Book Review: The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco by Richard Hamilton

The Last Storytellers“Never act in haste. Think first.” Those are the words of a storyteller who sells his words for 100 pieces of gold per portion to the Sultan of Marrakesh in Abderrahim El Makkouri’s story, “The Vizier and the Barber.” These words end up saving the Sultan’s life. If it were not for the work of Richard Hamilton, we would not know Makkouri’s story today.

In 2006, Richard Hamilton was sent to Marrakesh as a correspondent for the BBC. Shortly after arriving, he heard of the hlaykia – oral storytellers – who had been plying their trade in Marrakesh for nearly 1,000 years. He was intrigued by the possibility that people in Morocco, where the literacy rate hovers around fifty percent, still practiced the dying art of oral storytelling. Hamilton interviewed one of these storytellers and, over the following three years, continued traveling to Marrakesh to track down more hlaykia. While interviewing them, Hamilton learns about the history of oral storytelling in Marrakesh, how the art of oral storytelling is becoming lost, and, perhaps most importantly, he recorded these stories that had previously only been told in small circles in the Jemma el Fna, the main square and carnival heart of Marrakesh, for a millennium. (more…)

Book Review: Marrakesh By Design by Maryam Montague

marrakesh by design book coverMorocco’s souks are known for their bold colors and traditional handicrafts, but how can visitors to Morocco turn these treasures into something special? Maryam Montague of the well-known Morocco blog, MyMarrakesh.com, recently published Marrakesh By Design, which provides do-it-yourself solutions for people who would like to incorporate their souk purchases and a distinct Moroccan atmosphere into their own homes.

Marrakesh By Design completely covers design elements from floor coverings to ceilings and light fixtures, touching on all aspects in between, but it doesn’t do this in a void. It would be easy simply to fill the pages of this book with information on how to design using Moroccan concepts as a vehicle, but Montague incorporates elements of Moroccan culture, language and history within the pages of the book. She provides a comprehensive background on why certain design components are prevalent in the country and what cultural influences have played a part in creating the modern Moroccan home. (more…)

Book Review: A Year in Marrakesh

Year in MarrakeshTravel memoirs seem to fall into three camps. There is the guidebook, where the author fills the pages with historical facts, telling the colorful past of the author’s current view. There is the narrative history, where the author travels with personal baggage that gets unpacked throughout the journey. And there is the immersion narrative, where the author becomes nearly invisible, except as a portal through which one tastes the food, talks with the locals and tells of life in another time and place.

Such is Peter Mayne’s A Year in Marrakesh. First published nearly 60 years ago, it is remarkable for its insights into a culture isolated from much of modernity’s reach. The early 1950’s were a tumultuous time for Morocco—the country gained independence from France in 1956—but for Mayne, it was full of the turmoil of daily life. Determined to settle in the city like a native and not a tourist, Mayne walks the delicate line between foreigner and observer, vacillating between the frustrations and joys of his new life. Much like a long trip, the book starts out slowly, a languid pace that has all the time in the world to explore a new place. And much like a trip, it is suddenly over, and too soon. (more…)

Book Review: Lords of the Atlas

Lords of the Atlas book coverLords of the Atlas is prefaced, like many histories, with markers that help orient the reader in the world they are about to enter: a chronology of events, a genealogical chart for tracking names and lineage, a map of tribal territories. What sets apart this historical account is the adept blending of the political with the personal.

The rise and fall of one of modern Morocco’s most powerful families dovetailed with the tumultuous years of colonialism and independence, and the microcosm of world politics being acted out on the Moroccan stage. Author Gavin Maxwell never loses sight of the people involved in the theater of the “Moroccan Question.” Much like the oft-quoted Walter Harris, this book brings the personalities into the power politics at play. Against a landscape of dates, successions, treaties and conquests, Maxwell paints for us portraits of the individuals involved, and the result is a compelling narrative of ambition, loyalty, ego and mortality. (more…)

Book Review: Morocco That Was

Morocco that Was Walter Harris coverOriginally published in 1921, Morocco That Was is a first-hand narrative account of a pivotal turning point in Morocco’s history. Walter Harris, the author of the book, first arrived in Morocco in 1887 and died in Tangier in 1933, having lived through the tumultuous last years of Morocco’s ruling Sultans and the loss of the country’s independence. Vivid and lively, his writing puts unusual humanism and detail to the historical parade of conquests and political maneuvering that marked Morocco during his years there as a correspondent for The Times of London. This book has remained a travel classic for good reason–it takes the reader by the hand and shows a new world, with all its the foibles, valor, horror and splendor. Like a good travel companion and a friend, Harris shows us the Morocco he knew.

There are few places now that are as inaccessible as Morocco was a century and a half ago. It was a formidable and vast landscape, guarding itself from invasion both physical and cultural, and a closed society in an almost constant internal power struggle among ruling factions. It was dangerous, uncomfortable and unwelcoming for outsiders. The stories of Walter Harris are remarkable not just for the detail rendered in all strata of Moroccan life, from the Moorish court to the mountain tribes, but for the access that was granted to a foreigner. He was an intimate of the Sultanate, protected by the warring clans, and so beloved in his adopted hometown of Tangier that almost the entire city shut down for his funeral. (more…)

Book Review: Berber Odes

Book cover Berber Odes by Michael PeyronPart of Eland’s Poetry of Place collection, Berber Odes is a compilation of poetry in translation edited by Michael Peyron, visiting professor at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.

From my year spent studying abroad at Al Akhwayn in 2003-2004, I still have vivid memories of professor Peyron’s 8:00 a.m. course, History and Culture of the Berbers. Since no textbooks were available, we used a heavy, photocopied reader that he’d compiled over the years. It was full of academic essays, poetry, proverbs, snippets on Berber dialects, black and white photos and historical accounts.

During class, Peyron would often deviate from the day’s lecture to give a quick pronunciation lesson, share the tale of a Berber saint or expound on a proverb. His excitement made clear that he loved learning about the Berber people and sharing their culture with others. (more…)

Book Review: Shopping in Marrakech

Shopping in Marrakech Susan Simon Book CoverSusan Simon’s Shopping in Marrakech is as colorful and dizzying as the streets of Marrakech. With dazzling photographs on nearly every page and plenty of insight on how to navigate Marrakech’s disorienting labyrinth of shops, Shopping in Marrakech will persuade even the non-shopper to head out for a day in the souks.

With the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Atlas Mountains to the east and the Sahara Desert sprinkled across the south, Marrakech has been a significant trading post since the Almoravid conquered Spain in the 11th century. Home to one of the largest traditional markets in Morocco, Marrakech’s medina is a bustling maze of covered markets, food stalls, storytellers and snake charmers.

At first glance of the map, navigating Marrakech looks positively overwhelming. Thankfully this guide is organized into seven separate walks to help you systematically navigate the bewildering array of shops. The book reads more like a treasure map than a traditional guidebook, leading the reader on a journey through winding alleyways and hidden streets to find the best of Morocco’s handmade treasures.
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