The Jemaa

September 2014

All signs point to the Jemaa el-Fna, even when they don’t lead there. Marrakech’s mystical central square is the beating heart of the city.

Really, the Jemaa is two places existing in one plane of physical space, like overlapping dimensions in some sci-fi movie. By day, it is a busy but relatively normal expanse of stone, with the usual tour buses, taxi stands, carriage rides (caliches), vendors, and “juice” cart operators. Well, normal aside from these strange men wearing tall cone hats with these dangling tassles that have little balls at the end. They are always stepping into your path, trying to sell you baubles or get you to take their picture — for a price. Then there are the men with pliers offering to cure your toothache, with a jar of molars on display to attest to their expertise.

By late afternoon, when the light begins to fade, things gradually begin to transform, like the slight beat of a drum. Out come the storytellers and the women selling cures for every ailment. There also are snake charmers, but after Meknes, I expected that. As darkness starts to fall, people descend from every direction, tourists and locals. The souks begin to empty out. Everybody who is anybody joins the promenade or watches it from a sidewalk cafe or a rooftop terrace.

You could come here every night and see something you’ve never seen before.When the sun has fully set, the drum beat rises and pounds, the smoke from the food stalls rising with it. Suddenly there are street restaurants grilling anything and everything, filling the air with the haze of a thousand backyard barbeques that smell like nothing you’ve ever smelled before. Walk by and they practically grab you to take a seat on the bench. If you need a drink, they’ll send a boy to fetch it. “Come and eat,” a tout calls out. “You will not get bloody diarrhea here.” Not the best marketing slogan, but if you’re worried about your health or sanitary conditions, then you’re in the wrong place.

Berber dancers

Berber dancers

All the while, the drum beats are growing louder and stronger. Kids walk by with big balloons they’re selling or glow-in-the-dark toys you can shoot up in the sky. And the smoke has gotten thicker and more pungent. The crowd has thickened as well into a maze of tight circles gathered around street performers. Tonight there are male dancers in white tunics and red sashes doing step dances to the drumming while people crane their necks to see and take pictures. In another circle, a young man does a half-dozen cartwheels in place, then a half-dozen more. At the end of each show, someone passes the hat, tambourine, or drum, and people kick in what they want to contribute.

Each night the show is different. The performers are different. You could come here every night for a week and see something you’ve never seen before.

And the drums keep drumming. They’re all different drummers, performing different beats, but in the abstract they coalesce into one pulsating, multilayered beat that grows stronger and more entrancing, rising ever further. This is the scene where it all keeps building into a hypnotic, exotic, cacophonous climax.

And then the Jemaa explodes into a rapturous pandemonium.


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