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Published: January 16th 2012
Never has a square been more inappropriately named. It's not even a square. Djemaa el-Fna translates roughly as 'Assembly of the Dead' but this place is larger than life, organised bedlam, the beating heart of Marrakesh. On the square, the action starts early and winds up to a night-time theatre spectacle with a cast of thousands.
Also known simply as 'La Place,' Djemaa el-Fna was laid out as a parade ground by the Amoravids in front of their royal fortress. When the succeeding Almohad's built a new palace to the south, the open ground passed to the public and became what it is today - a place for gathering, eating, trading, entertainment. The name refers to it's former role as a venue for executions, when severed heads were pickled and put on spikes for public display. In the 1970's the municipality attempted to impose order on the not-so-square square and tried to turn it into a car park. Luckily, this move was opposed and ultimately defeated. Since then, mainly due to the efforts of the Spanish writer, Juan Goytisolo (who lives nearby), Djemaa el-Fna has been registered by UNESCO as part of mankind's cultural heritage.
The orange-juice sellers are
Hands become works of art.
there morning, noon and night. Their carts, ranged around the edge of the square in 'paint your wagon' style, piled high with oranges, dispense large glasses of fresh juice at MAD 4 a shot. Other vendors, wedged into small cubby holes in the middle of their wares, offer dates, dried apricots, figs and nuts. At the north-west corner the mint sellers can hardly be seen behind great mounds of green stuff. A smattering of figures sit under ragged parasols, seated on shabby carpets, or plastic boxes. The snake charmers are in place by 10.00; thin black snakes lying in coils in front of them, or sheltered under goatskin drums. Men tote nappy-wearing monkeys on chains, and henna artists hustle for unpainted hands and feet. Water sellers with multi-coloured pom-pom hats and lollipop-red robes clank highly polished copper cups and carry what looks like bagpipes filled with water around their waists. Then there are the scribes, dentists, impotence-curing herbalists, and beggars (Moroccans give generously). Scooters and horse-drawn carriages weave through it all. It's a cacaphony of beeping, ringing, drums, and shouting with the thin reedy blast of the snake-charmer's flute ever present in the background.
At dusk things begin to
Orange juice never tasted so good.
heat up - literally. At the end of the afternoon men begin to pull makeshift kitchens into place and the square transforms into the world's biggest open-air restaurant. Benches are set under tables, and the air fills with the aroma of grilling meat. Young lads stalk potential customers with menus and big claims - '117 - straight to heaven' said one pointing to his licence number; another asked where I was from and then showed me a photo of Rick Stein supposedly eating at his stall.. You can eat tagines, brochettes, and little spicey sausages, snack on snails, and finish off with dessert - warming sweet, reddish-brown, cinammon tea served from a shining bronze urn, along with a plate of 'bkaout' spicey but sweet chocolate-brown dessert - considered a tonic and served traditionally after childbirth or during Ramadan. The rest of the square takes on the air of a theatre. Visiting Berber farmers crowd around with locals, listening to story-tellers, musicians and their transvestite belly-dancers. Smoke swirls through the dark, hangs in the air and the square becomes Dante-esque - an inferno of sound and sensation.
It all goes on until midnight, when the food stalls begin to pack
up, and the crowds thin. For a few hours only, the square is quiet. This is a show on which the curtain never falls.
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