Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Morocco's Last Storytellers ~ review

A new book from Richard Hamilton shares a collection of stories, as told by five storytellers from Marrakech's famous square - the Jemaa el Fna. The storytellers, all old men, sit at the centre of a circle of listeners and as our reviewer discovered, reading The Last Storytellers is to join that circle.

The Jemaa el Fna, in the words of Richard Hamilton, "...has been Marrakech's marketplace, sacred space, cultural crucible, melting pot and meeting point for centuries" and where, in the words of the Moroccan proverb, "everything is possible, but nothing is certain". When Richard Hamilton first plunged into the busy square back in 2006, he must have have reflected on that proverb. It took several trips and three years before he emerged with this collection of stories.

Richard Hamilton

The last storytellers in this collection are Moulay Mohamed El Jabri, Abderrahim El Makkouri, Ahmed Temiicha, Mohamed Bariz and Mustapha Khal Layoun. It is to be hoped that the title of The Last Storytellers is proved wrong. For, as Barnaby Rogerson says in his splendid foreword, 'when an old storyteller dies, a whole library burns'.

The tales contain many of the favourite motifs of the poor and dispossessed. These are rags-to-riches tales and those, too, of the common man struggling through adversity to marry a Sultan's daughter. Escapist maybe, but also offering a grain of hope to the listeners that surround the storyteller.

The tellers of these tales are not published authors with bestsellers to their names, but men eking out a living in a time-honoured way. These thirty-seven tales have left the halka (circle) in which they were first told and made it to the printed page. But the storytellers remain in the circle, each of which is a link in a chain that remains unbroken. Reading these stories it is easy to feel that you have joined that halka and you will find that, like all good stories, each time you read them, new layers will be revealed.

Here you will find ancient echos of tales that predate Islam and which are suffused with magic, witchcraft and unsparing revenge. Amongst these stories are also themes which will seem familiar, such as Mustapha Khal Layoun's Aicha Rmada. The short tale appears at first to be a version of Cinderella, yet it ends with horrors that no parent would want a child to hear at bedtime.

The Storyteller Jemaa el Fna 1984
Courtesy Dar Balmira Gallery, Gzira Fes Medina)
Richard Hamilton is correct when he describes storytelling as "a priceless treasure, as precious as mankind's greatest artefact or the planet's most endangered species, and of immeasurable importance to humanity." But hopefully he is incorrect in using the word "last". There is something in our make-up, perhaps in our DNA, that demands stories and while in the modern world the storytellers have been usurped by cinema, television and YouTube, it is a tradition that is likely to survive. Even as you read these words, in mountain villages, around campfires, in forests and at children's bedsides, stories are being told. Long may it be so.


Richard Hamilton is a professional broadcast journalist currently working for the BBC World Service. He has spent time reporting from Morocco, South Africa and Madagascar. While in Morocco he co-authored the Time Out Guide to Marrakech and has written throughout his career for various newspapers and magazines.

The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco is published by I B Tauris

Reviewed by Sandy McCutcheon.

The View from Fez would like to thank Jearld F Moldenhauer from Dar Balmira for his photograph taken in 1984.


Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you for this information, better try to get that book.

Heidi Dahlsveen in Norway

Randal from San Diego said...

I just bought this book and look forward to reading it. It sounds delightful, like a short version of The Arabian Nights, which I've also read. I love stories in the oral tradition, they flow differently than stories in the written tradition, I think. Many thanks to Mr. Hamilton for collecting these precious works before they are gone forever...

Mytwostotinki said...

Thanks for this interesting review of a delightful book which I can heartily recommend to everyone interested in Morocco and/or good storytelling. Here is my own short review in case you are interested: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=331