The Marrakech International Storytelling Festival 2023. Impressions of A Magic Carpet Ride.

If it is true that a person is known through the company he keeps, know me as a truly fortunate man to have been in the company of 80+ storytellers from Morocco and around the world, at  The 2nd Marrakech International Storytelling Festival.  Marrakesch! A center of storytelling in the Islami world for over a thousand years. Travelers following the trade routes ithat ran through Northern Africa rendezvoused at the famed central square, the Jamaa El Fna, to exchange not just their goods, but stories from their homelands, wonder tales, and the news of the day.  

Now, here we were, for a full week and more, gathered at El Fna in front of the storytelling tent, surrounded by circles of listeners, locals and tourists. We also shared our tales  in cafes, schools, riads, the university, and in countless informal swaps as we walked, or enjoyed a meal or an unhurried pot of mint tea together. We came together under the banner of the Festival theme,  Ancestral Voices, and  a shared desire to meet in person after the pandemic, to affirm the healing power of story, and to support the reinvigoration of storytelling across generations in Marrakech.

I can say without hesitation, that not only did I enjoy the tales I heard from my colleagues and new friends, I learned something about the art of telling from every single one of them, from the acknowledged local and international masters, to the eager and apt young students some of who were telling at a festival for the first time.  We often had translators/interpreters, and I give a special thanks to the local tellers and volunteers who helped brilliantly to bring my stories alive to the listeners whose primary language is Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in Morocco.

How can I express the amazing  hospitality of not just my hosts, but of the innumerable people of Marrakesh; the tellers, volunteers, street vendors, and  shop-keepers who made me feel so welcome?  Perhaps with this short anecdote.  

Well past midnight, after a grand feast and celebration for everyone involved with the Festival, I took a taxi to my host’s home, located deep in the maze of narrow cobbled streets where I was staying, it was not possible to be dropped off at the door. When I mentioned to the driver that I was a guest in a private residence.  He beamed, and replied…”Here in Marrakech, you are everyone’s guest!”  That’s exactly how it felt in this city where hospitality is honored and raised to a fine art.

A week after my return, I traded in the timeless magic carpet that had transported me across space and time for my cell phone which chronicled  the many miles I’d d walked each day I was in Marrakech.  I lost track of the number of times that I got turned around, lost, or bewildered in the Medina. Somehow though, I always managed to get to my destination.  Guides appeared out of the shadows.  Sometimes they were strangers, other times my fellow tellers. I’m reminded of  a tale I’m currently learning to tell, Tolstoy’s Three Questions.  It ends on this note.. “Isn’t this the answer to why we are here?  To help the people we are with now in this moment.” Which in the light of my recent experience, I interpret as, to guide each other on our way home!

The stories themselves also served to guide my way home. Back to the company I keep. This company of storytellers, chose to tell traditional stories full of heart, compassion, kindness, humor and wisdom.  You can’t get much better guidance than that!

I’ll be reflecting on this life affirming experience for years to come (Inshallah, or God Willing as is so often said) For the moment, I’d like  to close with this.

The Festival was the most intergenerational storytelling event I’ve ever been a part of.

The tellers ranged from their 20s to their 80s.  But not only was it a gathering of peach fuzzed faces mixed with grizzled and grey haired ones, it was marked by a profound show of respect for each other that flowed in both directions.  I kept thinking of something an Inuit man told me 30 years ago. The word for grandfather could be expressed as,“embers slowly burning down.”  Every time I sit by a fire, I think of the stories found in so many cultures, about the so called,”theft of fire.”  Usually these stories involve a relay… one animal passing the torch to another, until finally the fire is secreted away in the wood, always ready to be kindled again.  The truth I think, is that the grandfathers/grandmothers want that fire to be stolen, need that fire to be stolen, and rest easy knowing that the embers are safe in the hands of the next generation.  May the stories continue.  They are in the good hands and the hearts and voices  of the young tellers in Marrakech for sure!

(For those of you, tellers, organizers, volunteers, Riad owners and all, who are reading this, consider this a love letter to you! I am who I am because of who we all are together.)



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