My first evening was the worst.
Like a slap in the face, leaving me bruised and winded, not knowing where to look.
The central square of Marrakech, Djemaa El Fna, shocked me physically, its enormity making me feel as though I had dived into a whirlpool, pulled apart and assaulted from all sides by motion and smell, by bright, dizzying colors.
It drove me away.
Almost. I tried two vantage points, both along the uppermost balconies of the largest cafés. One was across the food stalls near the Koutoubia Tower and the other along the narrower edge because no, it’s not really a square but an L-shape, a place, a djemaa, a congregation. Neither spot allowed me to see it in its heaving entirety.
From my balcony I see an older man in a traditional faded blue djellabah, telling a story, a scary story. His listeners are spellbound as he gestures wildly, his arms swooping and diving and touching, possibly invoking spirits and warning his audience that bad things will happen unless… probably unless they reward him handsomely at the end of his story. Unsettled, I look away, having crossed his gaze, a little afraid. Why do I feel he can somehow penetrate my soul? I don’t know what he is saying, but I can feel what he means, and it doesn’t feel good at all.
I retreat to street level, where small bands of children dart in and out of cafés to beg a penny or two before being spotted and chased by owners concerned about the comfort of their customers. Along the skyline sit rows of satellite dishes, their dirty white plates resting against the warm ochre walls and rooftops. They poke upward like birds settled in for the evening, big round beaks open and ready to eat the latest programming beamed in unintelligible tongues from around the world.
Djemaa el Fna at night is smoke rising from dozens of food stalls, thick and clinging in my throat, watering my eyes and whetting my want for the grilled crackle of fatty lamb. It is men in white aprons waving long menus in my face, teasing me, at times crowding my personal space, making me want to run rather than eat.
“Come, come, the best brochettes in Marrakech! You eat here!”
On my left, at the far end of the Djemaa, the sun sets slowly, almost against its will, each minute gliding into the next. It waits, waits to be pushed another millimeter towards twilight in an almost hypnotic ballet so slow it barely moves.
Finally comes night, the real night, the sun extinguished. The Djemaa awakens, a different awakening, one which pushes forward its darkest recesses for everyone to see.
But I get ahead of myself.
Good Day, Djemaa el Fna!
As morning light glides across the square like honey over bread, stalls spruce up for a day of business, carpets are dusted and exhibited, carts unpacked, and the smell of breakfast coffee wafts across the still uncrowded expanse. But soon, soon, the intangible bustle turns into something more substantial, into a marketplace, a place where one markets, where one sells and buys things, where money is exchanged.
The diminutive stalls provide the first pull. Soft beiges and vivid turquoises of slippers, the symmetry of red and blue and cream carpets from the desert or the mountains, supple bags whose smooth skins make it almost painful to pull your hand away, and bright blue pottery urns so huge not even a spare suitcase could carry one home, all thrust forth so irresistibly only a stone would remain unaffected. Even I – relatively inured to market wiles – will end up buying a crimson ceramic dish for my bathroom. The salesmanship is astute and professional, though the cutthroat hard sell I remember from a visit long ago has muted into a slightly more genteel, lower-key come-on.
“Come my stall, I cheap carpet, only look,” says an enthusiastic young man.
No thank you.
“Touch bag, love bag, buy bag.” I found this one harder to resist.
The salesmen, almost always men, keep their voices soft, increasingly cautious against the backdrop of tourist police desperate to upgrade the Marrakesh experience.
The temptation to stop, touch and buy is stronger in Morocco than anywhere I’ve experienced save perhaps the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. How can I ignore leather so silky it feels like fur, intricate metalwork shaped by loving hands selling for less than an IKEA bucket, or perfectly precise pyramids of shiny green olives dripping with brine? I can’t, not really. I only postpone the inevitable, walking past a dozen times before eventually being ensnared by sales techniques as ancient as the sand dunes from which they come.
Beyond the stalls, inside the square proper, the wide spaces not yet occupied by orange juice sellers or date stands hold the true heart of Djemaa el Fna. Beating today as it has for centuries – no one knows how many – it attracts the curious who know they should look away in disgust but still feel compelled to partake in ‘pleasures’ they would never indulge in at home.
Like posing with a monkey, forbidden in many countries because no one knows how well or poorly these creatures are treated after being wrenched from their mother at an early age.
Or watching in awe as a man in a wool cap grabs his flute. He blows a few irregular notes and removes the top of a taut drum out of which a snake pokes its head, jarred from its sleep and inevitably harmless, as you would be if your jaw had been sewn shut or your venom removed.
Or tall men in flowing robes, swaying for a few beats to invisible music, twirling around you, closer, closer, almost like a chaste lapdance designed to part you from your money.
As daylight takes firm hold across the Djemaa, taxis weave slowly through the crowds, hoping for a tourist fare. That’s unlikely. Tourists are dragging their wheelies behind them in the heat as they scrutinize scrunched pieces of paper with scribbled addresses, searching for their hotel, a traditional riyad, which was promised to be ‘right on the square’.
In the growing midday heat, the elderly seek out patches of shade, their white djellabas fluttering in the wind as they park themselves on a cool slab of stone or in the shadow cast by a doorway. Only foreigners dare brave the temperature.
The quiet of the heat is deceptive. Here and there, a flute sends its notes through the air, a drum is echoed by another and then another, reviving the Djemaa el Fna, jolting it out of its lunchtime lethargy.
As the day slinks by, the shadows lengthen and a slight breeze picks up. Cafés begin to fill, foreign patrons jostling one another for position along the parapet at sunset, still searching for that elusive photograph. Locals, accustomed to the riot of purples and reds hanging in the sky, are content to chat, flirt, and drink cup after cup of steaming tea.
Food carts are wheeled into their spots, displacing snake charmers, monkey trainers and storytellers in an age-old dance that glides from day into evening. Fires are started, meats set on grills, and the familiar smell of sizzling fat drifts up to the balconies, gripping our collective taste buds and tearing us away from our intentions to capture the sunset.
The evening waltz of welcome begins again as waiters exhort you to try their staples but also more unusual fare, the large vats of snail soup and the blood-red merguez sausage which vie with the mounds of chopped tomato and onion that will accompany your grilled meat skewers. If in doubt you might choose Stand #1, owned by Aisha, the only woman with a food stall on the square. A portly woman with a patterned scarf on her head, she watches intently as her all-male staff serves up chicken and fish, a slight smile brightening her face when she hears a customer smack his lips with delight. Along the ground, birds and cats weave in and out, competing for scraps.
I walk by, my stomach clenched, unable to shed the tense excitement of so much happening at once.
Beyond the stalls the drumming is now faint, replaced by the hum of hungry crowds and the flapping of white plastic awnings in the wind.
Families bring their children out at this hour, a relaxed stroll in the cool evening air but also a stroll of madness in which hands must be gripped tightly lest they be lost. The crowds are thicker, people hold their wallets tighter, balloon sellers materialize, as do young boys selling neon plastic contraptions that are catapulted into the sky, like fluorescent comet tails zipping across the night above the square.
Here and there, especially if business has been slow or closing time is near, hurried whispers carry a sense of urgency: “Come my store! Please, see only!”
It is nighttime again and the circle closes. Streets are swept, shutters pulled down, and carts covered and wheeled away. Tomorrow it will reopen, as it always has, a peculiar two-step of day and night which has been performed since camels rather than cars roamed the Djemaa.
Djemaa el Fna isn’t a place to be seen, but to be felt, an event to be lived through a 24-hour cycle after which you may leave, having finally earned the right to reclaim your peace.
Photos by Anne Sterck