The Peace Corps has three main goals, with the Third Goal focusing on bringing our host countries to our readership. With that being said, understanding my host country is exceedingly important to me, and one of my own goals is to bring a deeper understanding of everything Morocco to all of my readers. “Moroccan Mondays” are blog posts specifically catered to educating all of you about my host country, not necessarily the Peace Corps.
“When a storyteller dies, a library burns.”
~ Ahmed “Hajj” Ezzarghani, Master Storyteller
For almost a thousand years, oral storytelling, or hikayat, was an essential part Moroccan culture; entire families would learn and pass on dozens of tales—many about heroes, lovers, cabbages, and kings—but recent technological advances have pushed the art toward a possible extinction. Fewer and fewer Moroccans learn these stories, opting instead for social media, television, and YouTube. When older generations don’t pass the stories on, they’re lost to the sands of time; all over Morocco, especially in Marrakech, professional storytellers were once found scattered amongst the hustle and bustle of the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, which is on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
Though one would be hard-pressed to find many storytellers in that famous open-air market now, there do exist those who choose to save the art. At Cafe Clock, a trendy Arab-Western fusion restaurant nestled deep within the labyrinth of Marrakech’s old city, a handful of university students have created something quite special:
They tell stories.
Every Monday and Thursday, they take to the stage (err, floor) and transport cafe-goers to a different era. As the apprentices of a master storyteller in his eighties named Ahmed “Hajj” Ezzarghani (Hajj is the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca; those who complete a Hajj often go by this name.), these young Moroccans learn, memorize, and translate his stories for the cafe’s biweekly audiences. They regale his tales in English and Moroccan Arabic, usually doing a story in each language, with Hajj always telling the final story. Wearing a traditional Moroccan djellaba and Muslim skullcap (called a taqiyah), Hajj captures the room by pacing around with a large wooden cane. His husky voice has a cadence to it that not even his apprentices have mastered—surely from decades of practice.
In 2013, Hajj’s apprentices started an organization called Hikayat Morocco, which works to preserve Moroccan folklore for future generations and often welcomes newcomers. While Hajj misses hosting storytelling circles (called hakala) in Jemaa el-Fnaa, his new gig at Cafe Clock gives all Moroccans the chance to learn this art. In the square, storytelling is a male-only space, but in the cafe, women are just as prevalent as their male counterparts. In the past, women told stories to their children at home, but now there’s a modern perception that preserving this art has taken precedence over social restrictions. Today, many of Hajj’s best apprentices are women, which is truly a beacon of progress and inclusion in the Arab world.
I was recently in Marrakech for a training with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and our Moroccan counterparts, and we were lucky enough to take some time on a Monday evening to attend one of the storytellings. Not only did we get to sit directly in front of the storytellers, but a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) friend of ours is actually married to one of Hajj’s sons; she called Hajj in advance to tell him we’d be at the storytelling, and he was so thrilled to “meet some more Sarahs” that he sat down with us after the hakala. He loved the stray puppy we adopted (classic Peace Corps) and couldn’t wait for us to return.
Header image: Paul Stocker / Flickr