Hassan sells his wares from his spot in the Jemaa, Marrakesh's central square, but it isn't fruit or rugs that he peddles. Instead, he weaves together words and sells stories.
Since he was a little boy, Hassan watched his father take his place in the Jemaa and tell stories to a spellbound crowd, happy to pay for the honor of hearing his tale. After losing his young wife and child in childbirth, Hassan takes over his father's role and travels to Marrakesh to make his way as a storyteller. His father tells him, "You are about to enter a privileged profession, Hassan. Always remember that the fraternity of storytellers is a closely knit one, and the ties that hold us together exceed even those of family."
As "The Storyteller of Marrakesh" (W.W. Norton, 341 pages, $24.5) opens, Hassan is no longer an amateur. He has been telling stories for a decade, and this night he is telling one that on the surface seems simple enough: a pair of foreigners -- a man and a woman -- appear in the Jemaa. They visit the various vendors, they listen to a performance by a rwai ensemble. By the end of the evening, the man and the woman have disappeared.
Or maybe just the woman has disappeared, and "bereft at his loss, [the man] abandoned his home and livelihood and now lives somewhere in Marrakesh."
Or maybe the man has disappeared and "the wife had taken to sleeping on the steps of the police station in despair over her husband's disappearance."
Such is the nature of a story, isn't it? As he tells the story, Hassan welcomes his audience members' participation, for it isn't based in fantasy or in ancient history. It is based in reality, and each year Hassan comes back to it seeking the truth about what happened to the two foreigners. He has good reason: His brother, Mustafa, is in jail for their murders. As each participant tells his or her tale, the facts change. At times, her beauty brought tears to men's eyes; at others, she was "crazed ... provocative ... dancing like an animal in the dusty earth."
Author Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya has woven a beautiful story that explores the intersection between our individual perceptions and reality. At this crossroads mingle truth, beauty and love, as well as more worldly concerns such as the divides between East and West, men and women, love and loyalty, the familiar and the unknown.
Kim Schmidt has written reviews for the Chicago Sun Times, Christian Science Monitor and American Way magazine. She lives in Illinois.