Uncontained, disorderly, untainted by grandeur or pomp, the ambiance of the Jemaa El Fna — the city’s thronging market square — provides what must be one of the greatest shows on earth.
The protagonists who are appreciated as much by locals as visitors are a melange of merchants, tooth-pullers, snake-charmers, fortune and story tellers, soothsayers and witch doctors, all vying for attention with loud cries and songs totally at odds with the place name which roughly translates as ‘Assembly of the Dead.’
At the center of this nerve center of Marrakech is the food market, where smoke from cauldrons and grills and light from dozens of kerosene lanterns creates an eerie haze under the desert sky. Gnaouas, desendants of Sudanese Slaves, provide the music soundtrack, with metal castanets, lutes and drums. This is also one of the few places where you’ll see Marrakechis dining out en masse.
Also known as ‘La Place ‘, Jemaa El Fna is as old as Marrakech itself. The urban clearing, as irregular in shape as an accident of nature, thronged day and night by this carnival of local life it was laid out as a parade ground by Almoravids in front of their royal fortress (Dar El Hajar). When the succeeding Almohads built a new palace to the South, the open ground passed to the public and became what it remains today — a place for gathering, trading, entertaining and even occasional riots.
Apart from a gypsy, in a previous lives I have been a white magic healer and an alchemist’s assistant. There were no doubts about my excitement around these witches, medicinal herbs, mystical powders, and Berber doctors (some of them very handsome by the way) whose teachings came straight from the desert. I would not know if amber, feathers or ostrich eggs could be used in my personal case for decorative purposes or for honest and powerful healing techniques.
Freshly squeezed orange juice (the sweetest I have ever tasted), all kind of nuts and confectionery together with the mysticism of a bustle filled with veiled Moroccan women speaking French and holding my hands for both Mehndi, palm reading and fortune telling completely spin my head around.
Life in this arena of multifaceted smells and colors at sunset reaches its peak. If Morocco is in your near plan I strongly suggest you join this fray, armed of course with a lot of change, or if you wish to watch the buzz from the sidelines step onto a quiet terrace cafe, such as Cafe Glacier. (024 422 3225)
As the air fills with smoke from grilling meat and the aroma of spices, the square fills with storytellers while I try in vain to explain to a Berber ‘doctor’ that if I burn pure trunks of Sandalwood on charcoal in my Fifth Avenue New York apartment a line of 10 firetrucks, fire alarms and the police will take me straight to jail and the evil eye ‘s plan then will be successful over me!
Jemaa El Fna has been recognized by UNESCO as part of mankind’s cultural heritage and its preservation is now secured.
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