TEDx in Marrakech

by Martin Rose

A day in Marrakech for TEDx, the local franchise of the TED conference, run by Vanessa Branson at her lovely Riad al-Fenn. It’s not a format that I’m familiar with, and the rapid-fire, pump-action delivery of ideas is invigorating, dazzling and kaleidoscopic. Writing in the first break, I’m digesting with my coffee contributions by the eloquent Moroccan cineaste Faouzi Bensaidi on the nature and the task of film-makers in a new world; and of the Palestinian (or as he might prefer, ‘from-Palestine’) artist Steve Sabella who is, I discover, a Chevening scholar: last night at dinner he recounted the very funny story of his interview in Jerusalem with my sadly missed old colleague and friend Ken Churchill, then Director of the British Council in East Jerusalem …

Both reflected on a changing world – Faouzi on a world where film-makers of his generation have seen the world of finite images in which they grew up vanish, to be replaced by a new world in which the image is immediate, literal and ubiquitous; where the vocabulary remains the same – cameras still roll, and cameramen still film, when in reality rolling and even filming are processes left far behind by modern technology – but the substance is utterly different and the world moves faster than its human inhabitants, perhaps for the first time in history. “The human struggle today,” he said, “is to conquer its images,” and for film-makers, to develop reflective tools which allow a meaning that is sous rather than sur its apparent subject – indeed where the film-maker deals not with subject but, as he put it, with images. In the test-case of the Arab Spring, Faouzi puzzles over the constant demand for instant and literal visual responses sur the Spring, and a failure to understand that what the film-maker does, or should do, is to reflect, digest over time and then create something sous the Spring which universalizes responses by imagining the individual, It takes time, a precious, rare commodity today.

Steve Sabella is intriguing, refusing to be defined by his origins but constantly playing with them – his relationship with those origins and, perhaps above all, with the deductions and assumptions that people make about him from their partial and filtered knowledge of those origins. A Christian from Jerusalem, he declines to wear labels, is of Palestine without being Palestinian, of Jerusalem without reference to East or West. His art is a fractured photography of exile and reintegration, a beguiling exploration of an identity he obstinately refuses to acknowledge except on his own terms. His ability to play light-heartedly but in deadly earnest with others’ perceptions of himself is both delightful and tragic – he calls one instance of it, the Israeli inability to see him as Palestinian because he doesn’t conform to stereotype, as ‘the Dead See,’ a wonderfully expressive phrase.

The day went on with another six or eight speakers, all interesting, some more than just that. Scilla Ellworthy spoke about aging and the liberation it brings from all the constraints on freely expressed opinion and on resolute action – of the responsibilities and pleasures of being old, as well as of the invisibility and the frustration. A German artist-designer whom I know only as Joachim (because he was subbed into the programme at the last moment) gave a thrilling talk on the evolution of his digital design from the merely brilliant – an extraordinary 2000 production of The Jew of Malta in which Machiavelli controlled his entire computerized surroundings with the wave of his magus hand, and the singers’ emotions registered in colour-changes sweeping across clothes and masks – to the heart-stopping reintegration of physical reality into computerised design. Massive, complex dances, symphonies of movement by flying-carpets of giant ball-bearings on invisible cables would be almost banale as computer simulations, but as a physical reality controlled by software, are quite, quite extraordinary.

Other highlights included the British-Yemeni film director, Bader Ben Hirsi, on child marriage, the subject of his forthcoming film, Little Brides, made near Marrakech; and Thomas Willemeid, designer of a magical solar kiosk which brings solar electricity to remote African villages, allowing phones and lamps to be recharged and casting a pool of light in the middle of complete and almost universal nightime darkness. What it also does, and its ultimate rationale, is to address one of the main drivers that sends migrants from the countryside to the bidonville.

The TEDx formula is evidently very tightly dictated, short talks in a packed programme, with three TED fims to be shown on every occasion, chosen from the huge library of past TED presentations. We only saw two (the third broke down mid-showing, alas) but those two were remarkable: Hans Rosling on the link between population growth and religion – a link which he comprehensively debunked in a luminously clear and enlightening talk that explained the factors governing growth, and its inevitable, though perhaps not apocalyptic, future. And Paddy Ashdown on the new age in world politics, the fluid, violent transition that we are going through as the power-paradigm shifts; and the shape of the new world order. Wonderfully eloquent, often breathless, and endearing himself to me by beginning with a verse, said much too fast with an eye on TED’s remorseless digital clock, of Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

A strange and delightful day, of interesting encounters and insights; and a slightly surreal one, in very European company, and very luxurious surroundings, in the heart of the Marrakech mdina. I found myself wondering as I wandered the streets after the last session, what it could possibly offer to the homicidal Marrakchis on mopeds, roaring about their lanes and eking out their livings; or to the charming young student from Cadi Iyyad’s English Department, waitering at the station coffee shop, who saw me reading the Journal of North African Studies and stopped to talk. There’s the challenge for Morocco’s future, helping relevant and inspiring ideas escape from the riad into the zinqa.