My dissertation entitled, “Youth Transformations in Storytelling: Transmutability, Haunting, and Fen al Hikaya in Marrakech, Morocco” discusses fen al hikaya, the famous form of oral Moroccan public allegorical storytelling, and its “revival” by youth in Marrakech, Morocco. Why do I say “revived”? Well, popular discourse in Morocco and those writing about oral storytelling in Morocco discuss this genre of performance as “disappearing,” even though young people are currently still doing storytelling performing in different areas of Marrakech. In my dissertation, I argue that this youth revitalization of storytelling practices is haunted by disappearing storytelling figures who better fit the image of a Storyteller: wise old men. At the same time, youth are contributing to storytelling performance to connect with cultural forms, while also finding storytelling to be a genre that they can transform to fit their contemporary, internationalized, and economically precarious lives.
The 99th page of dissertation is part of my fourth chapter: “Narratives of the Storyteller: The Historical Figure and His Decline in Jemaa el Fna Square,” which considers the “image” of the storyteller and how the narratives of the “historical storyteller” and the “disappearing storyteller” leave out the narratives of young storytellers in the city. In this chapter, I not only discuss the figure of the storyteller, but I contextualize the most famous center of performance in Marrakech: Jemaa el Fna Square. This square is considered the heart of Marrakech, and it is around this place that many myths concerning performance genres have arisen, including a myth that says the storytellers in the Square, through their storytelling, gave birth to the other figures in the Square, including the snake charmers, the henna artists, the musicians, the tea sellers, and the food sellers. Page 99 introduces my analysis of the “disappearing storyteller” narratives, complete with a short excerpt from an interview with a young woman storyteller, Fatima Ezzahra, in Marrakech. While this passage does not represent the whole of my argument, it is undoubtably the beginning of a larger conversation that contextualizes my research in Marrakech. Hope you enjoy.
The Storyteller’s Decline in the Square
“10 years ago, there were storytellers—Morocco was no exception. They told religious stories and fairy tales about Kings, heroes, and princesses. However, now there is a lot of noise in the Square, so storytellers are unable to be there…”
—Fatima Ezzahra (From fieldnotes; 3/23/2017)
Jemaa el Fna Square has been extensively documented and written about by scholars and writers, especially since the times of the French Protectorate period from 1912 to 1956 (Canetti 1978; Deverdun 1959; Peets 1988; Warnock Fernea 1980). During colonization, General Lyautey wanted to promote Moroccan design and keep traditional places intact (Rabinow 1995; Wright 1991). However in the 1950s, the government had made plans to make Jemaa el Fna Square into a car park outside of the maze of souks because it was no longer seen as popular or useful. One of the most famous stories associated with the need for a revival of the Square and surrounding souks is associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first-lady of the United States. There is rumor that Eleanor Roosevelt visited Marrakech in the 1950s, and she was disappointed to see that Jemaa el Fna Square was changed so much from the times she had visited in her youth. She noted that the public square was not as lively as she remembered, but she would love to see the Square have its sprawling and lively atmosphere when she visited the next time.
Because of this conversation, King Mohammed V “saved” the Square from destruction and vowed to bring it back to its previous fairy-tale glory by the time Roosevelt returned (Minca 2006; Wagner 2015; Warnock Fernea 1980). This is one of the most famous myths outlining the potential destruction but eventual saving of the Square and performances there. However, while many Moroccans abandoned their living spaces in the medina, or old town, immediately after gaining independence in 1956, more recently foreigners have played a large role in changing the medina, just as tourism has transformed the city and its economy.
Erin Gould defended her dissertation in December 2019 at the University of California, Riverside, after conducting research in Morocco from 2016 to 2018. Her research on storytelling is ongoing, and until she can return for more ethnographic work, she is lecturing part-time at Chapman University in Orange, CA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @erin_gould4.
Canetti, Elias. 1978. The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit. J.A. Underwood, transl. New York: The Seabury Press.
Deverdun, Gaston. 1959. Marrakech: Des Origines à 1912. Rabat: Éditions Techniques Nord-Africaines.
Minca, Claudio. 2006. Re-inventing the “Square”: Postcolonial Geographies and Tourist Narratives in Jamaa el Fna, Marrakech. In Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism. C. Minca and T. Oakes, eds. Pp. 155-184. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Peets, Leonora. 1988. Women of Marrakech: Record of a Secret Sharer 1930-1970. Durham: Duke University Press.
Rabinow, Paul. 1995. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wagner, Lauren B. 2015. ‘Tourist Price’ and Diasporic Visitors: Negotiating the Value of Descent. Valuation Studies 3(2):119-148.
Warnock Fernea, Elizabeth. 1980. A Street in Marrakech: A Personal Encounter with the Lives of Moroccan Women. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Wright, Gwendolyn. 1991. The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.