When I lived in Morocco in the late '90s, I was always fascinated by the storytellers who gathered every evening in the Djma'a al-Fna'a square in Marrakech. It was such a resolutely non-touristic form of entertainment: speaking in colloquial Moroccan Arabic, often with flurries of Tamazight, the storytellers were incomprehensible to anyone but
locals, who stood or knelt patiently around them for what seemed like hours at a time, eating pistachios and sipping spice tea. I used to lurk on the edge of the crowd, peering through the smoke wafting off the nearby snail-sellers, and try to pick out a word or two I recognised from my twelve-month course in Modern Standard Arabic. There were generally a lot of hand gestures, and I got the impression that several dirty jokes were involved.
This book was out of print in those days; not that I knew it existed. The author was a French doctor in Marrakech in the first two decades of the twentieth century (i.e. when the country was still a French protectorate), where, apart from her medical work, she threw herself into the study of local folklore. The result is this collection of tales translated directly as they were told to her, either in the Djema'a al-Fna'a, or during a series of private meetings she arranged for the purpose. For anyone interested in folklore or myth and legend it's a fascinating read, like a very Maghrebi version of the Thousand and One Nights.
There are all the elements you expect: orphaned children, evil step-families, capricious queens, all-powerful kings, talking animals, djinns and afrits. Like all pre-modern stories, they are much more bloody and vindictive than the fairy-tales we are used to. Quite often, you read them with considerable delight, right up to the happy ending: and then suddenly comes a final paragraph of pure ultraviolence. The Moroccan Cinderella, ‘Âïcha Rmâda, takes revenge on her evil stepsister and stepmother like so:
‘Âïcha Rmâda had her stepsister decapitated and her head salted; then she gave an order to have her body cut up into small strips that should be dried in the sun. When the gueddid (dried, smoked meat) was ready, she put the salted head at the bottom of a bag, covered it with the meat, and sent the bag of presents to her evil stepmother.
She, thinking that she had received gifts from her daughter, ate up the meat, and then when she reached the bottom of the bag and saw the salted head, she realised that she had eaten her daughter – and died of rage on the spot.
The end. Sleep tight, children!
As with similar tales from around the world, they remind us that storytelling was once a serious business – a way for people to live out cathartic fantasies of happiness, power, revenge or fulfillment, as well as a way of teaching preadolescent boys and girls how society expected them to behave. My favourite bits were actually the more obvious Moroccan elements – kif-smokers, or references to historical sultans and viziers in Marrakech or Fez.
The people Légey spoke to were the best in the business. Some of them had been slave-girls in Sultan Hassan I's harem, where storytelling was a part of their duties – one, Zahra, had been dubbed by the sultan his ‘little Scheherazade’. Interestingly, Légey herself was instrumental in getting the slavery and harem system shut down under French rule, publishing a consciousness-raising letter in the New York Times about Moroccan women's rights. It's good to see that she was not unaware of the cultural losses that could ensue from such important social shifts. Someone, I forget who, once said that every time a storyteller dies, an entire library is burned. This book is a way of rescuing a few legible remains from the ashes – and giving yourself a few deliciously magical and nasty shocks in the process.