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The last seven storytellers of Marrakech What is Djemaa el Fna? "It is a sea. You can swim in the sea but you will never be able to entirely explore the sea of Djemaa el Fna". These are the words of the last seven bards, the last seven representatives of a dying figure: the storyteller. A Photostory by Stefano Torrione / LightMediation


2481-01: Morocco, Marrakech. The storytellers of Jemaa el Fna at Cafe' De Madanie in Derb Dabachi, near the square. From right: Ben Jakkane el Ayachi, Mohamed Bariz, Zouhir El Makkouri, Amhed Bouchama, Mohamed Oujbayr, Mohamed El Jabri and Mohamed Errguibi Sghir.

Contact - Thierry Tinacci - LightMediation Photo Agency +33 (0)6 61 80 57 21 email - thierry@lightmediation.com


/ 2481-01: Morocco, Marrakech. The storytellers of Jemaa el Fna at Cafe' De Madanie in Derb Dabachi, near the square. From right: Ben Jakkane el Ayachi, Mohamed Bariz, Zouhir El Makkouri, Amhed

/ 2481-02: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed Bariz at Cafe' De Madanie in Derb Dabachi, near Jemaa el Fna Square. This is where the storytellers love to meet. / morocco / marrakech

/ 2481-03: Morocco, Marrakech. Timoumi Mbarek, the 'philosopher of the seven colours', explains his cosmic theory on Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

/ 2481-04: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Zouhir El Makkouri entertains his public during the Moussem des Conteurs on Jemaa el Fna Square. / morocco / marrakech


2481-32: Morocco, Marrakech. Hassan's restaurant is the first one below the Cafe' Glacier on Jemaa el Fna Square. The smoke coming from the barbecues spreads a strong smell of grilled meat all over the square.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-05: Morocco, Marrakech. The public of a 'halqa' (circle of people gathering around an artist) watches a show in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-06: Morocco, Marrakech. Performance with snakes on the last day of Ramadan. On this day a great moltitude of people crowd Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco /

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-07: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed Oujbayr performs in Jemaa el Fna square in front of CafĂŠ de France. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-08: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Zouhir El Makkouri performs in Jemaa el Fna square with a friend. / morocco / marrakech


2481-04: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Zouhir El Makkouri entertains his public during the Moussem des Conteurs on Jemaa el Fna Square.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-09: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed El Jabri performs in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-10: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed El Jabri performs in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-11: Morocco, Marrakech. The storytellers of Jemaa el Fna square eat cous-cous at storyteller El Makkouri's house. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-12: Morocco, Marrakech. The storyteller of Jemaa el Fna square Ben Jakkane El Ayachi performs at El Makkouri's house. / morocco / marrakech


2481-35: Morocco, Marrakech. A little girl watches the comedians' show in a 'halqa' (circle of people gathering around an artist).


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-13: Morocco, Marrakech. Jemaa el Fna's storytellers El Makkouri, Jakkane El Ayachi e Errguibi Sghir sitting at Café de France. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-14: Morocco, Marrakech. Abderrahim, storyteller El Makkouri's son, performs at Café De Madanie before his father and the other storytellers. / morocco / marrakech

2481-15: The storytellers of Jemaa el Fna square at Café De Madanie in Derb Dabachi. Storyteller Amhed Bouchama shows a picture of his old master and friend, which he always keeps in his bag.

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-16: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed Oujbayr during his performance in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech


2481-07: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed Oujbayr performs in Jemaa el Fna square in front of CafĂŠ de France.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-17: Morocco, Marrakech. The old storyteller of Jemaa el Fna square Ahmed Tamiicha in front of CafĂŠ de France. He is now retired. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-18: Morocco, Marrakech. An old man crosses Jemaa el Fna Square at daybreak. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-19: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Ahmed Bouchama at cafĂŠ Agueram, close to Jemaa el Fna Square, where he sometimes also spends the night. / morocco /

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-20: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Ahmed Bouchama leaves the Medina to take the bus home. His village is 24 km far from Marrakech. / morocco / marrakech


2481-36: Morocco, Marrakech. Performance of Gnawa musicians in Jemaa el Fna square.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-21: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Ahmed Bouchama performs in Jemaa el Fna in front of Café de France. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-22: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Ahmed Bouchama performs in front of Café de France in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-23: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Ahmed Bouchama performs in Jemaa el Fna in front of Café de France. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-24: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Ahmed Bouchama at café Agueram, close to Jemaa el Fna Square, where he sometimes also spends the night. / morocco /


2481-12: Morocco, Marrakech. The storyteller of Jemaa el Fna square Ben Jakkane El Ayachi performs at El Makkouri's house.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-25: Morocco, Marrakech. Young acrobats call for the attention of the public before performing in their show. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-26: Morocco, Marrakech. A couple of comedians during their show in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-27: Morocco, Marrakech. Performance in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-28: Morocco, Marrakech. A Marrakchi musician in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech


2481-16: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed Oujbayr during his performance in Jemaa el Fna square.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-29: Morocco, Marrakech. A group of women stops at one of the street restaurants in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-30: Morocco, Marrakech. Under the awning of the snake charmers in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-31: Morocco, Marrakech. Mounting of the street restaurants for the night in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-32: Morocco, Marrakech. Hassan's restaurant is the first one below the Cafe' Glacier on Jemaa el Fna Square. The smoke coming from the barbecues spreads a


2481-10: Morocco, Marrakech. Storyteller Mohamed El Jabri performs in Jemaa el Fna square.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-33: Morocco, Marrakech. Ahmed Giliz is one of the oldest artists on Jemaa el Fna Square. He performs with a company of actors. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-34: Morocco, Marrakech. The members of a group of comedians eat together at the the lodging they share in the Medina close to Jemaa el Fna. / morocco /

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-35: Morocco, Marrakech. A little girl watches the comedians' show in a 'halqa' (circle of people gathering around an artist). / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-36: Morocco, Marrakech. Performance of Gnawa musicians in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech


2481-39: Morocco, Marrakech. A woman waits for a taxi at night, when the square starts to empty of its many shows and spectators.


The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-37: Morocco, Marrakech. The public of an halqa is invited by the artist to take part to the show with Baraka (good luck) invocations and thanks to Allah. / morocco /

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-38: Morocco, Marrakech. A fortune teller waits for clients in Jemaa el Fna square. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-39: Morocco, Marrakech. A woman waits for a taxi at night, when the square starts to empty of its many shows and spectators. / morocco / marrakech

The Last Storytellers of Marrakech / 2481-40: Morocco, Marrakech. A cock employed by the musicians for their shows in Jemaa el Fna. / morocco / marrakech


The last seven storytellers of Marrakech What is Djemaa el Fna? "It is a sea. You can swim in the sea but you will never be able to entirely explore the sea of Djemaa el Fna". What is Djemaa el Fna? "Djemaa el Fna is like a spring of Art", "Djemaa el Fna is more than a school, it is a University", "It is drama, poetry, creation, singing, enchantment". "In Djemaa el Fna you forget about all your problems and enter a different world with a mysterious culture where you can learn a lot - that's why it is called Djemaa el Fna". These are the words of the storytellers gathered at Cafe' De Madanie in Derb Dabachi, in the heart of the Medina, since Matich, the historical popular and intellectual meeting place, real beating heart of Maghreb's most famous square, shut down.

Zouhir El Makkouri, Ahmed Bouchama, Ben Jakkane el Ayachi, Mohamed Errguibi Sghir, Mohamed El Jabri, Mohamed Oujbayr, Mohamed Bariz are the last seven bards, the last seven representatives of a dying figure: the storyteller. According to an on-line encyclopedia definition: "Storyteller: traditional itinerant entertainer... storytellers live on their spectators' offers...". In Morocco there is a unique place in the world where artists, musicians, storytellers, dancers, acrobats and

charmers exhibit themselves every single day of the year before large crowds of people. This place is Djemaa el Fna Square. "Jama", mosque, and "El Fna", uncompleted and ruined, the origin of its name is still matter of research for the historians, but they all agree about the fact that since the XVI century the square of Marrakech has been a meeting point of the arts and cultures of Maghreb. My first time in Djemaa el Fna was a terrible shock. Back from the mountain villages of High Atlas where I had met shy people who hid behind their houses to observe the foreigner, I was submerged by the babel of Marrakech square. I could not take a single picture because everyone wanted to pose before my camera for money or they even ran after me to ask me money when they saw me trying to frame in the distance. So, like everybody, I took shelter on the terraces of Café Glacier and Arganà from where at least you are free to take pictures before a cup of ordinary but expensive tea. I decided to go back and confront the Square in 2002 when I learnt about Unesco Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity from my journalist friend Paolo Galliani. Djemaa el Fna had infact been included in the first list of Masterpieces in 2001. Only a few know that the proclamation of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was set out by Unesco and the Moroccan National Commission who organized an international consultation on the preservation of popular cultural spaces in Marrakech. The Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, a fervent defender of Marrakech's cultural heritage who settled there in the '70s, was one of the pioneers of the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible

Heritage project, that was created to safeguard and protect all those forms of oral culture, such as storytelling, theatre, singing, music, dance, that are transmitted from generation to generation by communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals and that are recognized as part of their cultural heritage. Goytisolo was fascinated by the oral culture of the storytellers who animated the square in those fertile days now unfortunately forever gone. People like Tabib, "the insect doctor", the illiterate shepherd who could recite Prévert; like Cherkaoui, the mystic who could talk to birds; like Abdeslam called Sarouk, the solemn and bold preacher; to continue with Mamadh, probably the last great acrobat with his bicycle and Bakchich the clown. Fascinated by the linguistic dynamics that link written language to the oral one used by illiterate storytellers, Goytisolo recognises the huge value of a free space where the oral expression gives birth to literature and where mimic and the direct relationship between the storyteller and his public is the missing link between the reader and the writer in literature. Goytisolo writes: "The people the storyteller addresses are his accomplices. The story he tells is like a score that leaves a great amount of freedom to the interpreter". The richness of the oral tradition of Djemaa el Fna comes from the interpretation of the classics like One Thousand and One Nights, Antaria, but also from popular legends inspired by heroes like Xeha, Aicha and Kandixa and it lends itselfs to comic and burlesque improvisation. On a short but enlightened stay in Marrakech, Elias Canetti depicted himself and the storytellers with these words: "Ici, je me suis trouvé soudain parmi des

poètes vers lesquels je pouvais lever les yeux parce qu'il n'y avait pas un mot d'eux à lire". ("Here, I suddenly found myself among poets I could look at because there was not a single written word to read"). In 2003 I decided to go back to Marrakech and the living stage of Djemaa el Fna. I asked a wise friend of the Square for advice, the pharmacist of rue Mohamed V: "...tu dois partir tout seul affronter Djemaa el Fna, sa place il faut la mériter". He was right. My first friend in Djemaa el Fna was Ahmed. A dancer, he exhibited himself on the Square with a branched candlestick on his head, a traditional show that has been copied by hotels and riads to amuse their guests. While drinking tea under the big umbrellas, I started to perceive the movements of Djemaa el Fna from the inside: the right time to start inviting people to form a halqa (the circle of public), the competition among artists for the stage and the clients. Ahmed lived in a tiny room in Bab Ftouh with his company of actors and musicians. Promiscuous lives, distant loves, a life spent on the street to amuse people for a few dirhams, petty troubles and great passions. Everytime I arrived at the Square I went to look for him like a sort of propitious rite, a well-wishing "thé à la menthe" for my work. After a few years, not finding him at his usual place, I was informed that he had been stabbed to death under ambiguous circumstances. The drama of the street behind Djemaa el Fna's curtain. Timoumi Mbarek was my second friend, the philosopher of a special cosmic theory of the seven colours. A past as a journalist, a distant family, another suspended life. Among a moltitude of unintelligible sentences, gleams of pure truth. I used to bring him asthma


medicines from Italy, he embarassed me by reverentially kissing my hands. Tymoumi too is another piece of square now gone forever, but his seven cosmic colours will always be part of Djemaa el Fna; number seven often occurs, like the last seven storytellers, the most important chapter to be completed. In the '70s they were 18, and since then their number has been fatally decreasing. The mysterious and charismatic Halaiquis (storytellers) are revered in the Square because of their age and wisdom but they are more and more marginalized by the socioeconomic change of Djemaa el Fna. Hard to approach and to understand, they have a traditional social background, they come from a distant past. Only Bouchama and El Jabri can regularly be found in the Square, the others' presence being much less constant. I sit down and listen to them in their uncrowded halqas, I meet them again every time I return to the Square, I bring them the pictures I took to leave a sign of my passing. They appreciate the ones who return according to the law of the street that welcomes the wayfarer. One day Bouchama dated me to reciprocate my presents. He brought me a book in my language, Italian, that he could not read. To my great astonishment I found out that it was a gift from the last Sicilian "cuntastorie" Culicchia; the inscription read "from conteur to conteur" and it sealed a meeting between the two in 2002. I awkwardly let the book fall in my hands thinking that was the will of the square. Around eleven o'clock in the morning the two storytellers usually stand before Café Arganà, in the afternoon, at about four

o'clock, they can be found in front of Café de France, the true place of storytelling. In the same spot years ago, for the first time, I met Bariz, the cultivated one, the last star among storytellers. Bristly beard, thick glasses, a wollen cap pressed down on his head, envelopped in his traditional djellaba, Bariz's life is like a novel. Dazzled by the stories in the halqas of his first mentor, El Jabri, he quit school and family at the age of ten to follow his vocation for errant storytelling. He first travelled around the country and eventually settled in Marrakech to work in Djemaa el Fna, where he earned enough money to raise five children and lead a successful life. A few years ago, disillusioned by Djemaa el Fna's cultural impoverishment, he abandoned the Square to become a "conteur de salon" abroad. He made adaptations for halqas of great writers' works like Borges and Averroes among the others. I asked him to help me gather all the storytellers still alive. I wanted to take a "historical picture" and record a story from each of them. We met all together twice at Ben Jakkane el Ayachi's home and at the storytellers' café. They finally posed for me before my camera, then they recited their story in turn before the microphone. Stories of kings and queens, diamonds and treasures, fountains and stormy seas, destiny and divine will. El Ayachi brought his son Abderrahim with him, the only one who is learning his father's art, and the boy exhibited before the old masters. He is good, but he didn't mention following his father's steps in Djemaa el Fna. What will the future be like for the Square and the storytellers? The Square is undergoing a slow but inexorable cultural decay as it is subject to the rules of business of a country whose goal is to attract 10 million tourists by the end of

2010. Thanks to Unesco, Djemaa el Fna held out against real estate agents and architects' plans who wanted to turn it into a big, modern amusement park, but its future is someway mortgaged. To the ones who knew its glorious past, the Square looks more and more like an open-air restaurant with live music. Barbecues choke down the art of performance. The storytellers' halqa will become more and more impenetrable to the foreigner who doesn't understand neither the language nor the roles. At the same time, Moroccan young generations desert the Square attracted as they are by the lounge bars of the new fashionable districts of Guèliz and of the city center. The association "Amis de la Place" founded and inspired by writer Goytisolo has lost its energy, and Goytisolo himself quit it. A tragic fate is falling on the storytellers: they have been declared part of the Human Heritage, still they are now more endangered than ever before. Last year they even went on strike and organized sit-in protests to ask Moroccan authorities for the creation of a wage fund for storytellers and a school to hand down the art of storytelling to young people. " Kan ya ma kan.." (Once upon a time...)...in Djemaa el Fna.


The last seven storytellers of Marrakech