Sunday, 29 June 2014

Morocco's Travelling Storytellers

Leila's Dowry - Where stories come from

Like many writers, I find inspiration for stories when I'm travelling. Sometimes these stories come out as travel stories in the commonly accepted sense, other times not. Over the years I have travelled a great deal in Morocco. I love the way so little has changed there. Many elements of Moroccan life are still relatively unchanged since medieval times, in particular their street markets, their crafts and the entertainment that can be found around the marketplaces. I could hang out in these places every day for a month and never be bored. They are hotbeds of inspiration for a writer.

Many people have said how much my story Leila's Dowry seems like a historic tale. It is very different to the other stories in the book Special Treatment & Other Stories, of which it is a part. I don't always reveal the inspiration for my stories, but on this occasion I will.

Storytelling was once a daily part of Moroccan life, but times are changing

I first travelled extensively in Morocco with a (crazy) girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. I have been back many times and finally bought a house there when my children were small in order to give them the experience of such a different culture to our own. We still go there once or twice a year and our three children have grown-up knowing it well. One of the things that fascinated me from the start was the fact that you still found storytellers in marketplaces with a crowd surrounding them, transfixed by the telling of some tale or other. Many of these tales were variations on folk tales, yet others were little more than local gossip, embellished by the teller. The storytellers were usually leather-skinned old men. I did not speak much Moroccan arabic in the early days, (although often what I was listening to was in fact Berber) but I could usually ascertain the content from gestures and expressions. It helped me to learn the language quickly.

The tales seemed to predominantly be about love, mystery, and hardship leading to good fortune. There was usually humour too - some of it bawdy. Old women clutched there sides as they roared with laughter. I used to sit for half an hour at a time trying to decipher what was being said. Leila's Dowry is not one of those stories, but I'm sure it draws upon the style and subject matter. Unfortunately, these days in Morocco you see these storytellers less and less. Such is the way of the world.

Storyteller in the Djemma el Fna (square of the dead) in Marrakech

In those early days when the children were young and we were on holiday in Morocco, we frequently found ourselves on long, hard car journeys. The roads were little more than dusty cart tracks and it took hours to travel, twenty or thirty miles in searing heat to get to a market. The children got bored, despite the stunning countryside and scenes of village life along the way that captivated my wife and I.
"Could you tell us one of your stories, Dad?" was a common cry from the back seat.
This usually meant they expected me to make something up on the spot, or at least continue a story I'd made up for them on a previous day. On one such day, driving back to our house by the coast, we got stuck behind a line of overloaded donkey-carts on a winding road. I could see there was little chance of overtaking them. The children moaned. It was hot and bumpy and they were hungry, so I began to tell a story.

The Djemma El Fna in Marrakech has had storytellers for over a thousand years 
Image courtesy of

The story was about a donkey named Hobs. Hobs actually means 'bread' in arabic. I told a story about this poor bony donkey, carrying bread to market for his master, a village baker named Hassan Bin Yahya. The donkey was lonely and longed for a mate. Finally he met a beautiful female donkey on the way to market. Later the master discovered that the donkey's owner, although hideously ugly herself, had a beautiful daughter. As a result he, a poor baker, married a rich woman and lived happily ever after.

Clearly the original was a story designed for small children. They really loved that tale and for years afterwards used to pressure me to tell them more stories about Hobs. Over time and as they grew older the tales became more sophisticated. My three children have all but left home now, yet they still remember those stories. After I formally took on the discipline of being a full-time writer, I found myself seeking inspiration for a story one afternoon. Daydreaming of Morocco, I remembered the stories of Hobs. Since I had never written those stories down, I decided I should do so – if for no other reason than the fact that maybe one day I'd have grandchildren and would wish to remember them. Very quickly I found myself writing something aimed more at my normal adult readership. The result of that exercise is Leila's Dowry. I do still need to get around to writing down those original children's stories, but there are still no grandchildren to tell them to.


If you would like to read Leila's Dowry or any of the author's other stories, follow the links below or enter the title into any internet search engine. Remember you can view an e-book on any computer, tablet or phone, for example by downloading the FREE Kindle Reader App from Amazon or by downloading in RTF format etc from Smashwords.

Buy on amazon
Find 'Leila's Dowry' for all formats on Smashwords

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Hobs and Hassan, perhaps

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