In Morocco, a Thousand-Year-Old Storytelling Tradition Adapts to the 21st Century

To see hlaykias (storytellers) in the medina’s main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, was once a common sight: the hlaykias would congregate, standing next to their stools and props, ready to captivate the hearts and minds of those who wandered in and around the square. Locals and tourists alike have long been welcome listeners—and the stories were offered free, with hlaykias relying on tips, says Khaznoui.

The artform’s presence in Moroccan daily life is changing due to technology, Khaznoui explains, and that shift has accelerated in the past decade. “I don’t believe that the art of storytelling is being forgotten, as storytelling is a vital element for the survival of human beings,” he says. “But it has not evolved with the progress of technology.”

What Khaznoui refers to as a moment of change for storytelling, other researchers have dubbed as its extinction. Professor Abdelilah Salim Sehlaoui in a 2009 study makes mention of how the death of “the oral tradition [has been] threatened by home entertainment technology and a lack of young people taking over the role of storytellers as the older generations die out.”

When COVID-19 lockdowns forced the remaining hlaykias out of Jemaa el-Fnaa, they were effectively unemployed. Yet for Khaznoui, the pandemic was an opportune moment to reconsider the trajectory of the tradition—and reimagine what it could be in the future. Seven days into lockdown, in partnership with Mike Wook, a British businessman, and John Row, a British storyteller, Khaznoui co-founded the World Storytelling Cafe. What was initially conceptualized as an online platform for hlaykias to export their art domestically and internationally evolved into much more. By live streaming sessions that ranged anywhere from 15 minutes to just shy of an hour, Khaznoui was able to combine the old and new, thus widening the reach of Morocco’s hlaykias beyond the medina.

When the world opened up again, it was time to reconsider the trajectory of hikayat and where they wanted to take it. “I remember standing on the rooftop of the cafe in Marrakech with Mike and John over the phone, when we came up with the idea of the Marrakech Storytelling Festival,” he recalls. The aim of the annual festival, according to Khaznoui, is to recognize Marrakech as the heart and center of hikayat while also bolstering financial and social support for its artists, adapting a thousand-year-old tradition. Today, the Storytelling Festival, which will see its third iteration in February 2024 (exact dates to be confirmed), brings together over eighty storytellers from around the world in each edition. Festival sessions and workshops take place in riads, restaurants, and conference halls all across Marrakech, marking a new era for a piece of heritage that was once on the brink of disappearing. The revitalization of this art form and tradition is the collective work of a younger generation.

For travelers visiting the city, there are a handful of avenues to listen to storytellers. Weekly hikayat sessions at Cafe Clock offer visitors an opportunity to imbed themselves within local culture. Similarly Café de France, located at the heart of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, is the perfect spot to enjoy a warm nous-nous (Moroccan cappuccino) while listening to hlaykias from the square. Hyper-local experiences are offered by guides like Atif, one of the few female tour guides in Morocco, who curates hikayat experiences for her travelers inside the Musée de la Musique (a range of similar private tours are also available, like these which boast cocktails with a hlaykia).

Wherever you encounter the custom, Atif, like many other tour guides in the city, believes in the value of spotlighting hikayat for travelers. The oral heritage is “a huge part of our history and tradition,” she says “It’s something we Moroccans grew up with. For tourists who are looking to understand and immerse themselves in our culture, there is no better way than to listen to a storyteller.”

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