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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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