Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech
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Meet the master storyteller keeping Morocco's oral tradition alive in the internet age

Amid declining numbers of storytellers, veteran performer Ahmed Ezzarghani's ambition is to rescue Morocco's thousand-year-old tradition of storytelling from the era of technology.

The art of storytelling has been an integral part of Marrakech’s culture for generations. One of the most recognisable symbols of Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, the city’s main thoroughfare, is of animated men performing folk tales; stories about kings, families, lovers and beasts, each one meticulously crafted to educate, entertain and inspire.

But over the past decade, the number of storytellers present in the city has declined significantly. With the advent of new technologies and more lucrative revenue streams, many storytellers have retired from their profession or moved onto something new. For a while, it has seemed as if Moroccan storytelling may be lost completely. One man, however, has been fighting to keep this distinctive tradition alive in the modern world.

Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani is a master storyteller who has spent more than 60 years sharing folk tales as his profession. Now in his seventies, he’s training a new generation – a mix of university students and young professionals – in the skills of the ancient artform.

All photos: Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech

“As I have grown older, I have realised that storytelling is dying, because the new generations don’t give it as much attention as ours did,” he explains. “But these young Moroccans, they came to me and said they wanted to learn. So we have been working together to preserve this tradition.”

In Ezzarghani’s youth, storytellers made a viable income from street performances in cities all over Morocco. Ezzarghani himself spent time wandering from lively port cities in the north to quiet towns and villages in the south, sharing his stories with as many people as possible. He spent the last few years of his storytelling career in Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, but retired in 2009 after battling with young performers who would sabotage his performances with staged fights or loud music. “The square has become a place for business instead of art,” he says. “These young acts don’t know the craft [of storytelling].”

One of Ezzarghani's apprentices performs.

Though Ezzarghani accepts that society has changed significantly since his ancient stories were first told, he is keen to emphasise that they still have a role to play in modern life. He believes that storytelling offers two important things to audiences: pleasure and a sense morality. “Storytelling has always been about both entertainment and education,” he says. “By that I mean it has offered both a show and a moral lesson. Each story is about these two sides of a coin.”

At the centre of his work to ensure the continuation of Marrakech’s heritage is Hikayat Morocco, a collective founded by Ezzarghani and his apprentices: Mehdi EL Ghaly, Malika Ben Allal, Jawad EL Bied and Sarah Mouhie.

“We as Moroccans grew up on this form of art,” says EL Ghaly. “Nowadays there are fewer storytellers. Their spaces are smaller and they’ve simply disappeared from Djemaa el-Fnaa Square.”

It was the observation of this fading heritage that led to the creation of Hikayat. “We aim to preserve the traditional Moroccan storytelling, as well as giving back to society and encouraging people to pay attention to this ancient form of education,” he says.

Another performer.

One of the biggest obstacles that modern storytellers encounter comes from technology. Apprentice Ben Allal explains that when videos are posted online, it becomes difficult to make a performance compelling, because the audience may already be familiar with the story. “Technology can be challenging for us, especially with the younger generations, because their lives revolve around social media,” she says. “We love the live interaction we have when we perform a story. It’s very important for a storyteller.”

Hikayat runs popular storytelling events at Café Clock Marrakech every week, attracting audiences to their interactive performances. Michael Richardson, the British expat who owns the café, has been impressed by the diversity of their audiences and the positive public response to their storytelling. “We want to be as open to the local population just as much as we are to any tourist, and I think we’ve achieved that. The audience is varied, and we want to keep it varied,” he says. “We’ve actually had young Moroccans come and visit us who’d never even visited the medina, despite living in Marrakech their whole lives. That’s pretty amazing.”

Passing the tradition on to Morocco's youth.

Richardson adds that some of the older audience members have spoken to him about their childhood memories of Marrakech’s storytelling traditions. Many used to perch on walls in the square and watch the storytellers, fascinated by the epic tales and energetic delivery. For these guests, visiting Café Clock for a storytelling night brings back a lot of fond memories, and shows that the personal and social connections with this artform run deep for the city’s residents.

Among the apprentices, there’s talk of trying to make a career out of professional storytelling in the future, but this isn’t their first priority for the moment; they feel that the preservation of this culture-defining tradition is more important than their individual aspirations. “Our aim now is to put Hikayat Morocco and the work we do on the map – not any commercial thing,” Ben Allal explains. “We have a lot of goals to reach before becoming professional storytellers. But this will come with time.”

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.