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.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.