The Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech is like nowhere else on earth. Sacred space, cultural crossroads, market place, meeting point and melting pot; it is difficult to find words that can do justice to such a visceral experience. It is the swirling plughole around which the rest of the city revolves. The narrow alleyways of the medina are the tributaries which flow like a complex delta into an ocean of chaos and creativity.
Legend has it that the muezzin who called the faithful to prayer from the top of the square’s main mosque, the Koutoubia, had to be blind. It was thought that a sighted man might gaze down from that vantage point, into the walled complex of the Sultan’s palace below, and see his harem.
But a sighted man would also see the wild teaming maelstrom of the Jemaa el Fna. He would see fire-eaters, fortune-tellers, acrobats, scribes and medicine men. All human life is here: if you walk into the square you will be besieged by men with Barbary apes and women trying to squeeze henna onto your wrists. The name Jemaa el Fna is thought to mean ‘Assembly of the Dead’, yet nowhere have I felt more alive.
Before the city was built it was a simple oasis in the desert, a watering hole for camels, until it became a crossroads where travelling caravans could find food and shelter and swap stories with fellow voyagers. Some would be heading east on the pilgrimage to Mecca, others taking salt from Timbuktoo to Europe and still others heading deep into sub- Saharan Africa. Despite a few recent misguided incarnations as a car park and bus stop, the square has largely survived as a place of high and low-brow entertainment ever since. It is a throbbing mass of humanity that is constantly in flux, yet remains the same, a living testament to the Moroccan proverb that ‘everything is possible yet nothing is certain’.
By day you can be heckled by orange juice sellers whose stalls line two sides of the square. If you escape their clutches and manage to slither past the snake charmers, the herbalists clad in blue Tuareg robes selling medicinal plants and aphrodisiacal powders, the astrologists and palm readers, you will probably be approached for a photo opportunity by a water carrier in his wide brimmed hat, red costume bedecked with brass cups and leather satchels.
And then there is the noise: the square is alive with drums, reed pipes and songs performed by the Gnawa musicians from sub-Saharan Africa.
By night the square transforms itself into the world’s biggest al fresco restaurant. Hundreds of stallholders set up their fare of kebabs, seafood and couscous. The moon rises above the majestic Koutoubia, smoke ascends from the stalls, the drums continue their slightly Satanic beat, the crowds thicken and you feel you are being swept up in some sort of Dionysian ritual.
The Jemaa el Fna is an open space for street performers. There are musicians, and actors who play out farces and mini-dramas, but it is not sophisticated theatre. There is a man who attaches two rubber flip flops to his ears pretending to be a rabbit while another shouts abuse at him and whacks him with a plastic stick. There are troubadours like Abdelhakim Khabzaoui, who has been performing his peculiar song and dance routine for more than fifty years. Beneath a pair of dark sunglasses, his nose scrunches, his lips pout and his mouth gurns. As crowds of young Moroccans watch, bent double in convulsions of laughter, he sings, shakes a tambourine and makes vaguely homophobic jokes.
But in a quiet corner in the square you might come across the city’s hidden gems.
They may not be the most obvious entertainers and they are certainly not the loudest, but if you can seek out a storyteller or a hlayki, you are in for a treat and an old one at that. Because storytelling in Morocco is as old as the hills, as ancient as the Atlas mountains.
The oral tradition in Marrakech probably dates back to the first centuries after the founding of the city, by the Almoravids, in 1070. The first written mention of storytelling comes from the seventeenth century, from the theologian El Hassan Al Youssi:
I arrived in Marrakech in the year 1060 [of the Muslim calendar or 1650 AD]. There I found myself one day in a grand esplanade where I heard the chants of praise to the Prophet. Then I took my place in an imposing circle, which consisted of curious onlookers who listened to an old man. He told them comic stories.
When I first went in search of a storyteller I found Moulay Mohammed el Jabri, a bearded man with a few missing teeth, sitting in the square in his grey jellabah surrounded by a small circle of listeners. He was seventy- one and had been a storyteller for forty-five years. He spoke softly and his circle was a still point amid the madness of the square.
He used to come when he was a boy and listen to the old men in the square. He was so entranced by them that he became one himself. He said he knew most of the Old Testament and all of A Thousand and One Nights. To prevent her murderous husband, King Shahryar, from killing her, the Persian Queen Scheherazade told a different story every night for a thousand and one nights.
Moulay Mohammed is a modern day Scheherazade: he tells tales of sultans, thieves, wise men and fools, he speaks of mystics, genies, viziers and belly dancers.
Even if you do not understand a word he says, it is still fascinating to listen to a hlayki like Moulay Mohammed. You can sense the drama of the story and feel its suspense. When they speak there is something entrancing about their diction, as Elias Canetti wrote in The Voices of Marrakesh:
Their words come from farther off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people. I understand nothing and yet whenever I came within hearing I was rooted to the spot by the same fascination. They were words that held no meaning for me, hammered out with fire and impact: to the man who spoke them they were precious and he was proud of them.
In the 1880s the explorer and translator of A Thousand and One Nights, Richard Burton, described an encounter with a storyteller in Tangier:
He speaks slowly and with emphasis, varying the diction with breaks of animation, abundant action and the most comical grimace: he advances, retires and wheels about, illustrating every point with pantomime; and his features, voice and gestures are so expressive that even Europeans who cannot understand a word of Arabic divine the meaning of his tale.
Today more than thirty percent of all Moroccans are illiterate, so the oral tradition is vital. Of course, storytelling is a form of entertainment but it is much more than that. Like the parables of the New Testament, the narratives convey ideas, values and philosophies.
All this is under threat, however. While there used to be twenty or so hlaykia in Marrakech, there are now fewer than half a dozen and they are all old men. After nearly a millennium the art of the hlayki is on the wane. Young Moroccans would rather watch television soaps than listen to a storyteller or become one themselves.
I asked Moulay Mohammed if he would pass his skills on: ‘If someone wants to come and learn from me they can, but it’s not easy,’ he said. ‘It takes years to remember the stories.’
And was he worried that his craft might one day die out? ‘Ah, only God knows the answer to that. Today there are storytellers. That is all I know.’
Another old man was sitting in the crowd hanging on Moulay Mohammed’s every word.
Did he think the storytellers would still be here tomorrow? ‘Moulay Mohammed is one of the best in Marrakech, and we like him very much,’ he said. ‘But if he disappeared, a lot of his tales would disappear too.’
And what, I wondered, did Moulay Mohammed make of television? ‘Television?’ he laughed. ‘Why, it is something out of this world. This is real life here in the square. It is much better to sit in the square in the sun, as you are doing now, than in some dark room with a television!’
Sitting in the Jemaa el Fna, under an azure sky, I thought Moulay Mohammed was probably right. Looking up at the pink rooftops of Marrakech, the Atlas mountains and the fabulous Koutoubia mosque, it was hard to imagine a place I would rather be.
There may not be a blind muezzin any more in the minaret of the Koutoubia but the story of the men who could not look down on the Sultan’s harem strikes a familiar chord now.
In 2006 the Moroccan government blocked the internet device Google Earth so that people could not look down into the grounds of the king’s sumptuous royal palaces. Perhaps in a thousand years people will be telling a story about that.