The Jemaâ el Fna, unique in Morocco, is both the greatest pull for tourists and still a genuine social area for Marrakchi and those flooding in from the surrounding regions.
‘La Place’ is full of people hawking their goods or talents and others watching, walking, talking and arguing. It is particularly memorable during Ramadan when the day’s fast ends. Whatever the time of day or year, Jemaâ el Fna is somewhere that visitors return to again and again, responding to the magnetic pull that affects locals as much as tourists, to mingle with the crowd or watch from the terrace of the Café de France or Café-Restaurant Argana.
During the day you can explore the stalls and collections of goods: fruit, herbs and spices, clothes, shoes, alarm clocks and radios, as well as handicrafts. There are snake charmers and monkey tamers, watersellers and wildly grinning Gnaoua musicians with giant metal castanets, all too ready to pose for photographs. Sheltering from the sun under their umbrellas, the fortune tellers and public scribes await their clients. In the evening, the crowd changes again, a mix of students and people pausing on the way home from work, smart tourists strolling to restaurants in the médina – and backpackers ready for hot tagine or harira soup at one of the foodstalls. You may see Ouled el Moussa tumblers or a storyteller enthralling the crowd. Sometimes there are boxers, and usually there are groups of musicians: after much effort to extract a few dirhams from the crowd, an acoustic band will get some Berbers dancing, while around a hissing gas lamp a group will perform a song by Jil Jilala, an activist group popular in the 1970s.
More recent attractions include the nakkachat, women with syringes full of henna, ready to pipe a design onto your hands. ‘Hook the ring over the coke bottle’ is popular, while a lad with a dumb bell improvised from two old millstones will let you do some exercises for a dirham or two. You may find an astrologist-soothsayer tracing out his diagram of the future on the tarmac with a scrubby piece of chalk. A modern variation on the traditional halka or storyteller’s circle touches harsh social reality: local people listen to a true tale told with dignity by the relatives of a victim of poverty or injustice. And should you need an aphrodisiac, there are stalls with tea urns selling cinamon and ginseng tea and little dishes of black, powdery slilou, a spicey sweet paste.
Thanks to campaigning by a team led by Spanish writer and Marrakech resident Juan Goytisolo, Jemaâ el Fna has received UNESCO recognition for its place in humankind’s oral heritage....