19 June 2012

The Storyteller

The experience of walking across the Djemma El Fnaa at full speed is a strange one - and not one that we undertake lightly as there is just so much to see everywhere you look. But tonight is different - we are on our way to a small store known as KIS Boutique where a BBC broadcaster, Richard Hamilton, will be reading from his book 'The Last Storytellers: Tales from the heart of Morocco'. I bought a copy of this book in the UK around Christmas time and brought it with me to Morocco, being unaware of the author's anticipated visit. And tonight is the night where some of these tales will unfold before my eyes.

'What's it all about?' I can hear you ask. Well, this is a topic that I've found really interesting for some time now - the demise of the storytellers in the Djemma El Fnaa. When tourists come to Marrakech and visit this main 'Square' they will notice the snake charmers, the water sellers, the monkey men, the henna tattooists, the orange juice stalls, the various musicians, the food stalls - all the life that inhabits this place and makes it so wonderful - but hidden amongst all this activity was once upon a time another type of entertainment, the Storyteller - men who would do simply that, tell stories.

Before the arrival of the Arabs in North Africa in the 7th century, storytelling was already deeply-ingrained in the Berber way of life. The Berbers were the indigenous people of Morocco and the language used was mainly oral rather than using script as we do today. Storytelling was at the heart of their way of life and these men would travel from village to village sharing stories about the different way of life in different regions. Passing on information in this manner was the main way of communicating at that time. Throughout the centuries this tradition of storytelling has continued, and from this stock has come the Storytellers of Marrakech, who for maybe a thousand years have continued this unbroken tradition, sharing stories of wisdom and ancient knowledge in the Djemma El Fnaa to all who would listen. Only now, over the past few years, these storytellers have all died out...and the  ancient tradition is no more.

The Storytellers may now be no longer here in person, but Richard Hamilton has spent the last few years tracking down the last remaining storytellers  (all of whom have since either passed away or retired), and interviewing them. With the use of a translator he has captured many of the stories and written down their words of wisdom for future generations to enjoy. Tonight he will be reading some of the tales from his book and signing copies. It is important to us to be here, to bear witness to all that has gone before.

So that's why we are making our way through the throngs of people in the Djemma El Fnaa and heading for KIS Boutique where Richard is waiting to regale us with some of the tales of a bygone age.

We are welcomed and led to the roof terrace of the small boutique where a very welcome glass of wine awaits us, and it is not long before we are then invited downstairs to lounge on cushions around a rose petal-filled fountain to hear from the Storyteller. We hear from Richard about his painstaking efforts to track down the last few existing storytellers in order to capture their 'treasures' (as he refers to the stories), then he loses us in a world of fantasy where the poor Moroccan becomes 'rich' in spirit, the wealthy are brought low, and everything is achievable for those who are honest and good. We all sit silently, hanging onto his every word, like a bunch of nursery kids who daren't move as it will break the spell. All too soon 'storytime' is over and the socialising begins, accompanied by fabulous food and wine kindly provided by the staff at KIS Boutique. By midnight the last stragglers (us included) make our way back through the now much quieter streets of Marrakech and continue homeward...after all, we don't want to suffer the same fate as the stepsister in the Storyteller's Moroccan version of Cinderella....



The Storyteller at work

The audience

Socialising in the newly-opened café

14 June 2012

Essaouira revisited

Hubby and I are celebrating our 19th wedding anniversary this week with a return visit to that old hippy haunt, Essaouira. The metal of choice for this particular anniversary is said to be bronze...maybe bronzed bodies? Er, I think not...burnt bodies perhaps is nearer the truth. It's so hot now in Tahannaout and Marrakech with temperatures falling between 32-38 degrees that we are really looking forward to a few days away in the cooler zone of Essaouira with its Alizée winds which make sunbathing practically impossible but allow for long walks along the beach in the cool air.

The journey to Essaouira is punctuated with stops to buy snacks, avail ourselves of the facilities and to relieve the boredom of the motorway which, although fast, is surrounded by barren landscape. A few hours later we reach the top of the hill just before Essaouira and can see the blue sea stretching endlessly in front of us, the islands with their rocky outcrops standing in stark contrast - now it is all just a few miles away. The journey disappears into oblivion as we arrive at this old seaside town.

We are met at the car park by Abdul (after a bit of confusion when two French guys think we are their clients and try to take us to their riad), a lovely gentleman who manages the British-owned riad in which we are staying. He calls over a barrow boy who helps us to haul our luggage into his barrow and off we go along the narrow cobbled streets to find our bed for the next 3 nights. We are surprised when we have eventually reached our room after climbing the ornate staircase that the terrace of our apartment overlooks the sea across some rooftops. We have the whole floor to ourselves comprising two double bedrooms, a kitchenette and a terrace with table and chairs and sun loungers - can't be bad.

Our very own terrace with seaview

The one thing we forgot when choosing this location is that Essaouira is known as 'The Windy City' and this description can also by extension lead to the title of 'Damp City'! Hence there follows three nights of me wearing my dressing gown in bed with my trusty freebie National Trust blanket wrapped around my legs in a vain attempt to keep out the damp. Thankfully no photos were taken!

Our apartment backing onto the city walls

Days are spent wandering through the old medina with its souks, ornate architecture - and what appears to be millions of cats! Having been here a few times already, there is not a lot new to see - but my eyes are drawn to the beautiful coloured material that hangs so dramatically outside the shops - reds, oranges and yellows, blue and silver, greens and purples, and all manner of combinations thereof. Ever since I first visited Marrakech I've taken a shine to the red and orange material but have never allowed myself to be drawn into the haggling process required before purchase. Essaouira is more laid-back, however, and there is even a fixed price attached to some of the materials. So now, I decide, it's time to strike whilst I at least have a guide price. Fifteen minutes later I leave the shop armed not only with the piece of material I've wanted for ages, but with another I've also had my eye on - and all for a very reasonable price, having successfully bartered. Now I just have to decide what to do with them when I get them home!

An abundance of colourful materials

I have described Essaouira before in a previous blog, so I won't go into detail again about the fortifications and life in the city. My focus this time is the beautiful 6-mile long beach that stretches from the working port of Essaouira all the way to the small town of Diabat. Those of you who read my last blog on Essaouira will recall that my hubby had a severe bout of food poisoning so we had to return to Tahannaout earlier than expected, hence missing out on a beach walk. Well this time we make up for it!

Laden down with beach towels, flip flops, suncream and bottles of water we set off for the beach. It is wonderful to feel the warmth of the golden sand as it trickles between our toes, alternating with the sheer iciness of the sea as we paddle through the gentle waves that caress the sand. There are not many people at the beach today - we soon realise why that is - the wind starts to pick up and before long we are being driven by blasts of sand towards our destination. No sooner has the strength of the wind picked up than it falls again, reintroducing calmness to the scene. This pattern continues, causing us much amusement as we battle with our beach towels - We WILL sit down on the beach! The wind has other ideas though - and finally it wins. Who needs exfoliation spa treatments when the sand does such a good job?

We could be on any beach really, but when we look around us we definitely know we are in Morocco...there are no 'beach babes' in skimpy bikinis, no 'hunks' in tiny speedos...just Moroccan families on a day out at the coast. They are fully clad in floor-length djellabas, pulled up slightly so they don't get wet when wading into the sea, accompanied by their husbands who wear jeans and T-shirts, occasionally minus the T-shirt - how shocking! The children are in cute bathing costumes, splashing about as only kids can. It is lovely to see families out together, enjoying each other's company. Young men enjoy an impromptu barbecue on the sand, camel rides are offered, kite surfers and wind surfers vie with each other to take on the large waves, teenagers play with an old battered football. So few people yet so much life is to be seen here.

Barbie on the beach


Kite surfers

Beautiful horse and rider

It seems no scene is complete in Morocco unless a film crew turn up - and sure enough we are not disappointed. This time the crew are from Germany and as we watch they set up all their equipment in the sand and film some boys playing football and men galloping in the sea on their horses as well as the camels lolloping along the beach. Obviously all this has been pre-organised, and even the police join us on horseback to watch the drama unfold.

Film crew

Camel ride anyone?

Filming starts

I mentioned before that cats are everywhere. Here are some of the cuties I encounter around Essaouira!

Asleep on a flour sack

What's in there?

Oy, wake up!

Amongst the fishing nets

These traditional Berber rugs ain't 'arf comfy!

Please give me food....

On our last day we decide to drive to Sidi Kaouki, about 25 minutes down the road from Essaouira. This town, if you can call it that, is named after a 19th century  marabout, a wandering holy man or teacher whose dilapidated shrine overlooking the sea still draws many pilgrims to the area. When we arrive the beach is deserted except for a few men on camels and a few locals who brave the winds to lie on the beach, albeit under the shelter of bamboo umbrellas. If we thought Essaouira was windy, we are about to experience something on a different level altogether! As we walk along the beautiful sandy beach, it feels like a gale suddenly comes from nowhere behind us and we are almost lifted off our feet and flung along the beach. The wind is full of sand that it lifts up as it heads towards us and whips the backs of our heads, our legs and ankles...we can just about make out each other's words as we encourage each other to head back to the safety of our car. Maybe we've come at the wrong time of year....I'm sure this place is wonderfully wild when the wind dies down...but not today unfortunately.

Shrine to Sidi Kaouki

Camels on the deserted beach

The calm before the storm...

All in all we've had a lovely weekend away in Essaouira...now it's time to once again face the boiling temperatures of Marrakech. Au revoir la plage...à bientôt...