Hello Sister…


She found the mask in a box in the attic while playing with her friend Sam. They had put together pieces of the past, photographs of her parents’ childhood and keepsakes from vanished uncles and aunts to make what they called all our other families.

It had started when Sam said that she would like it if they were sisters instead of just friends mostly because it was so far to bike whenever she wanted to visit. So they went through all those boxes of discarded memories and turned the forgotten relatives and the less celebrated moments from her own family into their secret shared families, complete with secret relationships, blood-feuds, illegitimate children and pets (she had insisted: there had to be pets – so the two of them had to dig for half an hour until there was a handful of potentially acceptable pet photographs to choose from).

In the middle of all this, while looking for a suitable lover for a handsome soldier uncle, she found the mask.

It was not pretty. Neither Sam nor she could say for certain what it was meant to be.

“It could be a fox,” Sam offered eventually, after she had turned it over in her hands. “Like one of those foxes from the Japanese tale.” Sam loved Japanese folklore but she had this annoying habit of referring to every single one of them as the Japanese tale as if there was only the one of them. “It’s ugly, though. I mean,” she corrected herself, “not really well made.”

“Yeah,” she was forced to agree. It wasn’t ugly, she thought. It really wasn’t well made but what she saw wasn’t ugliness but malevolence. Maybe Sam saw the same thing and just knew the word ugly for it.

If it was a fox, it was a very beastly fox. She didn’t find it ugly, she wanted to keep it.

She put it back on top of the cardboard box where she had found it and the two continued their game.

When it was time for Sam to bike back home she went with her, then pretended to have forgotten the key to the front door upstairs. The key was in her pocket but she ran back and snatched up the mask. She hid it under her sweater.

She unlocked the front door and waved Sam goodbye as she drove away down the forest road. For some reason she kept the mask hidden underneath her sweater, close to her skin, while she watched TV and played with her phone.

When it got dark her mom came back, kissed her and started making food.

The mask grew warm from her body heat and she imagined that it had started to grin down there.

Her mom made beans and tempeh that evening and they ate together.

“When is Dad coming back? I forgot it,” she said.

Her mom looked at her strangely for a moment. “Not until next week.”

When they were doing the dishes she became curious. She pulled out the mask when her mom wasn’t looking and put it on the table. It wasn’t grinning. It looked as evil as before.

“I found something in the attic today,” she said.

“A photograph?” her mom asked without turning around. “There’s lots of pictures of relatives you’ve never seen up there.”

“No, look.”

Her mom turned around. Sometimes she could feel other people’s emotions. Sometimes she could feel them as strong as the weather outside. Her mom, she noticed, was suddenly scared and it felt like little fingers of ice.

She also noticed that her mum pretended not to be scared, which was odd.

“I…”, her mom began and for some reason she knew that she wanted to say I have never seen this and that it would have been a lie. Her mom paused and said: “Did you have to find this?” She sounded resigned now.

“I don’t know. What is it?”

“I made it. Did you put it on?”

She shrugged. “No.”

“Do you want to?” Something in her mom’s tone made her feel scared.

“I…I don’t know. I wanted to take it, though.”

Her mom sighed. “Don’t keep it close when you go to sleep. Don’t put it in your bedroom at all. Best lock it away somewhere or you’ll want to put it on.”

“What will happen if I put it on?”

Her mom looked at her and she didn’t know if she felt sad or scary. “Well, perhaps he will come to visit you, too. I made it because I wanted him to come visit me and my mother had broken her mask, which she had let me use.” She paused. “It was a mistake…I think.”

She wonder briefly what had been a mistake. “You mean you had…grandma had…?”

Her mom nodded and wiped the last of the dishes. The mask lay between them on the table.

“Why? What is it? Sam thought it was maybe a fox?”

“Sam? She saw it too? She shouldn’t come for a sleepover this week.”

“We weren’t thinking of doing one anyway. So, is it a fox?”

“Yes, dear, it is a fox.” She turned around and looked her daughter straight in the face. “Do you want to wear it or should I put it away?”

“I don’t know. Why do you sound like that?”

“Dear, it’s important. Do you want to wear it or should I put it away?”

“Well…” She picked up the mask wondering if it was still warm from her own warmth. It was. “I guess I’ll wear it, then.”

Her mother shifted for a moment as if she was carrying some invisible weight. “Go outside to play, will you?”

“But it’s dark outside.”

“It doesn’t matter…” Her mom smiled and looked very old and tired. “Go play outside.”

“I don’t really want to play alone, mom. I’m a bit too old for that.”

“You won’t be alone, dear. Look.” Her mom took a pair of scissors and a piece of string from a cupboard. “Lift it up to your face. Make sure you can see through the eye holes. It’s important.”

“Ouch…you’re making it really tight!”

“You might have to run. Don’t complain. If you’re going to wear it, you’re going to wear it right.” Her mom fixed the mask. She knelt down in front of her and fixed her hair, too. She was very slow and careful about it and she seemed to find more and more things that needed fixing. Her mom was always patient with her but now she felt real tenderness. She was almost done, then found some last things around her collar and sleeves that needed attention. Underneath the tenderness she could now feel her mom’s worry, coiled like a snake.

She whispered: “He can be kind or he can be mad. Either way you must be quick. Never ask how long it will take. It will take as long as it will take. Say it.”


“Say it. Please.”

“It will take as long as it takes. Can I go now?”

“Yes,” the whisper almost broke. “Go now…be back before you father comes home.”

“What?” she muttered to herself but was soon occupied with wearing a mask. She shook her head, jumped up and down. The mask sat tight. Through the eye holes she could see almost as well as she could without the mask. She could see the garden lit by two lights from the veranda. She could see the edge of the light where the woods began.

There was no fence or hedge where the garden ended and the woods began. Sometimes rabbits or deer came by, like lost travellers from another world. She sat down on the grass and stared into the darkness.

It got boring very quickly so she imagined that she was turning into a fox. Maybe that was the power of the mask? She figured the mask had some strange power or else why would her mom be scared of it? She wished Sam were here to talk it over. She looked back through the veranda doors but her mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she had gone upstairs to sleep? She hadn’t been all scared of the mask, though. They probably felt the same thing, being scared and amazed at the same time. Perhaps grandma had felt the same thing before she had become weird.

She wished that she had brought her phone from inside so she could take a picture of herself wearing the mask. She would look really badass.

Something had moved, there at the edge. She looked closer. There were a couple of fireflies dancing between the trees – pretty – and something else moved behind them. A cat? Maybe a weasel? She crept closer and tried to feel badass and terrible and not at all scared.

When her eyes got used to the darkness she saw that it was a fox. What a coincidence, she thought, I am a fox, too. Let’s be friends. She held out her hand and made clicking noises with her tongue that sounded quite muffled and sinister behind the mask.

As her eyes got even better used to the darkness, she saw that it wasn’t really a fox but the mask of a fox, only much better than the one she wore. That made her feel scared and envious all at once. It looked friendly and almost lifelike, maybe a bit like a really good drawing of a fox but it was clearly a mask. There was no rest of a fox, no body, no paws or furry tail. There was just a restless, chaotic mass of shadow and shape that bent where it shouldn’t.

There were claws that clicked with a hint of impatience.

There were hisses and purrs that came from no mouth.

The mask raised itself from the ground. A sweet voice with a hint of darkness said, “Hello…Sister…”

This was like no game she had ever played. The lights from the veranda behind her were suddenly turned off. She wondered if she should run…




Image by Henriette Wiltschek

Text by Sebastian Buchner

Mirrors of the Force

Apart from journalistic, quasi-journalistic and photographic work, I’m also writing fiction.

A few years back, I wrote a Star Wars sort-of novella called “Mirrors of the Force”, about a jedi who cartographs the force at the edge of the known universe, is then blown to bits and still has to get the girl and save the day…you know, as you do.

I had an excellent illustrator, Barbara Sobczynska, who made a set of eerily beautiful illustrations for the story.

With “The Force Awakens” pretty much on our doorsteps, I thought it would be a nice time to share this story again.

You can find “Mirrors of the Force” by clicking on the title, or read an excerpt below. Enjoy.

Li, my brother, was sitting quietly. Tach, who took care of us, was talking and inattentive. He was often talking like this and nobody was listening. I didn’t know what the words he said meant until I found them again in one of the libraries of the dark monks. This speaks of their power. That they could stay in my mind, uncomprehended, only to reveal themselves at the moment I had enough knowledge to comprehend them. I know now that what Tach did was dangerous. I didn’t know then.

Then, twenty years ago, the words were many things to me. Lullaby, magic spell, words which hid feelings that I didn’t comprehend and which jumped out at me, unexpectedly, when I was listening to Tach’s singsong for too long. But above all the words meant Tach and all that he was to us. When they first met him, many people thought that Tach was an imbecile, one of the countless number of people driven mad by the loss of their homeworld, maybe one of the last of his kind – and there were many such people when I was a child. The empire had rampaged through the galaxy, destroying worlds almost at random with their world devourers. It wasn’t a strange thing to have lost a planet, it was as common as losing a toy or a parent. We lost both parents, but we had toys and we had a planet. Not that Li ever saw it, but I did. In fact I am currently sitting on a shuttle taking me from the surface of my own planet back into space, which belongs to nobody but is always being fought over. The interior of the shuttle is turned red and orange by the light given off by the friction heat. People around me look pale and lonely. There is much fear in this little shuttle. Much clutter, too, since the staff didn’t bother securing the refreshments too well. Even though the stabilizers have improved immensely in the last decade or so, it is still difficult to keep away the feeling that one is among many dice in a cup, shaken by an enthusiastic player, as one passes from air into airlessness. Streaks of flame and heat turn to blackness and it takes a while until the pilot decides to turn on the shuttle’s internal lights, so one races from fire into shadow. Everything becomes quiet with an inexplicable suddenness, as if some cosmic giant clapped his hands and so took all noise away. I become very still inside, feel myself flowing out, hoping against hope to fill that immeasurable emptiness that I am going to cross.

It is in these moments that I feel that which they call the Force strongest. Against the black backdrop of space all hopes, plans and fears become starkly visible. My own plans, my own hopes, my own fears are reduced to a single thread and it takes all my strength to keep following this thread, symbolic of my existence, as it weaves into the tapestry that appears in my mind.

Interested? Read the full story for free here

Trance and Tradition in the Himalaya



To tell about Kungri Monastery one needs to talk about Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche first. The Rinpoche is Bhutanese, holds the title of a reincarnated lama, and is a high ranking spiritual authority in his country. He is also a successful author, film buff and – under the nom de plume Kyhentse Norbu – a director (one of his movies, The Cup, about a group of monks who use their wiles and smarts to try and get a satellite dish in order to watch the Soccer World Cup, has been widely praised) as well as a man with a vicious sense of humour; as a lama he has the duty to choose auspicious names for every newborn in a ceremony similar to Christian baptism – several of the children come out of this ceremony with the perhaps not so fortunate names of Rambo Norbu, Flash Gordon Chozom or Jamyang Raging Bull.

Like many influential lamas Dzongsar Kyhentse has taught abroad and has acquired a large European and American following. He is offering spiritual retreats to his followers, Western and Indian alike, and one of these retreats happened to be in Kungri Monastery.

Kungri, located in the scenic and remote Pin valley, is called the second oldest monastery in Spiti, after Tabo. Founded in about 1330 AD it is the only Nyingmapa monastery in the region. The Nyingma, the oldest Buddhist sect, follow Tantric teachings. They are not as strict in their rules of consuming alcohol and having sexual contacts as the other sects, but consider these activities part of the spiritual challenge of life. Their lamas may, under certain circumstances, even raise families and a few rituals they follow occasionally culminate in wild performances, often accompanied by the participants falling into trance-like states.

The monastery itself holds from fifty to three-hundred monks, depending on the season. It is a centre of learning and an important communal meeting place for the people of the outlying villages. Kungri used to be one stop on a trading route between Spiti, Manali and Lahaul, but a massive earthquake in the 1950s collapsed the established trading path and the valley has been a dead-end ever since. What used to be a monastery made prosperous by trade had to look for other sources of wealth. It may have been the contacts established by teachers like Dzongsar Khyentse that enabled Kungri to recently receive a sizeable international donation to restore their monastery.

It certainly was Dzongsar Khyentse who was responsible for the large number of Western visitors that flooded Kungri in June 2010. He was holding a two-month long spiritual retreat and empowerment that filled the small monastery with European, American, Japanese, Tibetan, Bhutanese and Indian disciples. We arrived during the end of the retreat. It was marked by a large festival that drew villagers from all around Spiti and Kinnaur. Large private cars filled the courtyard of the monastery and the lanes of the ten hut strong village surrounding it. Busses were filled to the brim with families pouring in to see the lama and receive spiritual rewards.
Traditionally it is believed that spiritual merit can be acquired by the right acts or by contact with people who have achieved a high spiritual standard, like leading lamas or sages. It is considered not unlike we consider our bank balance and monks often jokingly call a few thousand spins of the prayer wheels “acquiring interest”.

In the end there were well over thousand people filling the monastery. After a bit of delay in procuring the guest of honour, troupes of dancers started a traditional Kinnauri/Spiti dance. Men and women are both dressed in ritual clothes, the men wearing a topi – a round hat – a long brown dress with embroidered blue cuffs, and are carrying curved swords. In the pacifist Buddhist culture the people of Pin Valley are the only ones using swords to accompany their rituals. The women wear a bright green cloth wrapped around their shoulders. It is embroidered with colourful designs. Those designs as well as the colours used vary from village to village, but in Kungri every woman is wearing the same set.

Unlike the vigorous Shunto dance which is a dance popular in the regions of Spiti and Lahaul, the ritual dance is slow, almost soporific. Men and women line up opposite each other, then form a circle, at first the women to one side and the men to the other…soon, however, they mix, so that you see a woman next to a man next to a woman…All the time the dancers are accompanied by five musicians, playing drums and cymbals in a slow, steady rhythm.

According to Buddhist statures the dances are described as releasing negative energy and creating a positive and harmonic mood among participants and audience alike and of course to honour the Lord Buddha. However, I think there is more to it. The swords would reflect the old martial culture of the valley tribes, always ready to defend themselves against intruders from Ladakh or the Sikh emperors of Kullu who raided their valleys a number of times during their history. Several people have also told me that there is a matrimonial significance and that the best dancers are also considered to be the best possible matches for marriage, so the young women and men dance for their future fortunes and prosperity as well as for the honour of the Lord Buddha.

After a lengthy performance the monks brought out boxes full of chocolate and cookies. One can often see packs of chips and crackers and chocolate stacked up next to the deities and statues of incarnate lamas as ritual gifts, but this time the monks were offering the ingredients of those boxes to the gathered villagers as gifts. People started pushing each other and crowding the monks. Countless hands were reaching out for a desired packet of chips or Marie cookies, but the situation never became chaotic. Everyone seemed to leave satisfied, clutching a small or slightly larger bundle.

The monastery would now offer another ceremony to prove its prosperity. A new monastery would be founded, about two hundred metres uphill from the old one. Queues of people were trudging uphill to a spot where incense smoke was rising and the dignitaries had already arrived via a short-cut with their jeeps. Up here the Buchan or buzhen lamas were set to perform.

The Buchan are a local sect from the Pin Valley. They live in Mud, a tiny village, but spend their summers wandering the valleys. There is a buzz in the air up here. The people are excited about their performance.

The Buchan are a group of nine men of differing ages, but most of them in their thirties and forties. They are robust looking people with the memorable faces of actors. The best way to describe them would be Buddhist harlequins. They wear costumes bright with tassels, sashes and belts. Around their necks are bells, women’s jewelry and metal boxes containing sacred relics. Three of them have already changed for a performance.

It is a performance taken from an older age, a mockery of the establishment that reminded me a little bit of the German Fasching, when people dress up as caricatures and perform the pomp of the mighty in order to ridicule them. An effeminate, made up man was representing an aristocrat who ended up in a quarrel with a monk (bedecked with even more tassels, belts and bells) and a man who was meant to be a shopkeeper. I cannot offer a translation of their conversation, but from the reaction of the crowd it seemed to have hit the nail pretty much on the head. The people were giggling with laughter. When the Clown appeared their giggles turned into roars. The Clown was a man dressed in white furs and a white cap, his face painted white. He bore a whip an without an introduction he began beating the three men, chasing them around the stage and loudly cursing them and making rude jokes. The actor seemed to relish his role and wouldn’t leave even when the other Buchan appeared and gave the performance a more ceremonial note. He kept chasing a cymbal player and chewing the scenery for a while before he disappeared.

The final performance is one that is usually only shown during the ladarcha, a fair lasting several days that is played out around Kaza in July or August. It is called the powar dochak, literally the “breaking of the stone”.

The powar dochak begins with setting up an altar to Tangthon Gyalpo, commonly known as the “Great Builder” or, more poetically, as the madman of the empty land. He is a revered, semi-mythical lama who founded the Ache Lhamo, the Tibetan Opera and erected several iron suspension bridges in the Himalayans to ease travel through these inhospitable lands. In order to raise the money he founded a song and dance troupe. Today he is revered as the patron saint of drama and so of the Buchan. In front of this altar there is placed a stone.

Then a sword dance begins. One of the Buchan, called the Lochen, carries two swords and begins a wild, swaying dance with them, jumping and whirling through the air. His dance gets increasingly wilder until he enters a trance. At that point he begins taking the tip of the blade into his mouth and spins around, later he puts the sword hilts on the ground, tips facing upwards and puts his whole weight on his swords. In this case the performer was so entranced that two of his colleagues had to catch and stop him.

It continues with the eponymous stone. Placed in front of the altar this stone has now become refuge for an evil spirit and so it must be destroyed. An old man, ostensibly the leader of the troupe stands in front of the stone and begins to mumble and chant himself into a trance. Meanwhile another man lies down on the ground in front of the altar and the stone is placed on his chest. He is held down by several other men. Once the old man is ready, he picks up a large stone himself and – with a great flourish and a show of strength, he smashes the stone that harbours the evil spirit.

At this point madness broke out. The audience, gripped by the power of the performance, raced towards the stage, hands frantically reaching for pieces of the broken stone. The pieces of the stone are considered to possess significant magical qualities and usually they are used in the plinth of new houses. The largest pieces of the stone would serve as foundation stone of the new monastery. The Buchan, their performance done, were literally showered with rupee notes.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche used the opportunity to marry two of his Western devotees to each other – the couple had long planned this to be the beginning of their marriage – and posed for photographs with them. Soon after, however, the people dispersed and the endless silence of the Himalayan peaks descended over the place once more.

A Lost Motorcycle – A Story from Marrakech


„I will give you a city tour – for free.“

“Are you sure you’re Moroccan?”

Salmane’s laughter was lost in the wind as we rode away from Jemaa el-Fnaa on his motorbike. He was still elated about having it back. A few days ago the police had stopped him at an intersection because he was riding without a helmet (a helmet on a motorcyclist in Marrakesh is about as rare as a sighting of Khidr, the green saint of Islam, in broad daylight). He thought he would get away with a warning, but the policeman told him to get of his bike, wrote something on an official piece of paper and handed it to him. “This is now your motorbike.”

Getting the bike back turned out to be a real odyssey. The fine of 300 dirham (a hefty fine for a student) had to be paid at the Royal Treasury, where a large number of people, some demonstratively dangling their motorbike helmets from their hands, were queuing for similar offenses. When Salmane’s turn came the clerk stood up, shut her window and said she was going for lunch. While we were waiting an incensed man almost single-handedly started a small revolution, shouting for a good ten minutes at another clerk who gave a good as he got. To the ears of the uninitiated even loving words sound like a quarrel when spoken in Arabic, while an actual quarrel has something of a storm and a deluge about it. But the man was smiling in between his bouts of anger. Two trips to impressively forbidding police stations to get the receipt stamped followed. Salmane’s brother, a taciturn doctor, picked us up in his car and drove us there.

Salmane had mentioned him and that he had studied hadiths, the sayings attributed to the Prophet, in Saudi Arabia, so I was expecting a rather conservative and perhaps combative man, but he was clean shaven, sparse with his words and relatively unremarkable in appearance and simply didn’t seem to know how to deal with my presence. Then again, he had taken a “lunch break” from work to drive his youngest brother from a police station to the next, so any added distractions were probably best ignored.

Having the necessary papers in hand he was sent off – with an uncertain goal. Apparently there were three places where confiscated motorbikes were brought and he didn’t know where his bike was and neither did the clerk who had stamped his form.

His brother dropped us in front of a nondescript gate and drove off. There was a tiny window, barred with rusted iron and behind it loomed the face of an elderly man, screwed up in a permanent Piss-Off setting. He took the papers and turned out to be friendlier and quicker than his appearance suggested. While he worked over the papers, another trio of bike seekers arrived, greeting us with boisterous noises.

“Do you like my body?” asked one of them, strong, tall young guy, quite out of the blue. I was momentarily puzzled by the question as he went through one or two half-hearted poses to show it off.

“He’s a body-builder!” shouted one of his friends and shook my hand. Never mind, we laughed and chatted a bit in a mixture of French and English. They, like most younger men, preferred English to “the language of the protectorate.”

Then the rusted gates swung open, interrupting us. Salman and I were admitted with another double-check of his papers and the trio that had arrived after us submitted theirs to a check from the gatekeeper.

We entered and before us lay a wasteland of confiscated bikes. All size and shapes (most shapes exactly the same as Salmane’s bike, unfortunately, which seemed to be a popular model) filled the yard, haphazardly put together in rows and bundles with those at the far end looking like they would never be reclaimed by anyone. It seemed like a post-apocalyptic traffic jam after a catastrophe that had wiped all motorcyclists from the face of the earth.

I looked over at the keepers, expecting them to produce some kind of paper on which the location of Salmane’s bike would be marked. Instead they lazily waved in the direction of one of the corners. Nobody had any clue where the bike could be.
Salmane and I looked at each other for a moment, shrugged and went off to look for the bike. The only signs denoting anything at all were chalk-markings on the seat, showing the date when the bike was confiscated. Another clue was that Salmane had had to remove the pedal chain a few days ago, so we were looking for a bike confiscated on a certain date, missing a chain.

This particular Moroccan-Austrian detective duo did walk all over the grounds, but eventually came across the correct bike. Salmane rubbed at the markings, but they wouldn’t come off. So he pushed the bike out, had a quick, light row with the guys at the gate who weren’t sure he had filled everything out, but then we were off, once more complete and motorized.
The city belonged to Salmane again and he would show it to me.

He spoke while we were riding along the roads of the city. “What are those holes for? The wall has holes – what are they for? You can guess.” Along with his bike he had regained his stentorian, school-masterly nature.

I looked at the wall surrounding the city and studied the holes. “Pigeons or birds?”

“No! Look where we are. What is out there to protect against?”

“Well, nothing.”

Exasperated with his pupil, he said, “No, the wind. The holes are because of the wind from the desert. It is very strong and it would blow over the wall, that’s why they made holes. No pigeons or birds – if that is what tour guides tell you, they are lying.”

We raced past the gates of the new palace and out towards the richer quarters, always outside the walls of the medina. The roads were wide here, and quite empty of cars.

“I will tell you about the city and the people who founded and made it.” Salmane, you must know, has a prodigious memory. He learned the Qu’ran by heart when he was a child and repeatedly demonstrated it to me, reciting the subsequent lines whenever we heard a recitation on TV or on a radio in a shop or a car. In addition he was a great storyteller, understanding the power of images and conviction. One of the first things we had talked about was how the story of Joseph and his brothers was different in the Bible and the Qu’ran (not at all, by the way), ending up re-telling the story to each other, filling in half-remembered details and scenes.

I have never found much use for the Bible, to be truthful, but here it struck me for the first time how useful a tool of communication it is. Through the eyes and words of Salmane those stories became alive again. I’m not going to say that centuries of misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians vanished (and since I’m no Christian it would be a misleading analogy) because we sat and talked about a shared story, but I realized how far communication, shared knowledge and the ability to tell stories go in establishing mutual understanding. We could have talked about a movie or food in the same way, but because our experiences in those matters were probably very different we ended up talking about this ancient story.

But there were more stories, dreams and visions. Islamic history is full of them. Hashish and opium have always been favoured pastimes. Rulers dreamed grand and decadent dreams and warlords nourished themselves on a harsher diet of curved steel, hard saddles and desert winds. Those are stories that are best told when in movement – the motorcycle ride was exhilarating.

Two rival rulers, one a soft and rich man fond of poetry, the other a hardened and crafty warrior. A story about the first: One evening, in his garden, he sat on a bench and was musing about affairs of the day when he spied his wife on a balcony. He was struck by her beauty and wanted to watch her unnoticed, so he hid. She seemed rapturous, watching something in the garden. He followed her gaze and saw that she was watching the slave girls, all swathed in white except for their naked brown soles, as they were going to the well to get water. It was evening and the sun was setting behind the well, so she would see their silhouettes and would watch with great pleasure how their naked feet touched the clay path. The ruler remembered this. Unknown to his wife he ordered to have another part of the palace built, with a golden well in the direction of the setting sun and a balcony of jewels and wrought metal, exotic flowers lining a path that was all made of musk. The well was to be filled with the whitest milk and for more than a year the ruler sent out men to search for the slave girls with the most beautiful feet, which were to be garlanded with pearls. After two years he had created an apotheosis of the scene that his favoured wife loved and he gently tied a scarf around her head, covering her eyes and led her into this new dream that he had made…

Later he made a deal with the warlord, only to be betrayed, watch his soldiers routed and be chased from the city. But the image of his dedication is what remains, certainly embellished, but also making everything else meaningless. Softness and harshness, always side by side. The soft naked soles gliding over musk and the boots of soldiers trampling the earth.

We drove past the walls like the wind it was meant to keep out, along wide and almost empty streets, looking at the gates. It was through one of those gates that we drove and immediately we were swallowed up by a mass of people. It was a market in one of the poorer parts of the city. The word bric-a-brac very accurately conveys the shape of the produce sold here.

People were throwing words and goods at each other and everything seemed so makeshift that a gust of wind could dissolve them all, stands and people alike.

We scrambled through them and into the narrow streets of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter and poorest part of the old city.

“This is the Mellah. If you come here at night, you do not value your life very much,” advised Salmane as he took a turn. Another motorcyclist came towards us and we nearly rammed each other. Dust and pieces of stone flew from a wall as we scratched it, not with our feet or shoulders, but the back part of the motorcycle.

“Neither during the day, I guess,” we both mumbled, hoping the other one would not hear. Then louder: “Are you alright?”

The motorcycle and its riders were unharmed. We continued through the narrow streets, cautious for a minute, then making robes flap in our wake again. The Mellah is not just a remnant of the past, nor is it a ghetto. The historical relationship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco is not an easy one and the apartments in the Mellah are among the worst and most dilapidated in the old city. Drugs like kiff are as readily available here as anywhere else and it can only be the poverty and perhaps a spectre of the past that causes the bad reputation. On a later visit I was to meet a Moroccan Jew who worked as a performer on Jemaa el Fnaa, but this time my impressions remained fleeting as we crossed the quarter on the bike and shot out through another gate back into the flow of beige taxis and towards the outskirts where Salmane lived.

Somehow My Life Has Become Books…

I’ve been working in a bookshop for almost two weeks now. I do not like the moments or hours when I feel like a moderately intelligent zombie moving people towards books and books towards people, but I do like the often strange, weird, funny and sometimes surprisingly touching conversation you have with strangers who are looking for a particular book.


I also have more patience for reading since my life has considerably slowed down (still not sure what to think of this). I finished Philip Pullman’s wonderful rendition of “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm” today. It’s a bit odd to read translations of tales that I could easily read in the original but Pullman really brings out the beautiful storytelling that makes the tales so damn good. The same mechanics are used in almost every form of storytelling, movies, TV, advertisement…I found a lot of understanding how fairy tales work as well as heaps of inspiration for writing and for Dancing Tales.

The best tales might be those that borrow from older traditions and those that carve out particular and unique new traditions. Also, it must be hell to write a convincing new version of classics like Briar Rose…


…speaking of which, I also finished Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”. I don’t want to spoil too much and just say that if you go into the story after having seen Chris Riddell’s image of a sort-of Snow White kissing a sort of Briar Rose and think you know what you’re in for, you’re in for a surprise. It’s a bit like “Stardust” and a bit like “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, just a lot shorter and it is a convincing new version of Briar Rose and quite a bit more (with gorgeous and delicate artwork).

Choice in Storytelling

I’m currently writing a story that allows the reader to actively choose his or her path through the tale.

This is an uncommon struggle for me because a story is usually finished, polished and then told. By a single person. That’s how it is given to a reader. A finished thing that is nonetheless dead without imagination.

An active tale feels different.

Unfinished, somehow. Or like several tales.

This is a collection of thoughts – to get them out of my head and also as an offer to fellow storytellers or good readers to offer their own helpful, critical or inspirational thoughts.


– The main character is, by necessity, an everywoman. I try to shape her by offering the reader little choices about her background…whether she comes from a healthy family background or not, whether she is interested in emotions, thoughts or actions etc. But it is impossible to define her much further than that because she is everyone who is reading the story.

– There are no thoughts or severly limited thoughts, because you cannot offer the reader any guesses as far as motivation goes…everything is a clue that she must decide to follow or to abandon. The writer can only describe outward things and must make the reader guess what is behind them and make their choice accordingly.

– The story needs to move quickly. Depth is hard to achieve, and only by action.

– The pacing is more akin to a video game or movie. I only decide when and where to cut. I try comparing it to various practices of how to cut a movie. Do you show the whole action…beginning – climax – result…and then cut or do you build it up and offer the decision, the climax of the scene, to the reader?

– Are there meaningful choices and can I allow a reader to make them? Do I offer moral choices? Allow the reader to choose sides? Can there be choices between different approaches? One emotional, another intellectual, a third physical? Is it possible to tell a story where I, the writer, make no choices myself and not have the story branch out into thousand unmanageable pieces?

– Is it possible to tell a good story without full control over the story itself? Or does one simply need to tell several good stories and stitch them together seamlessly?

– How much is illusion of choice? The reader cannot choose everything or she will derail the story. Stories work within limits. How much choice do you give someone to create the illusion of choice?

– Like in a conversation, “Yes and No” questions quickly lead to dead ends. Choices between obvious opposites soon become uninteresting unless one subverts them or mixes them up. Choices need to have a certain level of unpredictability.

Geschichtenerzählen im modernen Marokko


Sein Nachbar sieht Joha, wie er in seinem Garten verzweifelt etwas sucht. „Joha,“ ruft er ihm zu. „Was sucht du?“
„Meinen Schlafzimmerschlüssel,“ kommt die Antwort.
„Wo hast du ihn denn verloren?“
„Im Keller!“
„Äh…warum suchst du ihn dann hier?“
Joha schaut für einen Moment auf. „Wie soll ich den im Dunklen finden? Das Licht ist besser hier.“

Laut Tradition erzählt man mindestens sechs Joha Geschichten. Man erzählt sie im Wechsel. Zuerst der eine, dann der andere. Joha, den weisen Narren, kennt man in der ganzen muslimischen Welt unter verschiedenen Namen. In unseren Gefilden – in einer Überlieferung, die den Sufis zuzuschreiben ist – heißt er meistens Mullah Nasruddin.

Die Sufis bezeichnen die Geschichten gerne als philosophische Witze und es gibt Studien über die tiefere Bedeutung der Witze und ihres psychologischen Effektes. Denn Geschichtenerzählen ist ein wichtiges soziales Phänomen…es entwickelt Vorstellungskraft und Charakter. Geschichten können komplexe Ideen auf simple Art und Weise wiedergeben. Effekt haben sie definitiv auch heute noch – ich eröffne gerne Erzählabende mit ein paar Geschichten von Mullah Nasruddin. Sie brechen das Eis wunderbar. Sie haben anscheinend auch restorative Wirkung…

Salmane ist ein Literaturstudent in Marrakesch. Wir kennen uns seit einigen Jahren, nachdem er mir bei meinem ersten Besuch in der Stadt seine Wohnung zum Übernachten angeboten hat. Er brachte mich auf seinem Motorrad quer durch die Stadt und hat eine Neigung so wenig Schlaf wie möglich zu bekommen. Zwei Stunden Schlaf und der hektische Verkehr der Stadt vertragen sich nicht so gut. Salmane nahm mich auf seinem Motorrad mit zum Bahnhof und sagte mir, während der Fahrt, dass er kaum die Augen offen halten konnte.

„Erzähl mir was, damit ich wach bleibe.“

Das erste, was mir in den Sinn kam, waren die Geschichten von Mullah Nasruddin. Ich erzählte brav sechs am Stück, während Autos und Motorräder an uns vorbei durch die Strassen schossen. Salmane blieb wach.

Am Abend zuvor hatten wir gemeinsam seine Bachelorarbeit durchgelesen. Die Übersetzung und Analyse einer traditionellen Geschichten aus seiner Heimat, abgeschlossen von einem Gedicht, auf Englisch verfasst, über das Erzählen an sich.

Mit dabei war auch ein Studienkollege von Salmane, Mehdi, der uns seine Geschichte erzählte, von weisen Herrscher und seinen weisen Urteilen. Er hatte sie gelernt von Haj, einem Meister Erzähler, bei dem er in Lehre ging.

Wenn man die Artikel und die Literatur der letzten Jahre betrachtet, herrscht darin ein melancholischer Tenor. Geschichtenerzählen ist verdammt, wird in den Wirren der Moderne verschwinden. Eine Zeit lang hatte ich mich derselben modischen Melancholie verschrieben, aber solche Gefühle kommen von der älteren Generation und spiegeln wohl zum Teil auch ihre Ängste wieder. Wenn Geschichten wieder lebendig werden sollen, dann muss das über die junge Generation geschehen, die in der Moderne lebt und sie weniger überwältigend finden muss.

Mein letzter Besuch in Marrakesch hat mir gezeigt, dass das Erzählen absolut lebendig ist. Die Wege führten mich dabei sehr bald zum Café Clock.

Ein interkulturelles Café in der Kasbah. Eigentlich ist es eine Zweigstelle eines seit vielen Jahren in Fez etablierten Cafés, wurde aber von Beginn an mit eigenständigen und innovativen Ideen aufgebaut. Man mischt die marokkanischen Menüklassiker mit amerikanischen und europäischen Einflüssen durch, heuert junge englischsprechende Marokkaner als Personal an und zieht damit eine Mischung aus Touristen und jungen urbanen Marokkanern an. Das Café wird durch seine vielen Events, Musikabende und Hikayat – dem Geschichtenerzählen – zu einem wirklichen und lebendigen Treffpunkt zwischen zwei Kulturen.

Das Hikayat ist für mich – und auch für die Leitung des Cafés – das Herzstück. Haj, ein versierter Geschichtenerzähler, der früher noch auf der Jemaa el Fnaa erzählt hat, nimmt eine Gruppe von Stundenten unter seine Fittiche. Sie alle lernen ein Repertoire an Geschichten, auf Englisch und Darija, dem marokkanischen Dialekt. Diese Geschichten führen sie im Café an den Hikayat Abenden auf.

Das Projekt sucht sich ständig auszuweiten. Das Café sucht immer nach Leuten, die Ausbildung im Theater- und Schauspielbereich besitzen oder Sprechtraining und Bühnenpräsenz vermitteln können. Die Projekte dienen neben dem Erhalt der Erzähltradition auch der Stärkung von Frauen in der Gemeinschaft und dem sozialen Gefüge Marokkos.
Für ein Projekt, das vor einiger Zeit erfolgreich abgeschlossen wurde, gingen die zwei Erzählerinnen an eine Schule für Mädchen. Sie erzählten dort mit den Schülerinnen und ließen sie ihre eigenen Joha Geschichten erzählen – bloß dass Joha hier ein Mädchen war.


Ein paar Tage bevor ich das hier schreibe waren Hajs Schüler zum ersten Mal auf der Jemaa el Fnaa und seit vielen Jahren konnte man auf dem Platz wieder Geschichten hören. Zum allerersten Mal auch aus den Mündern von zwei Frauen, Malika und Sahra. Die beiden sind die ersten Frauen die in der langen Tradition von Erzählern auf der Jemaa el Fnaa ihre Geschichten preisgegeben haben.

Die jungen Erzähler und die Tradition, die sie beleben, stellen für mich eine enorme Inspiration dar. Es ist schön mit Menschen zu sprechen, die Geschichten ernst nehmen und ein kleines Stück ihrer eigenen Tradition tragen wollen und können. Es sei jedem Besucher von Marrakesch ans Herz gelegt, am Donnerstag das Café Clock zu besuchen und das Hikayat selbst zu sehen.

Website: http://www.cafeclock.com

Fotos von Birgit Mühleder


Eine Version dieses Artikels erschien 2015 im Südwind Magazin.