There was a time not so long ago – about 50 years, or the blink of an eye in the history of storytelling – when Jemaa el-Fna, the main square of the ancient city of Marrakesh, was home to more than a dozen hlaykia, as Morocco’s traditional storytellers are known. Every day of the year up to 18 of them would perform for rapt audiences, earning a living from their skill at recounting ancient folktales. They were part of the bustling spectacle of Jemaa el-Fna, where musicians, dancers and jugglers also performed.
But by the turn of the millennium the square was changing: it was busier and noisier, and the number of performers was dwindling. This caused such concern that Unesco, the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organisation, created a scheme to try to protect Jemaa el-Fna and other, as it termed them, masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
The spectacle of Jemaa el-Fna is repeated daily, and each day it is different – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches
“The spectacle of Jemaa el-Fna is repeated daily, and each day it is different,” the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo remarked in 2000. “Everything changes – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster, that we can call intangible. The square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition.”
But the change continued, and within five or six years only two hlaykia were reportedly left in Jemaa el-Fna. The others had been driven out by the increasing bustle and noise, and by dwindling audiences as television, films and the internet dominated people’s attention. Their exit from the square seemed to echo storytelling’s slow demise across Morocco as a whole.
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Then, in September 2019, construction began near Jemaa el-Fna on the World Storytelling Cafe, an attempt to preserve the artform by Lucie Andersen-Wood and her husband, Mike, who wanted to create a space for storytellers from Morocco and around the world. Pretty soon, of course, performing was off the cards, but the cafe helped keep storytellers’ craft alive after Covid hit. It provided a lifeline for performers and created bonds across oceans that otherwise may not have existed. From those connections came the idea of Marrakesh International Storytelling Festival.
And so it was that, for the eight days between February 12th and 19th this year, under the patronage of King Mohammed VI, storytellers from 87 countries gathered in the city, including five Irish performers: Maria Gillen, Colin Urwin, Liz Weir, Eimear Burke and Veronica Chambers.
Under the festival’s 2023 theme of ancestral voices came tales of love, life, loss, grief, tragedy and happiness, told through Arabic, Berber, Hebrew and English, among other languages. The Irish brought to Marrakesh stories of Brigid the saint and Brigid the goddess, along with myths and legends from Ireland’s oral traditions.
An Irish-American storytelling session took place mid-festival at the plush Riad Les Yeux Bleus, in central Marrakesh. (A riad is a traditional Moroccan home with a central courtyard.) Beforehand, Maria Gillen, who is from Cork, told me about her family storytelling lineage, which goes back to her great-grandmother. “My number one hero was my mam,” Gillen said. “She created this thing called the story sofa for when we’d come home from school.”
“Where will we go?” her mother would ask. “And we’d sit up on the sofa and hear a story. It really opened up our imaginations.”
As Irish and American performers rotated from seat to stage, they told stories through song, spoken word and poetry. Gillen, who was also the MC, told stories from Ireland’s bean feasa, or wise woman, tradition, using a cúpla focal here and there. “Dríochta – say it back to me,” Gillen would say, “dríochta.” Voices in accents from around the globe would call back: “Dríochta... dríochta.”
The festival honours stories in all their forms. Last year participants were invited to tell a story without words. This year, on the rooftop of a riad nestled among the city’s bustling souks, or market streets, a workshop took place entitled Dance Your Story. Its aim, according to Andersen-Wood, its facilitator (who is also a psychotherapist), was to encourage its participants “to examine the stories they hold about themselves and others, and tap into their inner wisdom, creativity and joy through movement and dance. Through this practice, participants are able to let go of their unhelpful self-beliefs, blame, and express themselves fully.”
Urwin, a Co Antrim-based folk singer and storyteller with a grá for tales of heroism and tragedy, believes the similarities between the Irish and Moroccan cultures is evident in the shared passion for stories. “They’re so passionate about it here,” he says. “It’s so much a part of their culture. When you meet people in the souks and they ask you why you’re here, and you tell them it’s for the storytelling festival, everyone understands.”
For Urwin, professional storytelling became a serious possibility after a chance meeting with Weir. As a young singer, making a living from traditional storytelling was not on his radar. “In Ireland you go to storytelling events, and it tends to be people of a certain age – not very many young people turn up. But if you go to the Comhaltas events and the Fleadh and so on, there are loads of young people doing all kinds of recitations and stories, funny stories, traditional stories... So there is an interest from the younger generations, but it has to be garnered and channelled.”
Ireland has popular standalone storytelling festivals such as the one at Cape Clear, which was founded in 1994 and has been joined by newer festivals such as those in Listowel and Courtmacsherry. Music and arts events are also integrating storytelling into their programmes, such as at the Willie Clancy festival in Co Clare, or Cork Folk Festival. If young people are “coming into folk music and folk singing”, Urwin says, “there’s no reason why there’s not an avenue for them into storytelling.”
While they were in Marrakesh, performers visited schools in the city, to take part in workshops. For Gillen, the merging of Irish and local culture was as evident during these visits as it was during the live performances. “Uisce” is the name she gave the “good devil” in one of her tales. When she presented the character during a session at a local school, the teenagers quickly pointed out that in one of the Berber dialects, a very similar-sounding word means “the sea”.
“We have seen the joy of storytelling here in Morocco – the teachers that we met in the schools, the master storytellers that I met in the square,” she says. “When I’m telling stories in a tandem language at one of the schools, I’ll get a little tip on the elbow from one of the translators. I hear my story in the music of Morocco. It’s beautiful.”
The third Marrakesh International Storytelling Festival is expected to take place in January 2025