There was a time when Tangier was one of the creative capitals of the world. It was a city that was Arabic, yes, but not as deeply as the rest of North Africa . It offered something different for many people, but not so different that they felt alienated. The Beat Generation writers along with The Rolling Stones each at one point made it their home-from-home.
In our globalised world, cultures within cultures are being destroyed. The way that our history and folklore was passed through generations, as ways of educating and guiding us with ancestral advice, was through oral traditions. Illiterate and marginalised people were able to learn without schools, they were the storytellers - the people who could captivate large audiences with allegorical tales that heard once, would never be forgotten.
Their ability to endure, that their meaning resonated after only one listen, is testament to the form's power. We might forget what we hear, but never what we are truly told in this form. A good story always beats a patronising life lesson. They're often performing the same function, in different ways.
Storytellers were present in almost all cultures, with varying degrees of prominence in society - some were entertainers, others were the centre of intellectual and philosophical debate. Mohammed Mrabet was the torch-bearer of the form in the purgatorious city of Tangier - a place that was at once coming of age and also moving further away from its essence. His role was a dying one in a city with a dying culture.
1957: Tangier was a city with easy sex and cheap drugs - a lifestyle entirely at odds with the conservative Islamic culture that was adhered to throughout Morocco. At The Tangier Inn writers like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote would get drunk until all hours, allowing their eternal quest for spirituality to manifest itself in the attractive and far-off lands of North Africa, although Tangier itself was seemingly born of both Moroccan and European stock.
Serving them drinks was Mrabet, a handsome young Moroccan whose illiterate life has manifested in jobs such as champion boxer, bodyguard, fisherman, barman and storyteller. As he looked on at their madness, observing behaviours he had never seen - he was composing stories in his head, an internal novel scribed by his heart and recorded only in his head. Their faraway antics seasoned the locale with a flavour that tasted bitter to Mrabet - his memories of them are full of resentment. It is worth noting though that it was Paul Bowles, a fellow traveller of (although vastly different to) the Beats, that enabled Mrabet to live part of his life in the public eye, granting his family the possibility of emancipation from their life on the breadline.
It was Paul Bowles' wife Jane, outside drunk at a party, who stumbled upon Mrabet and was absorbed by his dark looks and, enthused as she was as he regalled her with his unbelievable tales, told her husband about their meeting. Bowles, an already well-known writer, had travelled to Morocco as a literary expatriate from New York and spent the rest of his life in Tangier. He was as much a part of their society as any of the locals. His integration into Tangierian society was vastly more meaningful that the rest of the Beats. Mrabet found them exploitative, but in Bowles he was offered a chance to be more than a barman. Telling stories seemed to be his true calling and he embraced the role with an unmatched voracity.
Those hours working in bars and restaurants gave Mrabet an ear for a tale which in turn meant that he was able to integrate his own life experience into them - they morphed in his mind, such as the nature of oral traditions tend to. Bowles immediately invited him to record some of his stories. Mrabet obliged, serenading a mic for four hours before asking for something back - food. His words were his means of survival.
The stories were catchy, blending humour, tragedy and wisdom, but it was the spirituality of his homeland that they were infused with that helped them resonate with the Bowles' and which gained the illiterate storyteller a degree of fame in the literary circles of the time. At one point Mrabet made a trip over to America - it was a nightmare. He felt like little more than a curiosity. His new found freedom had ultimately began to enslave him - a feeling he had rarely recognised in his adult life.
Fiercely independent, he left home at the age of 11 after a bloody fight with a school teacher and a self-imposed evacuation from a third storey window. Things didn't improve when he returned home to his father who beat him, pushing a young Mrabet over the edge and away for good. At the age of 12 he lost his virginity to a 27 year old woman, Aisha - from that first taste of promiscuity he indulged in a life of petty criminality. He stabbed people, got drunk and got into fights. His physicality was noteworthy. Tall and strong, he caught the eye of the city's notoriously promiscuous gay community, and also of the men in power - the ones who would use him first for labour and then as a prizefighter.
His acquired reputation as a man-of-action, as noble as he was notorious, endeared him to those that began to congregate around him to hear him speak. Inspired by the observations of writers, rockstars, homeless people and market stalls - the ebb and flow of a rapidly changing city dictated the flow of his life and sharpened his tongue whilst late-night re-tellings refined his imagination and delivery. It was both his innate brooding charisma and one that developed over-time that has kept him somewhat in the public's eye.
Tangier's reputation has shifted. It's become a more homogenised synthesis of Arabic and European culture, no longer the solicitous place of mystical repute that drew so many figures. With that Mrabet's global pulling-power has understandably diminished. The city's moment has, at least for now, passed.
The role of the storyteller has also shifted greatly. To hear 'storytelling' now, we would be more inclined to think of digital 'content creation' and on stories that sell products. We've allowed ourselves to be backed into a corner by corporations bent on appropriating important cultural cornerstones and utilising them as a money-making machine. Whilst remnants of storytelling remains in slam poetry and stand-up comedy - these tales are different to those passed down through the Bedouin or Druid people. As much as smoky cafes, discovered through word-of-mouth whispers rather than Trip Advisor adverts has gone, so too has the role of the storyteller. Both, it seems, is to our great detriment.
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