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Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2007, 14:43 GMT
The story-tellers of Marrakesh
By Richard Hamilton
BBC, Morocco

In the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, you can still find men who tell ancient stories that have been handed down from generation to generation.

But with modern technology offering new forms of diversion and entertainment, young people are ignoring the story-tellers and for the first time in perhaps 1,000 years the tradition is dying out.

Storyteller in Marrakesh, Morocco
Moulay Mohammed has been a story-teller in Marrakesh for 45 years
Legend has it that the muezzin - the man who called the faithful to prayer - at the top of the main mosque in Marrakesh had to be blind.

It was thought that a sighted man might gaze down from the Koutoubia, as it is called, into the sultan's palace below and see his harem.

But a sighted man would also see the wild teaming maelstrom of Marrakesh's main square or Jemaa al-Fna.

He would see fire-eaters and fortune-tellers, acrobats and snake-charmers. For all human life is here: if you walk into the square you will be besieged by men with monkeys and women trying to squeeze henna onto your hands.

And then there is the noise: the square is a cacophony of drums, reed pipes and songs performed by musicians from sub-Saharan Africa.

But if you can find a quiet corner in the square you might come across the city's hidden gems.

A Thousand and One Nights

He tells tales of sultans, thieves, wise men and fools, he speaks of mystics, genies, viziers and belly dancers
They may not be the most obvious entertainers and they are certainly not the loudest, but if you can seek out a story-teller or a halaka, you are in for a treat and an old one at that.

Because story-telling in Morocco is as old as the hills, and as ancient as the Atlas mountains.

I found Moulay Mohammed, a bearded man with a few missing teeth, sitting in the square in his grey jellabah surrounded by a circle of onlookers.

He is 71 and has been a story-teller for 45 years.

He used to come as a boy and listen to the old men in the square tell their stories and he was so entranced by them that he became one himself.

He says he knows most of the Old Testament and all of A Thousand and One Nights.

According to legend, to prevent her murderous husband King Shahryar from killing her, the Persian Queen Scheherazade told a different story every night for 1001 nights.

Moulay Mohammed is like a modern day Scheherazade: he tells tales of sultans, thieves, wise men and fools, he speaks of mystics, genies, viziers and belly dancers.

Under threat

Moulay Mohammed told me it is not just what he says that counts but how he says it.

Young Moroccans would rather watch TV soap operas than listen to a story-teller much less become one themselves

Even if you do not understand a word of what he says, it is still fascinating to listen to a halaka.

You can sense the drama of the story and feel its suspense. His words are precious and they seem to hang in the air.

Today more than 40% of all Moroccans are illiterate, so the oral tradition is vital.

Of course story-telling is a form of entertainment, but it is much more than that.

Like the parables of the New Testament, the stories are ways of conveying ideas, values and philosophies.

But all this is under threat. While there used to be 20 or so halakis in Marrakesh, there are now only about half a dozen and they are all old men.

After more than a millennium, the art of the halaka is on the wane. Young Moroccans would rather watch television soap operas than listen to a story-teller much less become one themselves.

Disappearing yarns

Map of Morocco
However the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, has intervened to try to save the stories as part of the world's oral heritage.

It is even recording some of them on the internet, so modern technology may yet come to the rescue of these wondrous tales.

I asked Moulay Mohammed if he would pass his skills on:

"If someone wants to come and learn from me they can, but it is not easy," he said. "It takes years to remember the stories."

And was he worried that his craft might one day die out? "Ah, only God knows the answer to that. Today there are story-tellers. That is all I know."

Another old man was sitting in the crowd hanging on Moulay Mohammed's every word.

Did he think the story-tellers would still be here tomorrow? "Moulay Mohammed is one of the best in Marrakesh, and we like him very much" he said. "But if he disappeared, a lot of his yarns would disappear too."

Google Earth

And what, I wondered, did Moulay Mohammed make of television?

"Television?" he laughed, "why it is something out of this world. This is real life here in the square. It is much better to sit in the square in the sun, as you are doing now, than in some dark room with a television!"

And sitting in the square under an azure sky, I thought Moulay Mohammed was probably right.

Looking up at the pink rooftops of Marrakesh, the Atlas mountains and the fabulous Koutoubia mosque, it was hard to imagine a place I would rather be.

There may not be a blind muezzin any more in the minaret of the Koutoubia but the story of the men who could not look down on the sultan's harem strikes a familiar cord now.

The Moroccan government has blocked the internet device Google Earth so that people cannot look from above into the grounds of the king's sumptuous royal palaces.

Perhaps in 1,000 years people will be telling a story about that.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 February, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Morocco
24 Jan 07 |  Country profiles
Laughter, freedom and religion in Morocco
13 Jan 07 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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