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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Donald Trump’s offer to talk to North Korea tests the “madman” theory to the limit

Nixon also allegedly played up his unpredictability in the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. 

Is Donald Trump’s announcement of talks with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un his Nixon goes to China moment? As recently as last October, Trump publicly rebuked his (now former) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for leaving the door open to talks, concluding that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. This followed Kim’s promise “to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”. Now we are told that dotard and dictator are due to meet.

As Trump continues to break all the rules of post-Cold War international relations – on anything from alliance management to trade and nuclear non-proliferation – it is worth remembering that the so-called madman theory of diplomacy at least has a distinguished heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote that “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”. Richard Nixon was said to test the same proposition at the height of the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. According to his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, Nixon had played up his unpredictability – supported by a back catalogue of ferocious Commie-bashing that stretched back two decades – in order to send a signal to Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi that he was prepared to countenance nuclear war.

According to Haldeman’s account, this was a lesson he had learned at the feet of Dwight Eisenhower, who had sought a truce to the Korean War in 1953 by getting word to the Chinese that he was willing to drop the bomb to bring hostilities to a close. By 1972, the year that Nixon went to China, his secretary of state Henry Kissinger also reflected on the president’s tried and tested strategy to “‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further”.

So Donald Trump may yet become a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. If he succeeds in denuclearising the Korean peninsula he would be a more worthy recipient than Barack Obama in 2009. In truth, the gamble on direct talks with Kim Jong-un is based on an exaggerated sense of his own genius for deal-making rather than a careful reading of history or a painstakingly constructed plan. As such, it has none of the chessboard choreography that underlay nuclear diplomacy in the Cold War era. And it comes against the backdrop of continued chaos and confusion in the White House.

The story of how the opening for talks came about may well become a fable of the dysfunction in the court of Trump. On 8 March, Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, arrived at the White House for a scheduled meeting with his counterpart, HR McMaster. On learning of his presence, Trump asked to see Chung himself. In that discussion, Chung revealed that Kim Jong-un had made an offer to meet Trump in person. A meeting with a US president is something that the North Korean regime has sought for decades, but has resurfaced in the context of the improved relations between the two Koreas following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Before his officials could intervene to urge caution, Trump appears to have jumped on the suggestion of a summit and told the South Koreans to go public with the news. A surprised Mr Chung said that he would first have to call President Moon, who subsequently gave the green light. At 5pm, Trump popped into the White House briefing room to hint to reporters that a major announcement was coming on Korea. By 7pm, Chung found himself in the dusk on the White House driveway making an impromptu statement that the president of the United States had expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader.

The meeting has been pencilled in for May, though it is unclear where it will take place and on what terms. With Kim likely to refuse any visit to the White House, and the Americans eager to avoid handing a propaganda victory to his regime with a pageant in Pyongyang, the most likely outcome would be on it taking place in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

That is if it happens at all. Both defence secretary James Mattis and McMaster (whose position is said to be under threat) are thought to be opposed to a meeting. The befuddled Tillerson, on an official visit in Africa, was taken ill and initially unavailable for comment. On 13 February, Trump tweeted that he had a new secretary of state.

If Trump calculates that his hard line has yielded this opening, then one could be forgiven for guessing that Kim might believe the same. Meanwhile, the apparent willingness to consider “denuclearisation” is so ambiguous as to mean almost anything. Having witnessed the fate of the last nuclear-armed dictator to “come nicely” and give up his missiles – Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – Kim is unlikely to be in a hurry to dispense with his greatest bargaining tool.

 At the end of last year, the view from White House watchers was that Trump was gearing up for war. Much was made of the saga of Victor D Cha, an academic and former Bush administration official, who had been expected to be confirmed as ambassador to South Korea before Christmas. Despite being known as a hawk, Cha had expressed opposition to a “bloody nose” or “limited strike” military option against the regime. Having set himself against some prominent voices on the National Security Council, his nomination was withdrawn. Now the administration is attempting a different course but Cha, writing in the New York Times, warns the stakes are just as high. If handled with care, a meeting might provide a unique opportunity brought about by an unlikely combination of bluster and force. But a failure would increase the likelihood of war by raising the stakes and exhausting the diplomatic last resort. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game