moroccan culture is more vital than old social limitations about who plays out the stories.
"Our families are our greatest fans, and they support us consistently," Malika says. "For them, it's marvelous to see that somebody is focusing on this tradition."
Their noble endeavors to resuscitate Hikayat in Morocco are as live just like their mystical stories. A few more young apprentices are taking in old stories from Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani this year, and more will follow. I hope he prevails with regards to passing the baton to these young storytellers and keep this great tradition alive.