The Last Storytellers
I first became interested in Moroccan storytelling while I was working as a correspondent for the BBC in North Africa in 2006.
I traveled down from Rabat on the train – immortalized by Crosby Stills and Nash in their song The Marrakech Express - and arrived in the ancient ‘Red City’ with its alleyways, donkeys, and mosques. It felt as if it had not changed in a thousand years.
In the city’s main square, the Jemaa el Fnaa, I was lucky enough to meet Moulay Mohamed el Jabri, a storyteller. Men like him have passed ancient tales, myths, and legends from generation to generation. When I first interviewed him, Moulay Mohamed was seventy-one years old and had been reciting his words of wisdom for forty-five years. He told me that he used to come to the square as a boy and listen to old men tell their fables. He was so bowled over by this experience that he decided to become a storyteller himself. He told me that he had memorized most of the Old Testament, all of One Thousand and One Nights as well as many local Moroccan stories.
The first such story he told me was The Red Lantern and I was entranced by it. It's an honor to share that same story with you as part of Calm's growing collection of Sleep Stories. You'll find it titled, The Last Storytellers.
There is something magical about listening to a story that reminds us of our earliest memories when our parents told us fairy tales. To think that this practice has been going on for thousands of years makes us somehow connected to our earliest ancestors. They would have told tales by the fire in caves or among the dunes of the Sahara.
We do not know exactly how old this story is but we think that the practice of recounting narratives in the square dates back to the founding of Marrakech in the 11th century during the time of the Almoravid kingdom. In those days it was an intersection of trade routes, a crossing point were travelers from the Sahara would rest for the night, as did merchants and their camels traveling south. Thus it became a cultural melting pot where people from different walks of life would swap stories and share their experiences.
But when I learned that storytelling as a public performance in Morocco was dying out – as young audiences get seduced by modern forms of entertainment such as video games, the internet, and social media – I thought I must do something about it. My book The Last Storytellers is, therefore, a collection of such ancient tales, many of which are endangered as they have never been written down. The book is an attempt to preserve such little gems for posterity before they are lost or forgotten forever.
As I do not speak Arabic, I hired a tour guide in Marrakech, Ahmed, who acted as my translator. One day he asked me if I had ever thought of writing a book about the storytellers. That was how it all started. Several years later the book was published. Looking back it strikes me that my own story in the last few years has been a string of unforeseen consequences, like a golden thread, which has made my life infinitely richer than it was before. My book, The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco has taken me on a magic carpet ride that I could never have predicted. It has enabled me to speak at literary festivals, business conferences and even on a cruise ship. It has also given me the confidence to speak in large groups. One of my favorite experiences was sitting by a fire in the Sahara desert on a yoga retreat reciting stories from the book, beneath the stars.
When I recorded The Last Storytellers for Calm's Sleep Stories collection, the producers asked me to read it quite softly and slowly – as befits a bedtime story. I was surprised by how much richer and more intimate it sounded when read in this manner. In the past when I had read it aloud it I had always tried to project it like an actor, but this experience was completely new to me. It was a kind of revelation that showed me how powerful stories can be when the reader pauses and allows the suspense to build up. It was a great pleasure to record the story and I hope that listeners will enjoy it too, as countless others must have done for centuries in Marrakech’s magical square, the Jemaa el Fnaa. I hope that via mankind’s greatest gift – the imagination – the story will transport listeners there too.