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Jemaa-el-Fna's thousand and one nights


Jemâa-el Fna, Marrakesh, Morocco
Jemâa-el Fna square, Marrakesh, Morocco
© UNESCO/Jane Wright

The oral traditions of Marrakesh's famous square are unique in the world for their richness and variety. They are also the roots of a new concept: humanity's oral and intangible heritage.

by Juan Goytisolo

My first contact with oral tradition on Marrakesh’s Jemaa-el-Fna square (Morocco) led me to start thinking about the specific nature of written literature, and the differences between these two modes of expression. In oral communication, the speaker can refer to the context at any time: in other words, to a specific situation with which the listeners are familiar. In written literature, the author and reader have nothing in common aside from the text written by the former and membership (by birth or learning) in the same linguistic community. Oral literature establishes a fine of communication between a speaker and a listener, both of whom experience the world in a similar or even identical way. Reading a novel, on the other hand, establishes communication between a narrator and a reader; the former is unable to verify whether the latter possesses, at the time of reading, sufficient knowledge of the context to understand the text. That is why the reader, distant from the text in space and/or time, needs an intermediary to recreate the context and fill in the gaps. Hence the presence in translated novels of the editor’s or translator’s explanatory notes

In the halca, the circle of listeners and spectators that forms around the storyteller, none of that is necessary. The storyteller addresses these people directly; they are his accomplices the text he recites or improvises functions like a score, leaving the performer a wide margin of freedom. In the oral tradition, changes in voice and oratorical rhythm, expressions and gestures, play a fundamental role: even a seemingly sacred text can be parodied and lowered to a scatological level. In children’s stories and chansons de geste, the frequent use of para-linguistic devices and cynegetic sketches (which evoke hunting), stresses the magic, power or dramatic aspects of the episodes being told.

As my knowledge of darixa (Morocco’s Arabic dialect) improved, I was able to appreciate the richness and variety of the oral traditions preserved within Marrakesh’s Jemaa-el-Fna square. I attended performances of classical works like The Thousand and One Nights and Antaria, legends based on Xelia, Aicha and Kandixa — to mention just three popular folk heroes — comic improvisations, and a number of sexual pantomimes by highly talented halaiquis (storytellers), of whom Saruh and Bakchich, both now dead, merit a special mention. They expressed themselves effortlessly in the spectators’ dialect, using euphemisms which only those sly folk with long experience of the halca could decipher.

Jemaa-el-Fna is a great melting pot of folk cultures where the Berber and gnawi traditions converge. The Berber tradition is characterized by songs and recitals in Tamazight, the language of the majority of Berbers, or in Soussi, the language of Berbers from the Agadir region. Performances range from love poems to elegies to works of moral and social criticism. Gnawi are the descendents of slaves who belonged to a popular confraternity. Their vast repertory includes invocations and prayers that are part of ritual trance ceremonies. Professor Hamid Hogadem has recently assembled recordings he has made of present-day halaiquis from the three traditions in a single volume, which will be soon be published with the support of UNESCO.

Everything belonging just to the present is doomed to perish with it

As the years go by, my thoughts on the specificity of literature have extended to the relationship between oral and written traditions. In the European and Arab cultures I am familiar with, their interdependence shows that a codified and listed oral tradition has nurtured the development of written literature, which returned the favour by seeping into the circuits of oral story-telling. Many lyrical and narrative medieval texts have been written for public performance, and can only be properly understood when their acoustic and para-linguistic dimensions are taken into account. It is highly significant that the 20th century’s most innovative and sensitive narrative authors, including James Joyce, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Amo Schmidt, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Guiamaraes Rosa and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, combined writing with basic features of the oral tradition. Their novels — featuring a whole range of competing voices — sound as if they were meant to be read aloud, enabling readers to appreciate the true value of the underlying literary exploits. For my part, I would point to how much the square’s oral cross-winds inspired me in writing my novel Makbara. My work would probably have been different without them. The act of listening — in other words, the simultaneous presence of the author or storyteller and an attentive audience — gives a new dimension to poetic and narrative texts, as it did in the time of Chaucer, Boccado, Juan Ruiz, Ibn Zayid, and Al Hariri. A buried thread links the Middle Ages to the literary avant-garde of the twentieth century. As the great Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin subtly showed, a work cannot survive the centuries to come unless it has been nurtured by the centuries that have gone before. Everything belonging just to the present is doomed to perish with it.

For many reasons, the fragility and precariousness of Jemaa-el-Fna causes me ongoing concern. The spectacle offered by the square is the product of a fortunate combination of circumstances (some documents indicate that it existed as far back as the mid-16th century), but it may vanish, swept away by the assault of unbridled modernity that jeopardizes our lives and our works Considered until recently as a vestige of the Third World by a large part of Morocco’s Europeanized elite (causing the square to be temporarily closed after independence before popular pressure compelled the authorities to re-open it), it is paradoxically appreciated for its very anachronism. Urban planners and technologically-advanced societies from “developed countries” even consider it a desirable model, worth emulating as a site where people from all walks of life come to meet and talk with each other, as well as eat, shop and stroll, enjoying the richness and variety of a place that is continuously in motion. As I wrote in these pages years ago, the square may be destroyed by decree, but not created by one. Becoming aware of that will probably help to save it.

Ever-increasing traffic, environmental deterioration and, above all, certain building projects that flagrantly violate a law passed in 1922 — projects which, if they are actually built, will disfigure the environs of Jemaa-el-Fna forever — are serious enough to merit a worldwide campaign to save the square’s endangered oral and intangible heritage. Since the meeting of experts from many different and sometimes very distant regions organized by UNESCO in Marrakesh in June 1977, we have been acutely aware that this is the only place on the planet where musicians, storytellers, dancers, jugglers and bards put on a new show before large crowds every day of the year. The square offers us an ongoing spectacle in which the distinction between actors and spectators fades: everyone can be one or the other if he or she desires. We live in a world where the information technology juggernaut is homogenizing and impoverishing our lives by bottling them up in the remote-controlled darkness of privacy. Jemaa-el-Fna offers the exact opposite: a public space that fosters social life through a mixture of humour, tolerance and diversity created by its poets and storytellers.

In 1997, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the concept of humanity’s oral and immaterial heritage, giving vital backing to plans to protect a vast number of oral and musical traditions, crafts and knowledge, not to mention the “living human treasures” who possess them. "Living human treasures" are the individuals who embody the skills and techniques necessary for carrying out certain aspects of a people's cultural life and ensuring the long-term survival of its tangible cultural heritage.

Today, it is no longer possible to deny that all cultural richness, which sowed the seeds of what we call “high culture” will be swept away if we do not rush to its rescue.

Back to the issue Seven writers in a world of wonders, December 2000

Read also UNESCO to the rescue of the halaquis