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Monday, 30 January 2012

The Storyteller of Marrakesh

The Storyteller of Marrakesh

[T]he more you interrogate memory, which is nothing other than the search for certainty in time, the more you increase your dependence on chance. – Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Storyteller of Marrakesh

Even occasional readers of my blog will have come to realise that the concept of truth is one I struggle with. I like the idea of truth. I think truth’s a great idea. I also think that the technical difficulties in communicating a single truth to another human being are great. As Mustafa, one of the eponymous storyteller Hassan’s younger brothers, the youngest in fact, tells him:

Truth lies, Hassan. It is always masked by words. As a storyteller, you ought to know that more than anyone else.

At the time of that conversation Hassan is adamant: “My stories do not lie … That is not our tradition, not in the legacy Father passed on to me, as it was bequeathed to him by his forefathers,” and yet, years later, this is how Hassan begins his story to us:

What matters in the end is the truth.

And yet, when I think about the event that marked the end of my youth, I can come to only one conclusion: that there is no truth.

Perhaps there is reason to believe the philosopher who realised, to his dismay, that the truth is precisely that which is transformed the instant it is revealed, becoming thereby only one of many possible opinions, open to debate, disagreement, controversy, but also, inevitably, to mystification.

In other words, there is no truth.

Put differently, truth is that which inevitably contradicts itself. Perhaps that is what is borne out by my story in the end. That is why, instead of the truth, I offer you a greater consolation: a dream.

Msa l’khir. Good evening. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Hassan. I am a storyteller, monarch of a realm vaster than any you can envisage, that of the imagination. My memory is not what it used to be, but if we can settle on a democratic price, I will tell you a tale the like of which I promise you have never heard before. It is a love story, like all the best stories, but it is also a mystery, for it concerns the disappearance of one of the lovers or the other, or perhaps both of them or neither. It happened two years ago, or it might have been five or ten or twenty-five. These details are unimportant.


We are privileged. Only once a year does Hassan tell the particular tales we are about to hear. Every year it is a little different and though we might hope this might be the definitive retelling, realistically that is too much to hope for. The most we can expect is to be intrigued; entertained, but, as is the case with the best ghost stories, we are left wondering. If, indeed, any of the players are in fact spirits. Who can tell these things?

Here in the UK, and in most other parts of the world, we are familiar with the art of storytelling: a minimum of two parties are required and their roles are implied by their titles; one is there to tell the tale, the other or others to listen. Not so in Jemaa el Fna, a square and market place in Marrakesh's medina quarter.

A medina quarter is a distinct city section found in many North African cities. The medina is typically walled, contains many narrow and maze-like streets. The word "medina" (or Médina) (Arabic: مدينة‎, madīna) itself simply means "city" or "town" in modern day Arabic. – Wikipedia

The Jemaa el Fna is especially known for its active concentration of traditional activities by storytellers, musicians and performers and is on one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. The BBC journalist, Richard Hamilton, has just published a non-fiction book entitled The Storytellers of Marrakesh, just in case you run into it and wonder. In it he lists the names of only five remaining storytellers. The photographer Stefano Torrino names seven men on his site, three of whom overlap with Hamilton’s list. Suffice to say this is a dying art. It would be a terrible shame if it is, because what Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya describes in this book sounds truly wonderful:

A story is like a dance. It takes at least two people to make it come to life, the one who does the telling and the one who does the listening. Sometimes the roles are reversed, and the giver becomes the taker. We both do the talking, we both listen, and even the silences become loaded. From a small number of perfectly ordinary words a tapestry takes shape, suggestive of a dream, but close enough to a reality which, more often than not, remains elusive. It is a feat of mutual trust, of mutual imagining. What matters is whether or not we can believe each other’s voices, and the test of that will lie in the story we make together. It will lie in the pieces of the past that swim into the present. Maybe it is precisely what we don’t remember that will form the kernel of our tale, imparting to it its grain of truth and transforming memories into mythology.

Roy-Bhattacharya talks at some length about this in an interview on Alma’s website.

Hassan sits us down, pours us some mint tea to accompany his narration – they have their traditions of hospitality; there are ways in which things must be done – and then he begins but as he tells his tale he is interrupted again and again and then again by people sitting on the ground before him: “No, that is not how things were.” Now that might faze any other storyteller but not Hassan. He steps aside and lets each one who has something to say have his say. What is surprising is that, well, first of all there is very little to Hassan’s story, but, more importantly, that there could possibly be so many variations.

I am not a storyteller. I am a writer, a very different beast entirely, and yet, just as he is about to begin his tale proper, the appropriate amount of time being used to preamble, Hassan says something I can relate to:

I make this trip to Marrakesh every winter to escape the bitter cold of the highlands, the desert or the sea – depending on where I might be that year – but also because I am driven to come to terms with what happened that night, here on the Jemaa, when there was a scent of something amiss in the air, and this even before the two strangers made their first and, as it turned out, final appearance.

For I am haunted by them.

The square

The story is not merely an entertainment for his listeners. This story is for Hassan as much as it is for us. Through the telling of it he hopes to step a little closer to understanding what really happened that fateful night. That is his plan and yet so many obstacles stand in his way. He has an ulterior motive but it doesn’t stay secret very long. Only a few pages into the book he reveals:

I am driven by the need for truth… My brother is in prison for a crime he did not commit. I want to find out what put him there. It is a difficult task, I agree, but it isn’t impossible.

The story Hassan tells is a story within a story and there are stories told within that too. He tells us of a time, perhaps the previous time, when he set down his kilm [a woven rug] on the other side of the square from his usual pitch because the memories associated with that place are too painful, and begins telling his tale. A foreign couple, a beautiful Franco-American woman and her Indian partner, vanish from the square one evening some time earlier. Their bodies are never recovered and the reports of their disappearance are, to say the least, contradictory. For example, Hassan’s friend, Aziz, “a waiter in the restaurant of the Riad Dar Timtam, in the heart of the medina,” describes the couple as follows:

As they hesitated on the threshold, casting long shadows, I hurried forward to greet them. At once I sensed something different about them. The girl was a gazelle, slender, small-boned, with large, dark eyes, and considerably shorter than her companion. She did all the speaking, accompanying her words with graceful gestures and appearing to anticipate perfectly his wishes. The boy was darker, his skin the colour of shadows cast on sand. He reminded me of an Arab nobleman, tall, with thin limbs and black hair, with something in his erect carriage that suggested otherworldliness.

Aziz has already gone some way with his imagination and, after seeing they have water, persuades another waiter to attend to the rest of their needs. His reason?

They chose an especially dark spot in the corner – they seemed to gravitate towards darkness. I brought them water, and when they looked at me, their eyes shone like candles. That disconcerted me, and when the slender youth asked me a question, I couldn’t meet his gaze. His companion’s eyes had the equally unnerving quality of seeming to rest on me and on something else at the same time. That was when it occurred to me, with a kind of guarded premonition, that Death had entered the Riad in the guise of that beautiful youth and maiden.

Hassan, himself, only saw two foreigners, tourists most likely, when they “emerged into the open space of the Jemaa from the direction of the Rue Derb Dabachi,” but the one thing that is clearest in his mind was the woman’s beauty:

All eyes, including mine, swivelled in their direction. The more modest amongst us immediately cast down our glances, as if abashed. Others, more bold, continued to stare and to follow them hungrily with brazen eyes.


Perhaps it had to do with the woman’s beauty, which was the first thing that everyone noticed. It was unnatural, and it made us uneasy. It seemed to cast a glow as they made their way across the square, and, as if in homage, the crowds fell silent and parted before them.

PeriNot all agree. Mohamed describes “the most wondrous woman [he] had ever seen. She was like a houri of legend, an angel, a peri. I drank in her luminous eyes, her black mane, her flowing limbs, her smile as fluid as a ripple of wind.” (The eight-page glossary at the end of the book describes houri as: “The extraordinarily beautiful women who exist only in Jannat (paradise) in the afterlife” and a peri is “a fairy; a beautiful or graceful being.”) “Tuareg, one of the ‘blue men’ from the south, his hands and face dyed from years of wearing the indigo weave,” was less impressed with the woman than he was with the “beautiful youth accompanying her [who] wore the face of tragedy.” Youssef, the middle son of one of the orange merchants, reduced all previous descriptions to nothing describing a fairly non-descript pair, she “wearing faded blue jeans, flip-flops and a white T-shirt with ‘I NY’ printed on the front … They were both grimy and sweat-stained … he was skinny and looked constipated, to be quite frank, while she was pretty in a cheap, fraudulent way, with the kind of make-up that can turn even unattractive women into mysterious, desirable women.” At this point in the story the couple’s attention is focused on how little money they appear to have left, others recount them spending money on trinkets without hardly any haggling. At some point in the subsequent retellings the man loses his rimless glasses and acquires a red beard; she suddenly becomes taller than him and puts on weight, both of which she subsequently loses again, before changing eye-colour and hair colour – her dark eyes become blue and she is now blonde, then both are dark again – and her touristy clothes transform into “traditional garb: black headscarf, ochre jelllaba, brown seroual,” but her name, Lucia (which means light), sticks.

Do we speak the truth, [asks Hassan], or do various, often incompatible versions of the truth speak through us? Especially here, in the Jemaa, where what matters at any given moment is only that which is most significant? That which holds the attention. That which convinces. Now, and for the next several hours or years.

Not only are there interruptions (a few more that I would have liked) but there are also digressions. We discover what led Hassan to become a storyteller and why his two brothers, the romantic, Mustafa, and the more practical, Ahmed, chose different occupations rather than following in their father’s footsteps. These are not simply examples of Hassan getting on a bit and allowing his mind to wander; everything is interconnected. “Perhaps only a single thread separates us from the truth,” he declares, “or perhaps an entire ream, but we will know for certain only when we look at the whole weave.” Ahmed was not there the night the couple decided to brave the square at night but Mustafa was (although he is unable to tell his version of what went on that night because he is in prison) and so Hassan has to stand in for him. See what I mean: stories within stories within stories. The problem is Mustafa’s own version of what went on that night is not entirely reliable because of certain assumptions he has made.

So what happened? Did the woman vanish that night or the man and did the other return year after year to wander the medina looking for them? Or did they both vanish into the night aided and abetted by a mysterious third party, to start a life anew away from prying eyes? Did the past finally catch up with them or were they merely the victims of local villains? If you like your stories explained for you in the final chapter whilst the characters loll around in a cosy drawing room then think again. That was never going to happen here.

The thing is though, at its core this novel is about love, in particular about one of the most powerful manifestations of love, self-sacrifice. There are numerous loves described in this book: the love of a father for his sons, of a man for his wife, of brother for brother, the love of one’s heritage, unrequited love and, of course, the love of a good story. When instructing his son who is about to take over his father’s job as a professional storyteller, Hassan’s father outlines four rules:

First, always remember that either a story carries love and mystery, or it carries nothing. Second, outside of the broad themes determined by the story sticks, the trick is to make up everything out of a whole cloth. Third, a story must not have a clean resolution. That way you will keep your audience coming back for more. Finally – and this is the most important thing – our craft demands discipline and hard work: a fertile imagination is not enough.

Years later this is what Hassan has to say on love:

Look: there it goes, soundless, tremulous, a few timid glances, a frustrated gesture, a poem about kif, an evening’s worth of delirium, and then, nothing.

It is love. It has five senses, seven sounds, nine skins, eleven illusions. It is soft. It is a flower that grows in the deepest oceans. It is a flickering candle, a sign in the snow, a beautiful country, desert ash. It is a call and a curse and a long-drawn-out incantation to be chanted in the evening. It is a photograph, a lament, a chronicle, a painting. It is Pandora’s box, in a sunlit park, in the Crow Tree. It is elation, confusion, loneliness, loss, dream. It is love.

Hassan’s story adheres to all the rules laid down by his father although it is perhaps the third rule that has disappointed most western reviewers. Is there a moment within the text when we manage to grasp the truth? I’d like to think so. I certainly know what I think happened that night; it is a truth that satisfies me and can we ask more from any truth? I don’t believe that the woman is the Jemaa el Fna personified, some kind of djinn, but if she were could not all the accounts contained within this storyline be true?

I’ve heard reviewers when talking about Woody Allen’s film Manhattan talk about the city as an actual character in the film:

[T]he film’s real shining star is Manhattan. Allen’s camera work and a fitting Gershwin soundtrack bring life and exuberance to this New York City borough, which becomes a central character in the film. –

and several reviewers of The Storyteller of Marrakesh talk in very similar terms about the Jemaa el Fna. I’m not generally fond of colourful descriptions but Roy-Bhattacharya’s descriptions don’t contain merely colour; they pander to all five senses. Only in a place like Marrakesh could you get away with language so rich.

The Storyteller Of Marrakesh was inspired by the author’s first visit to Morocco, a visit during which he “fell passionately in love with the Maghreb.” In his words, “It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I have seldom been to a part of the world where the arts are so much in the forefront of daily existence—and it opened the doorway to my conceiving of a cycle of novels that could articulate that passion.” … [T]here was something about Morocco that struck the deepest of chords with him, and as he spent more time in “this familiar but also strangely unfamiliar place”, it helped him “rediscover, in a way, the enormously rich and diverse heritage of our world, in a voyage of the senses accentuated by the wild physical beauty of the land.” –

Although set in a Muslim world, unlike The Good Muslim, which I read a few months back, this is not a religious tract by any manner of means; the author is not a Muslim. It is, however, as he puts it, “a reminder of what’s being lost, a commemoration, and a call to arms to save that tradition.” Orality is not something unique to Morocco.

When was the last time you were read a story? I don’t mean the last time you read a book but the last time you shut your eyes and were read to. This book has that feel about it. You don’t feel that you are reading, you feel like you are being told a story and that is quite an achievement. Not all readers loved this book as much as I did. Their explanations are reasonable: the meandering nature of the work got to some, the seemingly constant digressions, its peculiarly eastern take on philosophy, the open-ended conclusion – all valid points. On Goodreads when I checked there were 97 reviews and their star-ratings are across the board; the dozen one-star reviews completely floored me though. I never expected to see that.

I don’t give star ratings and I’m not going to start. What I will say is that this book was, for me, a refreshing read. I delighted in the subject matter and in the author’s approach to it. It was an absolute pleasure to read and all I can say to anyone who buys a copy of this book on my recommendation and doesn’t love it is that they should put the book aside and try it again in maybe ten years; it won’t have dated and maybe by then you’ll be ready for it.

You can read a lengthy excerpt from the book here and there is an hour-long video of Roy-Bhattacharya talking about the book and reading from it here. I also enjoyed his appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show which was most illuminating.


Roy_BhattacharyJoydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was born in Jamshedpur, India, and educated in philosophy and politics. He lives in New York. His first novel, The Gabriel Club, was published in eight languages in sixteen countries. The Storyteller of Marrakesh is the first of what he refers to as a cycle of novels – the second will be set in Baghdad, the third in Isfahan – intended to illuminate middle eastern culture. His next book, The Watch, will be published in 2012.


Dave King said...

An eternally fascinating subject, and you make it sound a fascinating book, which I've no doubt it is. So I'll probably buy it. Pontius Pilate has been demonised down the centuries for his "Truth, what is truth?", yet I've always thought it was probably the most important question in the Bible. I suppose the trouble with it is that we don't get an answer!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Dave, you know I’ve a complicated relationship with the truth and so I have to agree with you. I think truth’s a nice idea and the irony is I’m generally regarded as an exceptionally honest person so much so that once at work where there was a dispute someone said, “Jim, you never lie, you tell us what happened,” and I was dead pleased that that was how that person viewed me. But, of course, I lie constantly. By ‘lie’ I mean ‘do not accurately communicate the entire truth’ and I hold that to be true—funny, eh?—because of the limitations of language. That’s why the notion of fuzzy logic appealed to me so much when I first learned of it.

But this is quite a wonderful book. I can’t say I was especially looking forward to it when it first arrived but that just goes to show prove my point, how poorly the blurb on the back did its job.

Kass said...

...incompatible versions of the truth speak through me - CONSTANTLY.

And memory distorts and directs the internal dialogue to ongoing variations of momentary aims.

There is no accuracy in any story. The telling of anything, once it leaves a source, is altered and perceived like waves and particles
bouncing around the universe.

Fascinating read.

Jim Murdoch said...

And yet, Kass, we keep banging our heads against this thing called truth. I think the problem is the modern world. In the past the truth was a much simpler thing. It’s like poetry. A hundred years ago if it rhymed it was a poem, end of story. Now look at people struggling to define poetry. And it’s the same with the truth. You can overthink things and that what we poets do; all writers do but poets especially. I did enjoy this book, Kass, not just the premise but the use of language which is important to me. I’m curious to see what he comes up with next but this will be a hard act to follow.

Kass said...

Yes, use of language can make life so rich.

Thanks for your abundant richness.

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