Seasoned performers describe how social isolation is reshaping the dying art of storytelling in Morocco.
Rabat – There was nobody present in the room to engage with aside from his newborn son. There was only the silent notification on the screen which indicated someone new was listening in.
In the wake of COVID-19, the global pandemic which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and caused countries worldwide to follow stay at home orders, Brahim and other storytellers are tailoring the notable norms of storytelling to social media and reshaping tradition.
Brahim says storytellers, himself included, will often take at least ten minutes to begin a story. “The process begins with introducing myself, then I engage with the audience for a while. I am acting, not just telling a story. Sometimes I mention that if people want to be generous, they could give a donation.”
The long storytelling introduction, meant to tease the crowd and entice them, has been replaced with a preemptive short video post. “Shall we start our story?” Brahim begins after wishing his followers a happy Ramadan. “Once upon a time, there were two brothers. The first named Mubarak, and the youngest named Msoud. Mubarak was rich, he was a famous vendor and the owner of many properties across the city.”
He abruptly stops his story–building suspense–and asks his followers to join in on the next day’s “live” session hosted on a new collaborative Instagram page called HikayatConnect. (Hikayat means storytelling in Arabic.) The suspense-building technique is common among storytellers. Often, storytellers would begin a story one day and stop part way through, inviting their audience to return the next day.
During the “live” session, Brahim told his story twice: Once in English and once in Darija, the Moroccan dialect. At one point while he told the story in Darija, the video paused due to poor internet connection. Although it was unintentional, for viewers, it may have imitated the suspense that is purposefully built into in-person storytelling events.
Award-winning Brahim Dalwali began storytelling in 2013 after realizing how quickly the art form was disappearing. After a mentorship and much hard work to practice the art, he earned the title of “Morocco’s best storyteller” in 2017.
Zakia Elyoubi, 28, is also a storyteller from Fez who discovered her passion for the art from her family. “I fell in love with storytelling when I was a little girl. We used to go to the suburbs and listen to stories from my uncles every night.”
She says that in 2014, when she heard Cafe Clock was hosting storytelling events and classes, she immediately seized the opportunity to learn. The stories she has learned were passed down orally from renowned storytelling masters of old.
Recording stories is not the same, but it is better than nothing
Traditionally, storytellers did not record their stories for fear of competition and that without the full performance, the story would lose its true meaning. Stories are typically passed down orally from one storyteller to the next.
“I’m not a fan of telling stories online actually. I enjoy and love telling stories in front of people. I enjoy looking into people’s eyes and seeing their reaction–happy, sad, surprised, scared–depending on the story,” Zakia says. “It’s also part of the tradition to tell stories in front of a crowd of people.”
Now, despite a desire to uphold traditions, storytellers are renegotiating a historic art for the sake of preservation and in an effort to share some joy.
The measures taken by the Moroccan government in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 make it impossible for storytellers to continue their work in the traditional communal sense. Since the country imposed lockdown restrictions at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Zakia has virtually shared her stories on live sessions three times, with plans to continue.
“We can’t go out, we can’t meet people, we can’t do all the things we used to. It’s an opportunity to tell people around the world about Moroccan stories and also cheer them up a bit since everyone is inside their houses.”
Similarly, Brahim says, “I think social media gives storytellers a big opportunity now.” He goes on to explain that this is something he may not have said pre-pandemic as many storytellers did not want to have their stories recorded.
Morocco’s tradition of storytelling
Storytelling in Morocco dates back over a thousand years and has been a way of passing down cultural beliefs and moral lessons, as well as providing a source for entertainment. While parents and grandparents often told stories within their homes to younger generations, renowned storytellers took to the streets to share their tales.
A teller typically stands in a public space and ushers their audience to form a circle (halqa) around them. They begin their stories slowly and theatrically in order to draw a crowd.
Throughout Morocco, stories tend to differ by region. For the Sahrawi, accounts are typically of knights and war, whereas Amazigh (Berber) stories may center around nature and pagan gods.
Physical distance is just one of the many challenges storytellers are facing today. “I think people have stopped telling stories because they cannot make enough money to survive doing it,” Brahim suggests. The Moroccan government does not officially recognize storytellers as artists. As a result, they struggle to receive funding for festivals or other benefits.
In the past, storytelling was a well-known career and listeners sought the performers, offering their salaries. Still, storytellers like Brahim and Zakia are determined to share the craft and have begun transforming the art by delivering their work to their audience in less traditional ways.