by Richard Hamilton*
When I began recording stories for my book, one of the very first tales I heard was called The King and His Prime Minister and it was told to me by Abderrahim El Makkouri.
Abderrahim is in his sixties and one of the few surviving storytellers, or hlayki, in Marrakech. We recorded the story in the Café de France, a faded colonial establishment which looks out onto the main square, the Jemaa el Fna.
It is perfect for people watching or listening to a story.
On the face of it, The King and His Prime Minister is a fairly simple tale. There is a short tempered King whose prime minister is particularly eager to please. This man is called ‘It’s good,’ because no matter what the king says, he always replies: ‘it’s good.’
The king is playing with his dagger and accidentally slices a bit of his finger off. ‘It’s good,’ remarks the PM. The monarch is so annoyed that he locks his adviser up in prison. Later the king sets off on a sea voyage and stops at a strange island. Here he is captured and told that he will be sacrificed at dawn the next day. However, just as this is about to happen, the island’s high priest intervenes. He inspects the king and notices that a piece of his finger is missing. The priest decides that, since you cannot sacrifice a body which is incomplete, the sovereign should be released.
On his way back, the king remembers what his prime minister said and realizes that the man was right; it was good that his finger was disfigured since it led to his release.
Back at his palace he sets the prime minister free and asks, almost as an afterthought, what the vizier thought of his time in jail. ‘It’s good,’ remarks the politician, ‘if you had taken me to the island, you would have escaped but I would have been sacrificed.’
When I first heard this story I thought that maybe I was missing something. I did not find the punch line as hysterical as either Abderrahim or my translator, Ahmed, seemed to think it was. If anything I found the king a bit one-dimensional and the prime minister rather annoying.
However, every time I have read this story aloud to audiences on book tours, festivals or even just putting my children to bed, I have been struck by the tale’s hidden meanings and alternative interpretations.
One friend said it was very similar to a story she had heard her rabbi recount in the synagogue, and others have noticed the remarkable similarities with another tale from Zen Buddhism.
The latter goes something like this. A farmer has a horse that runs away. When his neighbours commiserate with him saying, ‘what bad luck,’ he replies ‘maybe, maybe not.’ The horse comes back later accompanied by a powerful stallion. While the villagers think this is good luck, the farmer says ‘maybe, maybe not.’ Then his son tries to ride the stallion but falls and breaks his leg. The neighbours are again sympathetic but get the same reply from the farmer. A few days later the army comes along to conscript all the young men in the village to fight. The farmer’s son, being disabled, is not conscripted. The villagers are amazed but the wise farmer simply says ‘maybe, maybe not.’
Both stories tell us that we are unwise to predict the trajectory of our lives and that things which at the time might feel like terrible setbacks may in fact turn out to be blessings in disguise.
Both the prime minister and the farmer seem to me to be archetypal ‘wise fools’ like Nasruddin. Like the stories themselves, these characters may appear a bit simple but they are actually very profound.
Others have come up to me to suggest that the prime minister story is a morality tale about accepting our imperfections, while Ahmed (my translator) was convinced it is an exploration of the concept of sacrifice.
It only just occurred to me that the notion that our lives unfold in unexpected ways is an exact reflection of my own experience in Morocco.
When I first interviewed for the job as a correspondent for the BBC, I was actually hoping to land a different posting – in Uganda. But my bosses told me that since I spoke better French than the other candidate, she should go to Kampala and I to Rabat.
When I was actually in Rabat I found life difficult at first as I did not know many people there. But one day someone invited me to a drinks party. Initially I did not feel like going but when I arrived I met a Spanish web designer called Fernando who told me he was trying to help UNESCO record stories from the mouths of the storytellers of Marrakech. This gave me an idea for a feature for the BBC and I interviewed one of these old hlayki, called Moulay Mohamed, who recited his tales in the square, in front of the Café de France.
I contacted a tour guide in Marrakech. This was Ahmed and he agreed to help out as a translator. ‘Have you ever thought of writing a book about the storytellers? Ahmed wondered.
Several years later the book was published and I also started working on an online collection of stories not just from Morocco but from across the world, The House of Stories. UNESCO’s good intentions never materialized so I decided take up the baton to preserve these oral stories, which are at least as old as the ancient Red City itself.
Looking back it strikes me that my own story in the last few years has been a string of unforeseen consequences – or a golden thread – which have made my life infinitely richer than it was before.
The Last Storytellers has taken me on a magic carpet ride that I could never have predicted. It has enabled me to speak at festivals, business conferences and even on a cruise ship. It has also given me the confidence to speak in large groups. One of my favourite experiences was sitting by a fire in the Sahara desert on a yoga retreat reciting stories from the book, beneath the stars. It was as if the story had now gone full circle. This was what I imagine our ancestors did thousands of years ago: they tied up their camels, lit fires, lay down beside the dunes, and to entertain themselves, told stories.
*Richard Hamilton is an author and broadcaster. His book, The Last Storytellers, is published by I.B. Tauris