A lively NY Times story by Marlise Simons, “Keeping a Moroccan Tradition Alive, One Tale at a Time,” describes the ancient Arab storytelling tradition still hanging on in Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakesh. (Its name is said to mean ‘assembly of the dead’ but it strikes me as deeply suspicious that there’s an Arabic word finā’ ‘courtyard; open space in front of or at either side of a house’; perhaps Lameen can enlighten us.) Simons says:

Mr. Jabiri, 71, is one of eight bards still performing publicly in the Marrakesh region of southern Morocco. But most, like him, fear that their generation may be the last in a line that is as old as this medieval city.

These men descend from the era — long before radio and television, movie theaters and telephones — when itinerant narrators brought news and entertainment to country fairs and village squares…

Juan Goytisolo is a rare European expatriate who speaks Morocco’s Arabic dialect and understands the storytellers. A prominent Spanish writer who has lived here since the 1970’s, he is devoted to Jemaa el Fna and its artists. They inspired his novel “Makbara,” he said.

In a cafe overlooking the square, he spoke admiringly about the “old masters” he has known, their improvisations and pranks, and the tricks they use to capture and hold their audience. Some may start a fake fight to attract listeners. He recalled that “Sarouh, a very strong man who is dead now, would lift a donkey up into the air. As it started braying, people would come running. ‘You fools,’ he would yell at the crowd. ‘When I speak about the Koran nobody listens, but all of you rush to listen to a donkey.'”…

Mr. Goytisolo has been the driving force behind a movement to protect the square, which he calls a “great and rich cultural space, that is in danger of being drowned by commerce, by the pressure to develop.” The group has in recent years managed to block projects like a tall glass tower and an underground garage. Cars have now been banned altogether.

(Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)

Anyone interested in such storytelling should find a copy of Bridget Connelly’s Arab Folk Epic and Identity, a wonderful book that starts off describing the general tradition and goes on to present a detailed account of one of the most widespread of the siyar (plural of sira ‘biography; hero story, epic folktale’), the epic of the Bani Hilal, complete with lengthy bilingual quotes, musical notation, and photographs. She places the Arab epic tradition firmly among the world’s classics, with astute remarks on why it hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves: “By and large, the literarily adept recoiled from anything that departed from the Classical canon. Ibn Khaldun, virtually alone among medieval Arab scholars, …defended ‘the poems of the Arab Bedouins’ as ‘true poetry,’ and denounced pedantic scholars and philologists who recoil from oral, vernacular poetry, disdaining it for its lack of case endings.”


  1. I don’t speak arabic, but in hindi we have lotsof arabic words that came to us via farsi. anyway, i surmise that the Fna is the same word in hindi fanaa, which means poison (i.e. death). I’m not certain, but it’s strong possibility.

  2. Couldn’t help remembering Sheherezada when you mentioned Arab story-telling… For her telling stories equaled life, that is what kept her alive. Beautiful metaphore for the indispensability of telling

  3. The story about Sarouh lifting the donkey is reminiscent of a couple of stories about Diogenes the Cynic and how he would get attention and then chide his audience for being more interested in trivial spectacle than in philosophy. Maybe the stories about philosophers’ tricks in the ancient world are still common currency round the Mediterranean.

  4. Fana’ in Arabic means cessation of being, annihilation, non-being and in the Sufi sense it means obliteration of the self.
    There is also another Arabic word fina’ which means courtyard.
    However in this case the Jemaa al fana’ refers to the king’s custom in the Middle Ages of hanging the bodies of those put to death in the square. Jemaa= grouping . History is wonderful, ain’t it!

  5. I love listening to storytellers in the square, even when they speak in Tachelheit or Tamazight.
    Also, I was wondering about the name of the square, too. In darija, “jemaa” means “mosque.” As in when I tell someone, “Ana sakna hda jemaa badr.” (I live close to the Badr [Moon] Mosque.) I’ve also seen it written “djema’a” which makes me wonder if all this transliteration is what’s causing the problem.
    Ooo, wait, its entry in Wikipedia suggests exactly what I said above.
    “Djemaa el Fna ( جامع الفنا in arabic) is a square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina (old city). The origin of its name remains unknown : it means Assembly of the dead in arabic, but as the word djemaa also means mosque in Arabic, it could also mean place of the vanished mosque, in reference to a destroyed Almoravide mosque.”

Speak Your Mind