In Marrakech, the storytellers of the Jemaa El

It is only at nightfall that they enter the scene, once past the souvenir stalls made in china »the juice sellers illuminated by spotlights and the gargotes smoky with grills. In the dark, hidden behind their haqa” (public circle), the artists of the Jemaa El-Fna square in Marrakech – or hlaiqias” – replay every evening a show stemming from popular traditions rooted in Morocco for centuries. They are the symbol of this mythical place listed as intangible cultural heritage of humanity and yet threatened with“acculturation”, according to Unesco, under the effect of mass tourism.

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On this humid December evening, a comedian msiyah” laid down his mat. As soon as he squats in front of his oil lamp, the circle forms. Its public is essentially Moroccan. A few foreign tourists observe for a moment, pretend to be amused, then leave. A little further on, Chaabi melodies and Berber rhythms escape from other circles and intertwine. In the middle circulate four musicians “gnaoua”, percussion in hand, looking for a few dirhams. And then there is the man with the violin. Miloud Weld, 74, takes his bow when you want to get close to him. Recently, he also started selling single cigarettes. “Music does not make me earn my living”, he laments.

As for the famous storytellers, considered the quintessence of Jemaa El-Fna, they are not here tonight. They are no longer there. The crush and hubbub got the better of them. Tragedy, injustice? ” Destiny “, answers Mohamed Bariz, met in a café in the medina. The 64-year-old man, with a frail appearance and laughing eyes, is one of the last traditional storytellers in Marrakech. “One of the last two, he specifies. When I started storytelling in the square, at the age of 10, there were twenty-six of us. And when I left it permanently, in 2010, there were eight left. » The 168 stories of Thousand and one Night that he holds in his memory, he now reserves them for his rare interventions in schools or cultural places. None of his five children took up the torch. “Storyteller, it’s a small job, he said. I didn’t want to push them into the mess. »

“Trade has become hegemonic”

It was simultaneously with this decline that the success story » from Marrakesh. The one that the brochures call the “red city” or the “pearl of the south” imposed itself in the 2000s as the tourist showcase of the kingdom. At a standstill during the Covid-19 pandemic, activity gradually resumed to “to reach or even exceed, this fall, the pre-Covid level of attendance”, reports Abdellatif Abouricha, communication manager at the Regional Tourism Council. Of all the places in the city, the large triangular esplanade, the nerve center of the medina, is the most popular. More than 2 million visitors per year.

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As its tourist development progressed, the square was concreted, modernized and standardized. New players have emerged. “Trade has become hegemonic. Open-air catering is more and more invasive, while the space for the arts has shrunk to a trickle,” deplores Jaafar Kansoussi, president of the Al-Munya association for the preservation of the heritage of Marrakech. For more than twenty years, this heritage specialist has been involved in the defense of “halka” alongside other intellectuals. And he talks about it with passion:

“Jemaa El-Fna is a summary of Moroccan culture in its diversity – Arabic, Berber, Gnaoua… – and its last space for free expression. Its inclusion in 2001 on the list of intangible heritage of humanity aims to preserve it, but it has also led to strengthening its tourist appeal. The mercantile dimension took over and our cause was relegated to the background. »

“The square lives on tourism, but the storyteller dies on tourism”, sums up the academic Ouidad Tebbaa

Because in spite of all the good intentions, it is the tourist who makes the law. “It reconfigures the balance of power, it reverses the roles: those who were at the center have moved to the periphery and vice versa”, sums up the academic Ouidad Tebbaa. The biggest victims are the storytellers, she says: “They don’t interest tourists. First, they content in their own language. And then they are too sober, too subtle. Those who sing or dance do better. The square lives on tourism, but the storyteller dies on tourism. »

For these intellectuals, mass tourism has also led to an impoverishment of rituals. Evidenced by the show during the day, which is aimed at foreign visitors in a staging designed to respond to their quest for a change of scenery. It’s the folk “guerrab”, the water carrier, who announces his presence in the square by ringing his bell – for the photo shoot more than for the cup of water. Those are the “naqachat”the henna tattooists, who sell a souvenir of Marrakech drawn on the hand.

They are also monkey trainers and snake charmers. In the morning, they saturate the sound space with their ghaita » (flute) and stalk tourists insistently: ” Photo ? Photo ? » So much so that they often prefer to bypass the square or take refuge on the panoramic terraces that surround it. Their performances, however, are well and truly rooted in a cultural and spiritual tradition. “Snake charmers come from a Sufi brotherhood broken into asceticism and the quest for self, says Jaafar Kansoussi. But all of that fell apart. It has become a tourism profession. »

“Nobody gives us anything”

In this proliferation of actors, there are hardly more than 300 “hlaiqias” around, according to Mariam Amal, president of the Association of Halqa Artists. Short hair and a man’s djellaba – a style inherited from the time when female artists were not allowed in the square – this singer ghiwane » 56-year-old performs there every night ” always “. She who knew the “baraka” recounts his precarious conditions. Or how, without social security, with 100 dirhams a day (i.e. 9 euros), sometimes 20, sometimes nothing, she struggles to feed her family. A fortiori since Covid. “Most artists have done charity. Today, we are very indebted”, does she breathe. For her, Jemaa El-Fna is also a drama of injustice:

“Hotels, restaurants, it is thanks to us that they receive tourists, but they are the ones who earn the money. Nobody gives us anything. A few years ago, we defended the creation of a foundation to support artists. We also proposed to the restaurateurs to set up a solidarity fund and to pay one dirham a day into it. But wow! »

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In this battle for place, the haqa” however, has not said its last word. Proof of this is the proliferation of recent initiatives to revitalize it. A museum of intangible heritage is due to open on the square in early 2023 and a house of storytellers is planned at the town hall. “We are in the process of getting out of cultural myopia, wants to believe Jaafar Kansoussi. Finally, the administration cares about this heritage and it puts the means to it. »


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To perpetuate the oral tradition, a School of Storytelling was created in 2021 at the initiative of the Al-Munya association. Twenty students have already been trained there. Marrakech has also, since this year, its International Storytelling Festival. “There is a real attraction for this art”, assures its director and co-founder, Zouhair Khaznaoui, 25. Coming from the Storyteller’s School of Art, the young Marrakchi chose to make it his profession. But not at Jemaa El-Fna. “I try to innovate, he explains. I adapt storytelling techniques in various cultural activities, evenings, visits, role-playing… I would like to come to the square, but not now. Not until the storyteller has respect and a dedicated space. »

Summary of the series “Pros and cons of tourism in Africa”

In Marrakech, the storytellers of the Jemaa El-Fna square pushed out by mass tourism