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Circles in the Jemaa el Fna
Introduction for The Last Story Tellers (of Marrakech) by Richard Hamilton, to be published by IbTaurus in 2011

To this day no one really knows how the city of Marrakech won its name of ‘Marrakech’ nor why the scruffy piazza at the heart of the city is called the ‘Jemaa el Fna’.

The city first arose in 1059 as the advanced base of an empire of purified Islam forged by blue-veiled knights from the Western Sahara. For many years it remained a circular embankment topped with thorn bushes, one of the many military marching camps built during the era of Almoravid conquest. At about the time when Duke William of Normandy was conquering Anglo-Saxon England, this camp was selected to be the regional military headquarters, for the Almoravids were having trouble with a schismatic confederation of Berber Muslims deeply entrenched in the coastal provinces. At this point the first permanent structure was built, the Ksar el Hajar, the watch-tower of stone, which overlooked the tents of the garrison army and their corrals of camels and stables of horses. This was when it first became known as Marrakech which seems to derive from the local slang for to ‘cross-over’ and to ‘hide’. Some storytellers like to say that right from the start Marrakech was renowned for the audacity of its thieves, who would scale the garrison defences to get at the rich herds of cavalry horses within, though a more dignified version is that the name derives from the grand strategy of the Almoravid army, which was to ‘cross over’ the barrier of the High Atlas mountains from their Saharan homeland to make a secure base in central Morocco. The Almoravid emir, Abu Bakr, preferred to keep his own headquarters in the Saharan region, south of the Atlas mountains. But he made certain that his pious and promising young cousin, Youssef ibn Tachfine, was placed in command of the Marrakech base camp. Youssef proved himself to be a brilliant general, not only subduing all of central and northern Morocco but eventually he even took his legions across the Mediterranean to defeat the Christian Castilians at the Battle of Zallaqa. After the death of Abu Bakr in 1087, Youssef ibn Tachfine was his natural successor, ruling over an empire that now stretched from the banks of the Niger to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Marrakech was well placed to act as a centre for such a vast domain, and in the reign of Youssef’s son Ali a great circuit of walls was built to guard the magnificent series of palaces, store-houses and public buldings.

However all this, even the great mosque that they built, was flattened by the next dynasty, the Almohads, who were ferociously jealous of the achievements of their predecessors. It was the Almohads who built the great Koutoubia mosque whose minaret still dominates the skyline of Marrakech. An earlier attempt (whose ruins can still be seen beside the Koutoubia) was abandoned, either because it was deemed unpropitious or wrongly aligned to Mecca. It may be that it was this neglected predecessor which gave birth to the name of the square, Jemaa el Fna, the mosque that came to nothing. Certainly the earliest accounts of Marrakech mention that storytellers used to gather outside the walls of the Koutoubia. Or the name might refer to a mosque that was never completed by a Shereefian dynasty (known disrespectfully as the Saadians) who ruled over Morocco in the 16th century. This abandoned site was cleared on the orders of Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century and a market square constructed for the use of the people. Other legends about the origins of the name Jemaa el Fna play with different translations of the Arabic, which allow them to imagine the place as a bewitched old cemetery - the ‘Assembly of the Dead’ - or the site of the future Mosque of Eternity which is said to await the coming of the Mahdi at the end of time. What seems certain is that for over a thousand years there have been storytellers in this place, attended by circles of amused, shocked and titillated listeners. By daylight, the Jemaa el Fna is shockingly disappointing, like a night club in the glare of the honest morning light. It’s just an irregular patch of sun-baked and stained tarmac, filled with traditionally dressed water-sellers and gnaoua singers directing their attention to bus-loads of day-tripping tourists burdened with sexless eyes and enormous cameras their mouths shut as tight as their purses. At such hours you must hurry through, pausing only to buy nuts or a freshly squeezed orange juice from the line of trestle-barrows that define the edge of the square.

In the late afternoon, after an end to the siesta hours has been effected by mid-afternoon prayers, things get a bit more entertaining as the number of immaculately dressed locals increase and as acrobats, chained monkeys, snake-charmers, herbalists, henna-tatooists, beggars, bag-sellers and fortune-tellers take up their pitches. But it is after the sunset call to prayer that the place begins to glow with a mounting pitch of animation. First the tourist population is diluted, equalled, then finally eclipsed by local Moroccans while a splendid array of mobile kitchens fire up their grills and display their salads under lamps. Multi-lingual greeters call out to the passers-by in winning ways, identifying an elegantly dressed visitor from Casa or Fez, with a bow and a cheekily deferential “Shereefa” or “Malika”, just as easily as they differentiate the flaxen-haired Dutch from their German and English cousins, and the better dressed Italians from the Spanish and Portugese. The smell of charred flesh and the smoke of burning fat now competes with pools of darkness, bright illuminated patches of light and half a dozen conflicting strains of music. Fortune-tellers are consulted under the private camouflage of an umbrella, whilst musicians and story-tellers aspire to collect together a circle of listeners. The audience enjoys the stories for themselves, slipping off into private reveries to associate the face of a wicked vizier with that of a local policeman or the beautiful desired princess with the face of their beloved. Yet they also relish the intensified emotion of the shared experience and reaction. In the darkness there is also a precious sense of potential otherness here too…for an evening in the Jemaa el Fna is arguably a truer experience of what it would have been like in a Roman Forum, or the outer court of the Temple at Jerusalem, than can be conjured up by any television presenter.

This sense of a preserved medieavalism, along with concerns about the cover that it gave to prostitutes, pimps, pushers, purveyors of drugs and pick-pockets, was nearly the death of the place. In the zeal of independence from the corrupt old protectorate regime of France in 1956, both King Muhammed V and the nationalist Istaqlal party were quick to close the place down. The Jemaa el Fna reeked of Berber particularism - of backward-looking, ill-educated countrymen – rather than the reformist, pan-Arab internationalism and command economy that was the imagined future at that time. Marrakech had not been in the forefront of the independence struggle, unlike the northern cities of Casablanca and Fez, and indeed under the leadership of the Glaoui (a local Berber clan of power politicians ) the city was seen to be a pro-French bastion. The new administrators happily ordered the transformation Jemma el Fna into something modern, bleak and useful – a car park fringed with coach stations. Other cities, such as Tangier and Tetouan, suffered similar disfigurements in those utilitarian days, as scruffy but beloved market-places, shaded by ancient trees and overlooked by ramshackle cafés, were scrubbed out.

Fortunately soon after this decision King Muhammad V was giving dinner to Eleanor Roosevelt in the nearby Mamounia Hotel. Eleanor was a reformer and a New Deal modernist herself, the widow of President Roosevelt who had done much to privately support King Muhammad as a young man. The king noticed that his honoured guest had quickly dispatched her dinner so that she could have plenty of time to stroll down to the Jemaa el Fna to catch some of its nightly magic. But when Eleanor was informed that the Jemaa el Fna was now no more than a car park, she was greatly distressed. So the king promised her that by the time she next returned to Marrakech, the Jemaa el Fna would be restored to its old animation. Or so the story goes…for there are many variations, such as one that can be told to an English audience, which features Sir Winston Churchill (who did indeed love the city).

Now a more enlightened generation of city planners are falling over themselves to create some of the magic of the Jemaa el Fna in cities all over the world. You only have to stroll through the piazza of London’s Covent Garden, or onto the sloping pavement outside the Pompidou Centre in the heart of Paris, through Palace Square during the White Nights festival of St Petersburgh or up the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival to identify these god-daughters of the Jemaa el Fna. Yet in the square itself, like some awful twist of fate, the craft of storytelling is dying out, as the last masters grow feeble and their audience has moved off to other circles, other entertainments. As I was once told in Marrakech, when an old story-teller dies, a whole library burns. It is fortunate therefore that someone with the imagination and patience of Richard Hamilton is at hand to catch some of this tradition as it falls into the abyss of the forgotten. Let us pray that this book is no more than a bridge to a continuing tradition, and that it will help inspire a new generation of apprentices to learn the craft of storytelling and continue the enchantment.

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