Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Djemaa el-Fna: Freshly Squeezed

A little factoid I read somewhere epitomized the experience of Marrakesh for me, "For a while, Marrakesh acted as the capital city in the area, but during the shakeup at the beginning of the century the capital seat moved to Rabat and Marrakesh went back to its original persona - a carnivalesque madhouse." In some ways, Marrakesh is the New Orleans of Morocco, except that the city has been putting on the same outdoor, chaotic, brilliant streetshow in Dejemaa el-Fna square every night for over 1000 years. (1000 years!) We got drawn into the wild ride while we were there and I thought it would be fun to relate the experience to you. So, I'll give it a shot, even though you can bet it was crazier than I'll be able to capture in words and images.

So, to begin: during the day Djemaa el-Fna (or just el-Fna to locals) is an oddly shaped square in the middle of a big city. There are the occasional motorbikes racing through, crowds milling around shopping and eating at the vendors in the stores around the perimenter, etc. Vendors are selling fresh squeezed OJ that they squeeze when you order it. The normal stuff for a big city square. The only real hint that things are about to get nutty is a little plaque on the edge of the square that says that UNESCO has declared the streetshow and life of the square to be part of the "Oral and Cultural Heritage of the World."

As the sun lowers in the sky, it becomes nearly impossible to work your way through the crowds on the side streets leading up to the square. Tourists and locals vie for deals at the shops, for good tables at rooftop restaraunts from which to watch the action, and the noise and energy of the crowd ramps up noticably.

All of the sudden it begins, street performers are everywhere, gathering circles of onlookers three or four people deep. There are snake charmers wailing on flutes to coax hooded cobras out of baskets (and mothers snatching their children's fingers away). There are cross-dressing belly dancers who will run right through the crowd to demand money from you if they catch sight of a camera (see video for proof of that one). There are henna artists, fortune tellers, carnival games, and people, people, people.

The ones who generally steal the show though are the Gnaoua musicians with fez tassels swinging around their heads and castenettes clanging in their fingers. If you are lucky (and willing to slip them a few durham) you might get to take part in their act.

This is one of my favorite pictures from our times in Djemaa el-Fna. We approached a big circle to see what was going on. There was a clown comedian in the middle, who saw our white foreheads over the crowd and called out to us in French. "Where are you from? England" No. "France? Australia? USA? Germany? Canada?" Yes. Canada. "CANADA" he replied. "ME TOO!" Big applause and laugher from the audience. From then on we became part of his act, the straight guys to his belligerance, the willingly participating butt of the jokes. (All fairly clean and remarkably respectful thankfully). At one point he pulled Sarah out into the middle of the huge circle of locals for pictures and jokes. Check out the sea of faces watching Sarah and the guy in this picture.(Sarah was extremely brave and accomodating as I admittedly quivered behind the camera)

Ah, and did I forget to mention the food? As the street show begins about a hundred food vendors roll out tables, grills, food, etc and set up temporary restaraunts in the middle of the square where they'll cook your food right in front of you as you sit squished next to a mishmash of tourists and locals as they eat their evening meal. Snails, cow brain, rabbit, eel, it's all available. Our waiter came around and asked if we wanted some traditional Moroccain salads? Yes please. Flatbread? Indeed. Mixed kebabs. You betcha. Mixed fish fry. Please, like that wasn't a given. In the end we worked our way through a mountain of freshly cooked food, rubbing elbows with a couple from DC on one side and an extended Moroccain family on the other, the children of whom had to sit on the parent's laps to make them all fit.  (Thanks to Paul for the recommendation on Stall #22.)

So that's the briefest of recap on our nights out in Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh. As I said before, Marrakesh is a bit carnivalesque - the square, the souqs (markets), the winding mysterious streets - and in some ways this is all a big show, but it is certainly a brillant one and it's also a big part of the life of those that live here, and has been for a 1000 years, so there's a wonderful authenticity about it as well.

Seville Spain next on the agenda!

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