The Path to Marrakech
As the world started to return to something that resembled normality in the spring of 2022, twenty-three storytellers from around the world were relieved to be able to use the tickets that, in faith, they had booked to Marrakech to join 40 local tellers for an international storytelling festival. The event, organised by the World Storytelling Cafe in Marrakech, was a very visible statement of the city’s opening-up following the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic (to read a Financial Times article on the 2022 festival CLICK HERE). While I knew a fair few of the British contingent travelling to Morocco, I was still working as a full-time academic and unable to commit to the February (school) half-term when the festival happened. However, a change in my circumstances in the summer of 2022 meant that I was able to think about applying to join the 80+ tellers who were to converge on Marrakech for the second iteration of the festival in February 2023 (voluntary redundancy can be a wonderful thing).
I will confess to some nervousness about making my way to north Africa. As an uptight Englishman, I love things to be organised, to be on time and to be predictable. In younger years I had worked at a festival in Madrid and my Anglo-Saxon-self had struggled with a more relaxed attitude to time-keeping than I would expect in England. Fortunately, the heat of Madrid in August meant that I was too exhausted to take offence (or - I hope - cause offence). Based on that experience many years ago, I did wonder if I would be able to find similar solace in exhaustion in Marrakech.
To be fair, I did realise that any blame for most frustrations that I might feel visiting a north African culture would be my own – all of the storytellers had been warned that they would need to take a relaxed attitude to events and cope with a culture of ‘inshallah’ (‘God willing’). Indeed, during my week in Morocco, this phrase featured regularly in contexts such as, ‘The event will start at seven thirty… inshallah’, or ‘The taxis will arrive in the next thirty minutes… inshallah’, or ‘There will be a full menu of options… inshallah’. I can reflect now that I managed to remain relatively relaxed through such points of uncertainty, and perhaps my early experience in Madrid had indeed helped me to cope with the few ‘inshallah’ moments of the week which erred towards the organisationally challenged.
So, I cashed in our household’s airmiles and booked a flight to Marrakech. As I reflect, I think that I might have overplayed my hand as an organised Englishman in the opening section above. My arrival at most resembled an episode of Mr Bean, leaving my (very well organised) festival greeter and taxi service worried that I had got lost because of the length of time it took me to make my way through Marrakech Menera Airport. Instead, of making my way swiftly through arrivals, I had to wait so long for my luggage that I was seriously concerned that my first act on arriving in north Africa would have to be clothes shopping. Eventually, I turned my back on the empty luggage belt to see my very distinctive suitcase like a neglected child all alone and going round and round on the belt behind me. Let’s just say that I am sometimes a wee bit challenged when it comes to reading signage.
An International Storytelling Festival
The creation of an international storytelling festival in Marrakech in 2022 had a dual purpose. It was intended to stimulate Moroccan tourism following the economic devastation of the pandemic and, at the same time, help revitalise the art of storytelling in the city. The tradition of storytelling in Jemaa el-fnaa (the city’s main square), goes back over thousand years, with tellers passing their skills down the generations. Over the last decades, sadly, this ephemeral art had been pushed to the edges of the square, and the number of storytellers had declined drastically. One solution was the establishment of a storytelling school which provided mentoring not only for young men who wanted to learn the craft, but also for young women – moving Moroccan public storytelling on from its all-male traditions. But (of course) along came Covid.
Over the period of the pandemic, storytelling moved online in any culture where the technology was widely enough available, and one of the most significant initiatives in creating online storytelling communities came out of Marrakech. The World Storytelling Café (CLICK HERE), supported by British ex-pats Lucie and Mike Wood, was broadcast from Marrakech by a local team led young storyteller Zouhair Khaznaoui, with storytellers contributing from all over the world to a full programme that was hosted and curated by British teller John Row. Organising a face-to-face festival, once the pandemic had started to ease, came out of a casual conversation between John, Lucie and Mike, and credit must go to both this small group (which included Zouhair as one of the directors of the festival), as well as those that they gathered round them, for garnering sufficient support to run two successful such events.
An Englishman in Marrakech: ‘That way is closed!’
An essential element of the support that allowed the International Storytelling Festival to go ahead came out of the hospitality industry, with hotels and riads offering bed and breakfast to storytellers over the festival week. The riads are traditional courtyard houses in the old city, and staying in the Riad Zamzam (CLICK HERE) was a delight: I can’t praise the hospitality of the staff highly enough, the traditional breakfast was endlessly delicious and the beauty of my en-suite bathroom was (in I think Victoria Wood’s words) ‘a religious experience’.
Accommodation was allocated by the festival organisers and, as a single man, I was placed in a riad on the northern edge of the old city, near the city wall that extends for 19 km around the Medina. To be clear, everything is within walking distance in the old city of Marrakech, and reluctant to rely on taxis skirting outside the city walls, I opted to make my own way to the festival venues every day through the maze of narrow alleys and streets inhabited by pedestrians, motorcycles, donkeys and tuk-tuks (none of which give way to pedestrian tourists). Naively, I thought that I would find my way by simply combining a street map with the facilities of Google Translate to read the road signs and street names. The downfall of this plan was that it rather relied on there being road signs and street maps to translate. In the end, I had to just put my life in the corporate hands of Google Maps and, as sniffy as I would love to be about mega-corporations, Google did not let me down.
There are many disadvantages to being a pale English man abroad, and this pale Englishman, navigating territory as alien as the Souk with eyes anxiously fixed to a phone screen, might as well have carried a placard saying, ‘Tourist here - advantage available for the taking!’ I have friends whose self-confidence means that they seemed to have no problem with being accosted by strangers demanding to show them the route that they needed to follow through the city, or the shop with the most competitive prices, or the best tourist spots. But it did bother me. A lot.
The badgering by men young and old, wanting to lead me to my destination was unsettling in its insistence. The most common tactic used was to point in the direction in which I was walking (no matter what direction it was) and cry, ‘It is closed!’ so that I would then need to rely on them as an incredibly helpful and obliging local who would find the only way through. Luckily, I am self-reliant (or pig-headed) enough not to take help when I think that I have the situation under control. This, however, didn’t stop one young man from working out which hotel I was heading for, and walking one metre ahead of me, insisting that he was showing me the way - despite me having my trusty Google Maps, and telling him (several times) that I neither needed nor wanted him to show me the way. He then demonstrated his confidence in his guiding skills by demanding money from me at the hotel entrance, and remonstrating with the doorman when I refused to pay for a guide that I didn’t want, need or use. Those same friends mentioned above would just have shrugged-off experiences like this and thrived on such exchanges in the busy alleys and backways that characterise the Medina. But for me, it meant the dread of having to run the gauntlet at the end of each day, as I faced the 20-30 minute walk between the centre of the city and my accommodation.
Early on in the festival, a big deal was made of issuing colour-coded lanyards. As someone who has had to attend more than my fair share of conferences, I have always seen the lanyard as an annoying and style-free accessory (what possessed them to think that bright orange would go with my colouring?). But, my sneering reaction to the inevitability of this labelling exercise was (in Marrakech at least) completely misplaced. In some sense, wearing the lanyard appeared to make me belong to the city, and it seemed to ease the number of males of various ages trying to part me from my money (although not completely ending it, of course) – perhaps the festival being all over the local media, combined with the announcement (shortly before the festival's opening) that HM King Mohammed VI had become the festival's patron, had an effect. Certainly, as we made our way through the city over the rest of the week, it was not unusual to have someone call out’ Hello storyteller!’ as we passed.
An Englishman in Marrakech: where can I store that serious gene?
I have already alluded to being a ‘pale Englishman’ above, but a more accurate description would perhaps be ‘uptight pale Englishman’, and that ‘uptight’ bit of my identity can sometimes be problematic when I want to be perceived as a storyteller and performer, especially when there are plenty of other more extrovert personalities around. As someone who projects an introverted personality, I am perhaps not a natural fit for an international storytelling festival, and John Row greeted me with the admonition that I would need to push the serious gene deep down if I was going to survive. John is an absolute (and benign) force of nature in Marrakech and is feted by the locals as he walks through the streets, but I suspect that he didn't know me well enough to realise the futility of his direction.
In the end, I was delighted to find that there were plenty of storytellers and story-lovers who were happy to draw upon their own serious genes when chewing the storytelling cud. And I hope that I managed the requisite lack of seriousness when storytelling, so that I wasn’t a complete embarrassment to the festival (and I even managed to supress my own seriousness enough to enjoy a short camel ride).
And in confirmation that sometimes it’s okay to be seen as a serious person, one of my most precious moments of the festival came out of having previously revealed my interest in theorising storytelling. The result of this confession was that I spent a wonderful lunch break talking about the nature of performance with a young Danish student who was writing her undergraduate dissertation on storytelling. And, in case you think that this was simply about me relishing the role of sage, our chat proved, yet again, how I learn more about my relationship with storytelling through conversations with others than through solo cogitation. Our discussion ranged widely, taking-in the distinctions between storytelling and theatre, the impacts of contextualized and decontextualised language, the importance of culture and tradition, and it concluded on the differences (if any) between narrative and story itself. In the end, I don’t know how useful our discussion was to the student, but I do know that it left me with much to think about.