Please don't call Al-Halqa, as one audience member tried to during the Q&A with film maker Thomas Ladenburger, part of Morocco's "begging" scene. No, as Simon-Pierre Hamelin, writer and manager of Tangier's Librairie des Colonnes bookstore responded, it is an art form that predates the written word by thousands of years, and is a respectable – if dying – occupation. The film showing at Tangier's Cinémathèque was sponsored by the Fondation Jardin Majorelle.
As depicted in this award-winning documentary, storyteller Abderahim would be highly offended to be called a beggar. His efforts to coach his son in the art and business of Al-Halqa make clear that he applies the same care and preparation to his work as any standup comedian or one-man-show artist. Timing, cadence, choice of "script," audience – it all goes into making this an occupation that puts food on the table for his photogenic family of six.
Working the crowd at the famous Marrakesh square of Jamaa Al-Fna, Abderahim is in competition with snake charmers, fire-eaters, Gnaoua musicians, and, in a first for this film viewer, a man who gulps down boiling water directly from a kettle. These people, though they pass around the hat, are no more beggars than me, when I plead for donations to our museum "poor box." You gotta pay for culture, right?
The problem with Al-Halqa artists is that the competition is not just the other shows of the public square, but all the other distractions of modern life. Telling stories that date back centuries – as colorful as the setting might be, will a 17 year old take his eyes off his damn tablet?
And despite being anointed with UNESCO Intangible Heritage status, Morocco's Halqa street performers are not above being swept away to make room for other, noisier or more "picturesque" acts.
Thomas Ladenburger has provided us a loving portrait of these people who guard an ancient tradition, despite the challenges of modern life. Watch Al-Halqa: In the Storyteller's Circle for a glimpse at a Morocco that few tourists can penetrate, and which may soon go the way of other lost treasures of the intangible kind.