It is a warm, crowded afternoon on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. Amongst the crowds and sideshows, a group of fifty or more, mostly men, mostly wearing the drab clothing of workers, stand in a tight circle, intent on what is going on inside. An English tourist stands on tiptoe at the edge of the crowd, trying to see, expecting something on the ground in the middle, a snake charmer, a gambling game. She is beautiful, her golden hair is uncovered, she is wearing a tight tactile stripy sweater, but the men ignore her. She moves away, uncertain.
The men are listening to a story teller. Unique among the other attractions of the square, this one is not for tourists. The stories are in Arabic or Berber. They take some time to unfold, and require concentration to follow. They do not offer instant photo-opportunities. They exist for local people only. Tourists, even their wallets, are not relevant here. Story telling is an ancient art, carried out much the same as it has been since the square was built a thousand years ago. The subjects of these stories have been described as “… beautiful maidens; marital infidelity; jealous husbands; cruel sultans; avaricious viziers; poverty; punishment; sorrow; magic; joy; and more than one happy ending ”. This is not a political meeting, this is escapism.
Around the square most buildings sprout satellite dishes. These white bowls are everywhere you look, standing out from pink and ochre buildings, begging for information, entertainment, and news from the sky. According to Wikipedia, Morocco has nine government controlled TV stations, and several private ones, which exercise a form of self-censorship (and can be banned if they get this wrong.). Satellite TV offers a wider choice than local television, and the signals can come from many countries so they cannot all be censored by any one. They offer independent Arab news channels, like Al Jazeera. But mostly, and it seems everywhere you go, men are watching international football games.
Nowadays, foreign observers complain, entertainment comes by television, and story telling is becoming a dying art. But still the intensity of the men listening to this storyteller far exceeds the half attention with which you watch a soap opera or a movie on TV: this is a different kind of listening, listening as an active engagement with the words, with meaning.
Everywhere, sometimes even in what look like the poorest hands, are smartphones. Morocco seems to have jumped a generation: telephone cables are rare, probably few people have experienced the fixed landline handset tied down to a table in the corner of your house. Instead, throughout the wild and beautiful countryside, every mountain top seems to have its forest of microwave relay dishes, carrying the shouts and laughter and concerns of the population through the deep silence of the peaks and the semi-desert.
Electric wiring is often improvised and always looks dangerous,
but even popular restaurants in the souks offer wifi with your tagine.
Toilets are another example. Although a beautiful country, Morocco has some of the world’s nastiest toilets. In a luxury tourist hotel, the toilet seats are the wrong size for the pedestal. In the countryside, filling station toilets are mostly the Middle Eastern style, fair enough, but sometimes revolting and dirty. (The photograph shows one of the better ones.) Basic functionality is there, but there is no attention to detail, no urge to get it right.
Pride of place as you enter the Marrakesh Biennale is given to a sculpture conceived and assembled by the Belgian artist Erik van Hove. This is a life size, intricately detailed model of a truck engine, made out of the finest local craft materials. (My photo is blurred, a better image is here. ) The exhaust manifolds are tooled leather, the gear wheels ceramic, or enamelled copper, the fan belts ornately decorated fabric, the cylinder block carved wood.
It is as though the grubby but life-enhancing new technology of heavy trucks, and the old technologies of crafts and stories, have been combined. The result is eerily disconcerting as well as very beautiful and fascinating to explore with your eyes – a metaphor for one face of Morocco.