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Halqa

The last story-teller

We walk around the small village quite early - too early perhaps - the one cafe isn't open yet and the few villagers we encounter are shy. If we are to hear the stories of the Berbers (the indigenous people of Morocco and from whom the storytelling traditions originated it will take more long term work and introductions. Nonetheless Noah makes some friends (of course) and we share a few words - or more accurately gestures - with a group of women waiting for the bus into Marrakech. Noah is the key - as to so many of our interactions with Moroccans. The language of baby is universal. Before we leave we do have a long conversation with Susan, our host and owner of the sanctuary. In her own way she is also a bridge like Lahcen and Tahir, on the surface she provides days out for sight-seeing tourists but as a retired human rights lawyer with a keen intelligence and sensitivity to the culture she has embraced as her own she also sees it as a responsibility to educate and re-educate the tourists who come to Morocco with no knowledge of or sensitivity to the customs and culture of a country so different from their own. In her own way she is a story-teller embedding her tales with a moral just as the tellers in the square do.

With literally hours before our flight home Lahcen has got hold of Abderahim the story-teller, so we head back to the Jemaa El Fna and (unbenknownst to Lahcen) to the very terrace on which we spent our last evening in Marrakech. The other storytellers we met before today were fascinating in their way but fundamentally showmen of a more general sort. By contrast Abderahim is the real deal, a master and a craftsman and it shows. He has spent decades mastering his art - reading books, translating them from classical arabic to darija and then learning them by heart. Some of his stories take days and days to tell, in blocks of 4 or 5 hours at a time. And some of his tales exist only orally and have been passed down from teller to teller over generations. Lahcen is so taken with him that he asks if he might return and work as his apprentice for a few months learning his stories and the ways of the halqa. Graciously Abderahim accepts.

3 hours of tea and stories later and we drive to the airport and board the plane. After a few Gin & fizzy waters (they were out of tonic - Lahcen threatens to complain!) we are all a little giddy with the altitude, the alcohol and the countless stories of the last fifteen days. It has opened our eyes, our hearts and our minds and made us re-examine what it is that we do as artists, as theatre-makers, as story-tellers.

And now to turn it all into a show.

10 hours of driving

We leave early. Just as well as it takes us 6 hours to reach our destination - Beni Mellal. On the way we see a tiny donkey by the road - it could have stepped straight out of the tale we heard last night in Fez. We aim to get there by 11am. As it turns out we arrive at 3pm! Luckily our host - the gentle and gracious Fatima Zahra, an academic at the University of Beni Mellal and expert in story-telling - is not at all put out and provides us with a feast of salad, tagine and fruit. Also a feast of ideas as we delve into the nature of story-telling at a more abstract and theoretical level than before. She argues hard for embracing the 'betrayal' of storytellers and storytelling and says if the art form is to survive we must find a new way to tell. After 3 hours of food and conversation we are stuffed, physically and intellectually,  and we continue our drive further south to a Donkey sanctuary just south of Marrakech. But before we leave Fatima gives us the number of a story-teller back in Marrakech who we might have time to meet before we fly tomorrow - his name is Abderahim - the story-teller from the documentary!

After another 4 hours in the car (thank goodness Noah slept literally the entire time) we arrive at the sanctuary at 10pm. It is the first night time driving we have done in Morocco and it's terrifying. But we arrive in one piece to Gin & Tonics on the lawn followed by a 3 course meal. After his 4 hour nap Noah is wide awake and ecstatic to meet no less than 10 different dogs. The house - a new building overlooking a small village in the foothills of the Atlas mountains - is even more grand than Dar Al Khalifa. In fact it's a bit like staying in a 5 star hotel... that is also a family home. But now to bed - it's the biggest bed I've ever seen - before we meet with some Berbers from the village tomorrow and hear their stories.

The story-teller of Fez

Another early morning drive, another journey several hours longer than we'd thought it would be, and we arrive in Fez, hopeful that we might find a story-teller. Before we find the story-tellers though we have to find somewhere to park and we spend another hour driving round and round trying to find the right gate to enter the Medina from. We ask one guy for directions, he is such a story-teller. I have no idea what he's saying but the moment we drive off we burst out laughing at his 'performance'. And the directions he gives do eventually see us right.

Entering the Bab Bou Jeloud on the edge of the Medina swarms of birds fly above us, swallows or swifts or something like that. Lahcen calls them 'hair thiefs' because they swoop down and pull out people's hair (presumably to line their nests). After lunch in a converted palace (another pastilla - a speciality of Fez) it's still too early for the story-tellers so we wander into the souk. I have another mission while in Fez - to find a Fez (the hat) for a Moroccan friend back in London who is getting married. We find a shop with boxes from floor to ceiling - each containing a Fez. I retrieve my paper with the head measurements and Lahcen begins the haggling game. The key to any transaction in Morocco is to remember that the haggling is a game. It's all a game. Not only are all Moroccans story-tellers but they are also all jokers. A few minutes later we leave triumphant, the Fez wrapped in paper and safely stowed in the basket of Noah's buggy.

It's much hotter here than it was on the coast, hotter even than the desert - partly because the temperature has been climbing everywhere day by day and partly because Fez sits like a bowl in which the heat is trapped. I am really feeling the heat, but Noah of course is unstoppable as ever, still running around at top speed. As the afternoon wanes we return to the Bab Bou Jeloud, on the other side of which is the square where the halqa assemble. It is like a much smaller much calmer Jemaa El Fna - there is only one snake-charmer, a few orange juice sellers. We wander from halqa to halqa desperately hoping for a story-teller. One man is selling medicines but Lahcen is keen to talk to him after the audience have gone because he seems like a natural storyteller. Another man is telling actual stories. Or jokes at least. Lahcen translates and it transpires he is a kind of political stand up comedian. Lahc asks if we can speak to him after the audience have left. He says come back when the sun comes down. Lahc asks at what time? He says when the sun comes down.

When the sun has set we meet the storyteller and over tea he tells us of the golden age of story-telling when he would come and find the audience already waiting in the halqa. They would come one by one until the circle was full but now the art of listening is dying. Now he sees the young people and he adapts. If they want a story he tells a story, if they want a joke he tells a joke, if they want music he makes music. The truth is though that there is little appetite now for the old tales, some of which take several hours to tell. He has been ill, story-telling is an unforgiving trade, standing outside all day long. More importantly you only earn a living if you're able to turn up and tell a story.There's no union for storytellers! He has been off sick for 3 weeks and today is his first day back. Had we come yesterday - which was the plan before Lahcen missed his flight and set us back a day - we would never have met him. We ask him for a tale and unprompted he tells us another tale of Harun Al Rashid. Strange. It's a totally different story and involves a tiny magic donkey, but strange coincidence none the less. Obviously there are no coincidences as we're coming to accept.

The National Theatre

After some amazing croissants (we could be in Paris - Rabat is much more European than the Morroco we've seen further south) we wander round the old town - the Medina and the blue and white-washed Kasbah. After lunch we meet up with Said again who has organised an introduction to Mohamed Benhsain, the Director of the National Theatre, who gives us a tour round the building. He seems really interested in the show and before we know it we're already talking about co-producing! He also tells us of a story-telling Festival in Beni-Mellal that they co-produce with - we know a bit about it already because we've already planned to meet with the festival organiser Fatima Zahra on the 13th. Turns out they are great friends.

In the evening we manage to see the Peter Brook 'Flute', thanks to the  Alex's lovely girlfriend, who offers to babysit. An offer she probably regrets now as Noah cried the whole time he was with her. On the plus side it was an abridged 90 minute version of the show, so it could have been worse. It's a deceptively simple staging, a stunning design and the symbolism has a huge impact on Lahcen. We're still discussing the production late into the night.

3 keepers

We leave Dar Al Kalipha - with Tahir pronouncing Noah the happiest baby he's ever met, and drive through Casa to have lunch with Lahcen's parents. Now that he's back Lahcen has taken over the driving again - just as well as on the roads Casa there is a lot of aggression and horn-beeping. Lahcen says it's all acting 'They're all story-tellers. They all have a story in their herats, in their arse sometimes'. We have spoken before about all Moroccans being story-tellers, but this is definitely a phrase to keep for the show, I think.

A few hours later we arrive in Rabat - the capital - where Said Bey meets us for a cup of mint tea. He's finished the filming he was doing in Marrakech and is back in his home town of Rabat. By enormous coincidence our friend Alex is in Rabat, working on the Peter Brook production of 'The Magic Flute'  touring Morocco. It plays the National Theatre in Rabat tonight and tomorrow and he offers us tickets for tomorrow. I'd love to go but I don't think Noah will sit through it - even if it is only 90 minutes! What he does sit through (mostly) this evening is a trilogy of short plays that we end up seeing at a smaller theatre next door. On the advice of a fellow actor friend of Lahcen's - all the Moroccan actors are based in Rabat it seems - there is a play about story-telling, or rather a piece of story-telling theatre. Essentially 3 monologues - each of which follows the story of a 'Keeper' of some sort (a school care-taker, a concierge and a parking attendant). It's in Darija but Lahcen translates and much of the physical comedy is universal. It's fascinating to see how older story-telling traditions are married with a very contemporary performance style; an electric guitarist providing live underscore and sound effects at the side of the stage. It's also interesting to see how the audience behaves - so unlike a polite little English audience - they wander in and out, some chat on their phones, all of which makes taking an 11 month old baby to the performance quite easy. After the show we head over to another building - the Villa Des Arts for a musica concert where we meet some more young Moroccan actors. Our timing is yet again been fortuitous as there is currently a Festival running throughout Rabat during the time we are there.

Two short tales

Lahcen missed his flight last night ('If we don't arrive today, we'll arrive tomorrow' is ringing in my ears) though he managed to get an early flight this morning. But frustratingly to Marrkech, so we will have to stay another day and night and Casa, while he catches the train here. I have been making thank you cards for the various people who help and host us along the way so with this extra time I decide to make cards for Tahir's children too and in the spirit of the trip inside each card I write a story. Inspired by the Moroccan stories I Have read and heard so far I give each one a moral and then agonise over whether one is too sad for a 9 year old and the other too simple for a 12 year old. Lahcen arrives for a fleeting visit - but time enough to charm Tahir and his children. Then after a quick glass of wine he's off to spend the evening with his parents.

The Caliph's House

The book that inspired both this trip and the show that we are developing is the wonderful 'In Arabian Nights' by Tahir Shah, which was quoted in one of our ARAB NIGHTS plays last year. Essentially it is a story-telling odyssey through Morocco, not entirely unlike our own, with Tahir searching for 'the story in his heart'. When we were rehearsing ARAB NIGHTS I contacted Tahir, who is based in Morocco, and we have kept up an email correspondence ever since. So I have been really keen to meet him during our trip. Our timing is perfect because he flies to London on the 10th and agrees to meet us in Casablanca before he leaves. Lahcen was also hugely inspired by the book, and by the theme running through it of a bridge between East and West - which Tahir feels keenly as someone raised in England but with an Afghan heritage. Lahcen shares that bridge feeling with an upbringing half in France, half in Morocco, and is equally keen to meet Tahir. He flies into Casa this evening and will meet us tomorrow, after a night with his parents who live in Casa.

After a breakfast of the round and slightly sweet loaves of bread that you get everywhere in Morocco, fresh from the bakers we discover down a tiny backstreet, we set off. After the relative calm of El Jadida the aggression of Casa and the constant gridlock of beeping traffic comes as a bit of a shock. After several wrong turns and missed exits we eventually meet Tahir who drives with us in convoy through the shanty town in which his renovated mansion - Dar al Kalipha (The Caliph's House - also another of his books which documents its renovation) sits. The house is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, and over a glass of wine, sat by the swimming pool we discuss story-telling with Tahir and his family. As well as the pool and other luxuries they also have two old pet dogs so Noah is in heaven. And they have a playroom!

That evening we are joined for dinner by his twin sister Safia and her friend Catherine, coincidentally also a twin, as am I and (although he's not at dinner) so is Lahcen. Tahir is thrilled by the strange coincidence and much of the conversation revolves around the magic of twins and twin behaviour. After the other guests have left we stay up late telling stories and talking about the challenges and pitfalls of international and inter-cultural collaboration.

a day off

Exhausted by the intensity of Marrakech we allow ourselves a day off from the story-telling odyssey and while Lahcen is in London we drive north to the seaside town of El Jadida - breaking our journey on to Casablanca tomorrow. It's still a good 4 hour drive though so time to crack out the James Blunt. I don't know how we missed it before but the first line of the second track is 'One day your story will be told', the discovery of which we must share with Lahcen when he's back.

For an afternoon we are tourists sharing pizza on the beach before a walk round the Portugese Cistern, and the ramparts of the tiny Portugese medina. We dine in a lovely fish restaurant and miraculously Noah sleeps through the whole of dinner so it really does feel like a day off.

Finding a teapot

We know that mint tea will form a part of the eventual show HALQA, whatever the show itself becomes, and we know that it will even form a part of the 10 minute scratch performance of it that we're giving at the BAC Freshly Scratched Festival in a few weeks time. So today we set off to get lost in the souks of Marrakech and find ourselves a teapot. Hopefully without getting too ripped off, though now that we are without Lahcen who knows...

After some aimless wandering we find ourselves outside a little shop that seems to be filled entirely with teapots, and not simply the new obviously factory-made kind but some more unique (and perhaps antique) looking ones. Also Noah has started to kick up a fuss. There is only so long we can keep him strapped in a buggy when there are so many exciting things to play with (and break) in the souk. So we stop and after some mint tea (which Noah has also taken a liking to) and a bit of haggling we settle on a pot. Eventually we find our way out again (after 6 hours) and eat dinner in a terrace restaurant overlooking the Jemaa. Noah is a huge hit with every Moroccan he encounters, as he's very happy to be picked up an cuddled and kissed. So the waiters adopt him while we look out over the square savouring our last night in Marrakech. And savouring the delights of a pastilla (my new favourite food - chicken, filo pastry, cinnamon and icing sugar - what's not to love). Suddenly the musicians in the square fall silent as the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, rings out. It's not something you would notice in the square itself as the hubbub of voices continues unbated but high up on the terrace, with a minaret immediately to our right, the silence is unmistakably in response to the sound of the muezzin.

Three aunties and Harun Al Rashid

After breakfast of a kind of porridge-y soup which Will loathes, and luckily Noah loves, we go to a larger village nearby to shop for lunch. We choose a live chicken and return ten minutes later to take it back to the village with us (no longer alive).

After lunch (chicken) we meet three of Lahcen's aunts who between them tell us about his grandfather; by all accounts an amazing man. He lived to 120 and when his teeth fell out new teeth started growing. So the story goes. Before the advent of TV, nights were long in the desert and those nights were spent telling stories.

Between them they recounted a story that Lahcen's grandfather used to tell - a tale of Harun Al Rashid. Until this point, and as with all our other interactions, Lahcen would translate from Moroccan Arabic/Darija into English, but the aunties dialect is so thick that even Lahcen is struggling so we have a three way translation where his uncle translates their older language into a mix of French and Darija and Lahcen then translates that into English! At the end of the story they say something together in unison. I ask for a translation - 'The story went with the current of the river, but I'm still staying with my people'.

After the stories we follow Lahcen out of the (new) village and wander through the desert to the old village which stood on a hill, and is now an uninhabited ruins. Perhaps a slightly perilous climb when you're carrying a baby on your back, as Will is, but it's worth it. The view stunning and the silence (after so many words) feels like a huge relief. The desert invites silence, but after a while that silence invites stories. Or so it feels to me, as much to Lahcen's surprise I love the desert. I'll be sad to leave tomorrow. And not only because I can't face another 8 hours with Noah in the car.

The desert

Today we spent 8 hours (8 hours!!!) driving into the desert to stay with Lahcen's extended family and talk to them about his late grandfather who had been a story-teller in their village. Lahcen says the drive will take 3 hours. Around the 5 hour mark he tells us a story about driving with his father a long distance and his father telling him 'If we don't arrive today, we'll arrive tomorrow'. I think this might become a motto.

The reason it takes so long is partly because we have to go over the mountains - the perilous Tchika - which used to terrify Lahcen as a young boy. Noah doesn't seem fazed but he is mostly clamped to my breast to try and keep him asleep (having promised to provide us with a car seat our friendly car hire man never re-appeared so Noah is on my lap for the duration). When even the breast won't pacify him we resort to James Blunt - which we discovered has a strangely soporific effect on him and brought with us (a CD not the real person) expressly for that purpose. Now whenever I hear James Blunt I will picture the winding passes and stunning views over the Atlas mountains.

Finally we arrive and the welcome is all the more sweet for the long journey preceding it. Couscous, tea, a beautiful room in which Will, Noah and I are staying and a much needed shower! We arrive empty-handed (a huge faux-pas in Arab culture) but it is so late we can barely stagger from the car to the house as it is. So tomorrow we will make good and buy food for lunch.

 

The storytellers

We meet the storytellers in the Jemaa, only a few hours later than we'd scheduled. Over mint tea (of course) they talk about having lost a way of life, and a way of living with the decline of story-telling. Lahcen notices a huge bird in the sky. It feels like an omen of some sort. For these story-tellers they form a halqa for three reasons - to make an audience laugh, to take care of them and to take some money. Last night we had a long conversation about why we tell stories - for an audience, for ourselves - it was wide-ranging and philosophical. We put the question to one of the storytellers. His answer is simple 'I tell stories to eat'. One of the storytellers has been telling stories since 1955, you can see it in his expressively wrinkled face, and according to him the 'people who have the words to do the halqa are dying'. He stops mid thought and runs across the square to retrieve a balloon for a boy who has lost it. Returning he talks about forming the halqa 'when you have the circle then the story comes' and the art of story-telling - 'You must tell a story until you own it, until it's your property, until you become the king of that story'. And then he tells us a short story about a dying man with three sons - I won't retell it here because it's going into the show and I don't want to spoil it, but like all the Moroccan stories that I've read so far there is a very clear moral. And as he says the storyteller has to give a message with his story.

We return to our hotel excited - we are definitely onto something. Then in the evening we watch a brilliant documentary called 'Al Halqa, In The Storyteller's Circle' by German film-maker Thomas Ladenburger. It follows a storyteller called Abderahim attempting to pass on his stories to his son Zoheir. It's a beautiful film, touching and funny, and an insight into these elusive creatures - the last story-tellers. I think Abderahim might also have been one of the story-tellers who contributed to Richard Hamilton's book 'The Last Storytellers' which we read before we flew out. It's a small world.

Waiting

Today we return to the Jamaa - it is a very different place in the day time. We meet a man who works with monkeys, a cousin of Lahcen's who says he can set us up with some story-tellers. We wait and wait. Glass after glass of mint tea, and our first tagine. Noah is less patient than us (though the tagine occupies him for a time) and would rather wander off or play with a snake but as our patience is running out they arrive. Only to tell us to return tomorrow when they will then tell us a story and talk about the traditions of the halqa. Our interest piqued we promise to return tomorrow and head back to the hotel (in a horse-drawn carriage, as you do). Waiting around are things I suspect we may have to get used to in Morocco.

Lahcen is more philosophical about it all and says the square recognised that we were tired and should come back tomorrow. 'You're not able to listen yet.' There is a strong vein of the fatalistic running through the fabric of Morocco which is something I'll need to come to terms with given my love of efficiency and punctuality. So when it happens will be the right time. And now to bed.

 

Jamaa El Fna

After a remarkably stress free journey - heeding the advice of other mums I breastfed Noah through take off and landing and he slept for pretty much the entire three hour flight - we arrive in Marrakech in the early evening. After some haggling over a car with an entirely unofficial car-hire 'guy' we drive into the new town of Marrakech to a hotel where the Moroccan actor (and major star) Said Bey is staying, who manages to negotiate a 50% discount. Said is an old friend of Lahcen's and can hopefully facilitate several connections and conversations with other artists in Morocco. Serendipitously he is also fascinated by the story-tellers and the oral storytelling traditions of Morocco and we start exploring with him what this show might eventually be, over a pot of mint tea in a local cafe. We had known before we flew that whatever HALQA becomes there will be mint tea involved, in the show itself, not simply its creation - and it feels apt that our first exchange takes place over a glass of the super sweet, super hot concoction.

After discussing the meaning of the word 'Halqa' used to described the circle of audience that forms around a storyteller (and also snake-charmer, musician, acrobat etc) we headed off to the Jemaa El Fna - one of Morocco's most well-known landmarks and now a world heritage site - to see the Halqa in action. It's an intense experience, a cacophany of drums, hawkers, orange juice sellers and street food vendors, a mass of humanity crammed together in this huge public square where for hundreds of years story-tellers have spun their tales alongside acrobats and snake charmers. Noah has a field day, of course. I think Morocco suits him.

We don't expect to meet a master storyteller on our first night in Morocco - the rise of TV and radio, coupled with the rising sound levels in the Jemaa - have led to a huge decline in oral storytelling - and if we are to find some genuine story-tellers while we are here we will have to hunt them out. But after our evening in the Jemaa we now at least have a little understanding of the circle, of the halqa, as well as a new-found friend in Morocco's answer to Brad Pitt - Said Bey.