Al-halqa: a folk drama that mirrors the Moroccan society in crisis

Al-halqa: a folk drama that mirrors the Moroccan society in crisis

al halka
A live show by Abdelilllah Msiah in the Jemaa Fna Square.

Based on verbal expressions, mime, and melodies, al-halqa is a popular theatrical entertainment that is held in public places like central plazas and entrance of weekly markets. In Morocco, the Jemaa Fna Square in Marrakech is deemed as the cradle of al-halqa and the beaten heart of Moroccan cultural spaces for it has hosted verbal artists since the twelfth century (Batalha, 1996). In an attempt to succor this intangible legacy from extinction, Moroccan authorities, foreign NGOs, and some film directors decided to record, edit, and translate numerous collections of short stories, lyrics, and jokes encountered in this square… In a parallel side, in order to defend their common interests, the majority of actual jugglers in the Jemaa Fna were urged to create some professional associations and to subscribe to a few trade unions.

In Moroccan Arabic, the entertainer who leads the al-halqa is termed as hlaiqi. In realitythe latter is a troubadour juggler who apprehends his craft via the combination of native insight and technical training. His urban performance always terminates with spectators ‘ applauses, benedictions and grant of small rewards. As Moustapha (one of those famous jugglers of Jemaa Fna Square) enthused that:

“It was providence that took me to this piaza and really I am very pleased to gain my livelihood with so much pleasure and to be at the centre of attention!!! Indeed, as the case of my colleagues’ presentations, my open air shows rival television sitcoms and cartoons. My customers who gather in the form of a circle or ring are multitudes of spectators, pertaining to miscellaneous walks of life and from various nationalities. However, one must bear in mind that to do any sort of down-to-earth performance, one needs to have a strong ego and nerves of steel. This reveals that not solely the possession of innate gift that makes successful humorists and story-tellers. A contrario, during certain occasions some of my scenes are prepared beforehand, rather than improvised. This means very simply that figuring out the content of my shows demands reading, watching the most outstanding comedians on TV or internet, and of course writing down the script. The truth then is that modality of gambit gives me a wide range of comic words and tricks, and even allows me to discover new plots and intangible horizons. The idea then is not to copy others, but it helps me to gain new wits, information, and moves. In this respect, what is for sure is that any comedian or story-teller automatically will lose his charm if he sticks to a certain style and content for a long period of time”.

In fact, hlaiqi never summons viewers to the ring or the circle, nor does he ever call them to congregate around him. The hlaiqi simply chooses a very strategic spot and spontaneously he starts his performance when the moment seems opportune (Amine, 2004). In Jemaa Fna as well as in other squares and souks around Morocco, it is observed that each entertainer has his proper rituals, protasis, assistants, and dress style that make him quite distinct from other rivals. On the plus side, some of these urban artists are famous for their queer behavior- like touching venomous amphibians, playing amazing magic tricks, reading tarot cards, and realizing acrobatics. Concordantly, in his notoriety the hlaiqi outranks countless local and national celebrities.

During the live show, al-halqa necessitates neither a stage nor an auditorium… But all what this festive spectacle implies is a collective participation- by the main performer or hlaiqi, along with secondary entertainers (made up of actors and travesty dancers), in addition to animals, and the gathering crowd or mob. Among the hlaiqi animals, one will encounter docile snakes and falcons, plus well-trained macaques, doves, burros, etc. In fact, those animals give much more taste to the al-halqa, seeing that they are apt to perform extraordinary deeds and comprehend their master’s instructions very easily (Amine, 2000).

What is also palpable, the artistic product of al-halqa includes memorized and improvised speech, along with kinesic mechanisms that are sustained by ingredients such as gestures, catchy intonation, incongruous costumes, facial expressions, along with stage props and librettos. The latter refers to musical accompaniment for the verbal show. In this sense, and as has been observed on situ, enumerable hlaiqis possess the ability to sing with sweetness and to play on percussion instruments and strings with nimble and slender fingers. Indeed, one may deduce that (as it is the case with Greek drama) in the alhalqa kinetics give a second ranking to words. However, watchers should not refrain from activating their background knowledge of the topic in order to extract meaning and to predict the content with much velocity…

Speaking airily this time, the Moroccan juggler specialized in the al-halqa triumphs in mastering tentative drama, prose, and lyricism that are pregnant with instructive topics. Inwardly, his plots are a mosaic of wisdom snatches, diatribe, hand in hand with lucid stories, epic tales, funny jokes, and clearly expressed fables. In this way, part of the aforementioned discourse seems to expose prevailing cultural taboos and to function as a shield against bureaucracy, social hypocrisy, fundamentalism, and unwanted political behavior (Farshoukh, 1989).From another angle, the hlaiqi is deemed among the few artists in Morocco who have the full courage to convert corrupted dignitaries and fat stomach moguls into the butt of his jokes. In most cases, juggler’ topics or themes emanate from both the universal repertoire, as well as his native milieu. That is why during his artistic mission, the hlaiqi transforms into a sharp social critic and a declamatory speaker who dissects the human fauna of the Moroccan society with a spirit of realist observation and sober judgments (Chaib, 1998).

On the stylistic scale, the particular language of al-halqa is angled to correspond to the supposed cultural background of the audience (Hamdani, 1989). Thus, the discourse of al-halqa incorporates many different dialects, idioms, and jargons. The same speech appears with irrelevances, slips of the tongue and diglossic situations… This is so for using variegated foreign words (code-switching) might serve a wide range of functions. Always in relation with the same whim, the hlaiqi does not hesitate to salt his speech with aphoristic proverbs, along with adaptations from the Quran and classic Arab poetry! Again, regarding intonation, and suprasegmental features (such as vocatives, pitch and volume), from their part they facilitate to perform a variety of illocutionary and perlocutionary acts (Davies, 1983/84). This technique may operate as a key to understand the portrayed topics, by not merely adding touches of local color and savor, but also by reiterating themes, sharpening characterization, clarifying conflict and, above all, focusing on the values of the society in crisis.

Without minimal doubt, thanks to his lingual and attitudinal simulacrum, the hlaiqi essays to represent and to contemplate humans in action in their relation to nature during different episodes of life (Apte, 1985). By this quality, the spectator is supposed to fall in the trap of the hlaiqi and to live the incident sturdily.  Likewise, numerous factors clearly demonstrates that the emotional, psychological, and cognitive states of the watcher are artificially stimulated through the dramatic presence- which contains the capacity to move and excite, or else to tease and titillate the mind (Wanzer, 2009; Kazarian: 2011, p.333).

At length, one may safely contend that the dramatic performing tradition seen in Jemaa Fna Square together with various cultural spaces along Morocco is directly or indirectly shaped to transmit a didactic message and to make the callous spectators go into a paroxysm of glee (Frayha, 1962). The latter incorporates multiple degrees of laughter, namely smirk, smile, grim, and smicker (Kazarian: 2011, p. 332). Immediately, the jokes and stories of Jemaa Fna verbal artists help spectators to keep themselves sane, precisely because that universal artistic language is the defining feature between the pessimist and the optimist (Martin: 2007, p.350). As Ibrahim Alawi (a Marrakechi resident) divulges to us: “Moroccan TV channels do not alleviate my anxieties. This is the mere reason why I regularly flock to that agora gravitated by the animated ambiance of the al-halqa which in depth tames my tension and permits me to nurture my brain with fresh ideas and wise lessons.”

In conclusion, al-halqa is a pure Moroccan dramatic medium where cultural, social, and political exertions are promulgated. Reflecting Moroccan identity, al-halqa brings to the fore the cultural treasures enshrined in Moroccan folktales. The same immaterial patrimony carries values of the Moroccan culture and deeply reveals the wit of its people. Thus, one should proclaim that the entire history, norms, and mythology of the Moroccan community are clothed and highlighted in the aforementioned urban show. Thanks to all those qualities, it was possible for the UNESCO in 2001 to declare al-halqa as an intangible heritage of humanity.


Amine, Khalid  (2000). Moroccan Theater between East and West, Tetouan: Faculty of Arts.

Amine, Khalid  (2004).  Fields of  Silence in Moroccan Theater.  Rabat: Union of Moroccan Writers.

Apte, Mahadev L. (1985). Humor and laughter: An Anthropological Approach. New York: Cornell University Press.

Batalha, Luis (1996). Marrocos Retrato de um País. Lisbon.

Chaib, Ahmed (1998). “Tabi3at al-hulm wa annukta min khilali lughati arramz”  [In Arabic].  In: Dirassat Magazine, Issue Number 8, pp. 43/57. Agadir: Faculty of Arts.

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Hamdani, Hamid (1989). “al-lugha wa al-uslub fi al-haky” [In Arabic]. In: Magazine of the Faculty of Arts of Fes, Issue Number 10, pp.55/61. Fes: University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdelah.

Kazarian, Shahe S. (2011). “Humor in the collectivist Arab Middle East:

the case of Lebanon.”  In: International Journal of Humour Research. Issue Number 23-24, pp.329/348. Berlin: De Gruyter Publishing House.

Martin, Rod A. (2007). The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Burlington: Elsevier Academic Press.

Wanzer, Melissa et al. (2009). Humorous Communication within the Lives of Older Adults: The Relationships among Humor, Coping Efficacy, Age, and Life Satisfaction. New York: Canisius College.

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Mounir Haissour
Mounir Haissour is a senior high school teacher of EFL from Tetouan, northern Morocco. He realized his tertiary studies at Martil Faculty of Arts and Tangier King Fahd School of Translation. In addition, he studied tourism at the University of Alicante, Spain, and he obtained an official diploma in Spanish from the Instituto Cervantes. As well, Mounir Haissour spent one academic year in Casablanca, where he studied Portuguese language and culture at the Consulate General of Portugal. Mounir Haissour has published a wide array of articles in Arabic, Spanish, and English in Morocco and abroad. He was also the founder of the Moroccan Association for Alternative Tourism. During his free time, he practices hiking. This recreation modality has permitted him to reach most of the peaks of the Rif and Atlas Mountains. Mounir Haissour can be reached at: