Mohammed El Hakim, better known as Al Araby, selling cassettes in his booth in Fez.
Rabat – A time capsule sits hidden deep in the labyrinth of Fez’s thousand-year-old medina.
Inside, one won’t find a trove of sepia-toned photos or a dispatch to one’s future self, but a love letter to the golden age of North African music, carefully composed over decades by Mohammed El Hakim, who goes by the name he played under as musician: Al Araby.
For almost fifty years Al Araby has filled the walls of his shoebox-sized shop with songs. Piles of cassette tapes filled his booth, stacked high to the ceiling. The format may be dated, but Al Araby is content in his booth of tapes, surrounded by the artists he holds dear.
Al Araby’s motivation for running a cassette shop was simple.
“Because I am a musician,” Al Araby said. “And I love music.”
Al Araby’s thick, calloused hands pulled a case labeled Mohamed El Ghaoui off of a shelf dropped the cassette in the tape deck, and pressed play. The song started and a smile slid across his face. Al Araby looked up expectantly with eyes magnified by a pair of thick-lensed glasses that continually threaten to slide down his nose.
He tapped the counter and hummed along, never breaking eye contact. It was an invitation to join his reverie.
“I find myself at ease with music,” Al Araby said. “It calms me, ever since my childhood.”
When Al Araby opened his booth in 1970, he sold dresses, shirts, and another accouterment for a night on the town. Being a musician, he decided to start with he was familiar with – party supplies. Two years later he had grown bored of his wares and switched over to cassettes.
Over the last five decades Al Araby has accumulated so many tapes they sit stacked two-deep along the walls, further shrinking the already tiny shop. He estimated about ten thousand cassettes line the booth, floor to ceiling.
While the shop might give those prone to claustrophobia the shivers, Al Araby feels right at home enveloped by the music of fellow Moroccans such as Abdelhadi Belkhayat, Naima Samih, and Abdelwahab Doukkali.
These celebrated artists played epic live sets that would stretch on into the night. A single song might take up a whole side of one of the cassettes Al Araby sells at his shop.
Growing up in Fez, Al Araby got his first taste of Moroccan music while celebrating Ashura with his family when he was six or seven years old. His parents bought him a set of tam-tam drums, and he was hooked.
He began performing professionally in the early 70s, playing drums and singing with a group. Al Araby said he was never interested in money or fame.
“It was not about the musicians, it was about the audience. If we got a good audience, the party would go on and on, into the night,” Al Araby said. “Everybody was happy.“
Al Araby married and had two children, a son, and a daughter. Neither played an instrument, but like their father, both had an ear for songs.
After a four-decade career as a musician, Al Araby laid down his drumsticks.
“I don’t like the parties these days,” Al Araby said. “Instead of playing music like this,” he continued, nodding at the stereo, now blasting a love song by Casablancan chanteuse Naima Samih, “they just play popular music.”
After he retired from performing, Al Araby continued working at his booth in the medina.
Al Araby lamented the change in music with the usual list of complaints: the internet, that it made attention spans shorter, lyrics less poetic, the art formless precious.
“Rai music, that appeared in the 90s in Algeria and the Maghreb in general, changed the mentality of the young people,” Al Araby said. “They play something for five minutes, and then it’s done,” he continued, referring to the hybrid version of Rai music that emerged in the 1990s, featuring shorter tracks and international influences.
Instead of fighting the inevitable changes, Al Araby just stopped moving forward.
Most of Al Araby’s customers are now over 30 years old, fans of the same musical era he specializes in selling. His older customers brought damaged musical treasures for Al Araby to repair, carefully mending the snapped or twisted tape inside the cassette.
Several shops in the medina also sold music. Some offered a smattering of tapes but focused on more modern formats. Unlike the other booths, Al Araby’s shop was frozen in time.
“CDs aren’t authentic. They aren’t original,” Al Araby said. “As an artist, you can’t guarantee your rights. You can make a thousand copies in a second.”
Because the production of cassettes in Morocco phased out in the mid-90s, Al Araby estimated all of the tapes in his shop have sat on the shelves at least 15 years. Newer additions included recitations of Suras from the Koran with handwritten labels. Albums of older classic musicians dated closer to 40 years.
“I start each morning with the Koran,” Al Araby said as he explained his daily routine in the shop. “After the Koran, I play instrumental music. Then maybe some Oriental music as the day goes on.”
The other shop owners on the street, many who have also worked in the medina for decades, have never complained about the music emanating from Al Araby’s booth. Instead, they encourage him.
“Sometimes my neighbors make requests,” Al Araby said.
“I love this kind of music, it’s authenticity. It’s not about the money. If I wanted to make a lot of money, I know what to sell,” Al Araby said. “But that is not the point for me.”