Marrakech’s rich history seeps through the pores of the intricate masonry on the grandiose buildings and flows through the labyrinth of covered alleys which hold the souks. Nowhere is its heritage more alive than its main square, the Jemma el Fna.
My first encounter with the famous square was in the early hours of the morning, faced with the daunting task of crossing it to reach our hostel on the other side. We were immediate targets, having practically painted the crosshatch on ourselves with our suitcases, dazed expressions and white skin screaming our novice status.
Monkeys on chains ran around the feet of their trainers while snakes writhed on the blankets of their charmers. Orange juice sellers showed an equal aptitude for charming as they enticed customers towards them, Arabic pop blazed out of the aged speakers on the music stalls, and story tellers transfixed large groups of men, occasionally pausing at tense moments to encourage the clatter of a few dirhams.
Meanwhile, food stalls, astonishingly still open at two in the morning, called out to potential customers, who were invariably side stepping the numerous henna women, waiting to catch the hand of anyone who ventured too close. Troupes of animated musicians playing Gnawa, Berber, and Chaabi music competed with each other and with the clattering of the brass or tin cups used by traditional water sellers to advertise their service.
After the initial deer-in-headlights reaction to this nightly extravaganza, we learnt to navigate the hive of activity, soon discovering that no orange juice from a carton would ever measure up to the freshly squeezed pulpy drink that cleansed your palate of the smoke emanating from the sizzling food stands. We also soon learnt that the sellers have a long memory, and that a promise to eat there the next day is not quickly forgotten.
Another lesson was that any attempt to overhear some of the tales being told in Arabic to enraptured circles of up to forty or fifty men was met with strange looks and unwelcoming closed shoulders. The stories are part of what earned the square its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, as they are the channel through which folklore is passed between generations. This was one aspect of the square that had not adapted to tailor itself to tourism.
Merchants joyfully rounding up inexperienced shoppers, children who couldn’t be over four selling their family’s wares in cave-like shops filled to the rafters with rainbows of leather slippers or Aladdin’s lamps. Tourists, identifiable by their pasty white or tomato red skin, are still easily the minority in this massive square, despite its draw as one of the main attractions of Marrakech.
Moroccans are some of the friendliest people I have met, but they can also be the most cunning entrepreneurs. While the majority of Moroccan men will allow you to take a picture of them, many will ask for payment afterwards, as culturally photographs are thought to take a piece of your soul. Most charming men offering to point you in the right direction will take advantage of the situation and walk you the whole way, even if you insist you know where you are, and then ask extortionate payment for their role as guide. However, some take you by surprise by simply bidding you farewell and leaving without so much as a nod towards your purse, while others lead you to their friend’s spice shop, where you can spend the entire afternoon being taught the use of every one of the hundreds of brightly coloured powders, blocks and bottles crammed into the tiny space before your smiling guide returns to show you to your destination.
Its bright colours and lights are outshone by the life and throbbing music that exudes from Jemma el Fna, Marrakech’s heartbeat. While the wary traveller may be turned off by its grubbiness, evidence of poverty, and insistent selling techniques, those willing to throw themselves in find ample reward. Eating on benches at a food stand we sat beside a Moroccan family, who were the friendliest people imaginable without being able to speak a word of English. Their beaming smiles were an encouragement as we braved a taste of the pastille, a sweet pigeon pie, an unusual but delicious treat.
Finally, exhausted, the traveller, with a lighter purse, ears still ringing, can dive down a side alley and retreat from the buzz to the calm safety of their riad.