Crossing the Djemaa – cutting past, child boxers, clowns, contortionists and mangy trained monkeys – your ears are assaulted by rolling waves of noise as one sound gains dominance over its successor, only to be vanquished by the next.
Many of these sounds are permanent landmarks of informal professional ‘territories’: if you were to turn and retrace your steps you would hear the same sequence in reverse, like the climbing and falling scales of a xylophone.
I quicken my step past a troop of acrobats as their tape recorder blares out their determination to dominate the square and slow again as my step synchronizes with a low, steady drum beat. Searching out its source amongst the legs of the crowd, I find six shoe-shine boys drumming-up-custom with their brushes on wooden polish boxes.
Some professions are noticeably more mobile than others – the ankle bells and tamborines of gnaoua dancers (traditionally a transvestite brotherhood) are never far away. As a young man walks towards me I see the hopeful look in his eye at the same instant that I become aware of a faint tinkling sound coming from a few coins in his hand. This jingling, accompanying his constant patrols around the square, is a clear sign to everyone that he is a cigarette seller. This one has a side line, however.
“Sss, monsieur! wan’ hashish?” he hisses.
The Djemaa el Fna of today is a much safer place to pass an evening than it was when I last visited, fifteen years ago, when the cautious mingled with the crowds carrying only what they could afford to be relieved of. It was universally respected as the lair of some of the most aggressive ‘guides’ outside of the infamous Tangier harbour. Extortion was their primary source of income: they’d harass tourists to the point when in desperation they would gladly pay merely to be left alone.
Through the crowd children, dressed in rags, still run and quarrel through the crowds. When I first came here some were known as experienced beggars, pointing out shoeless feet as badges of their profession. They’d earned a place in Djemaa-lore as expert pick-pockets and were grudgingly respected for some of their more ingenious misdemeanors. Businessmen were often the victims of some of their most imaginative robberies: while friends stage a distraction a piece of cardboard swipes upwards, with practiced speed, between jacket and shirt and, with his laughing accomplices as a ‘rear-guard’, the petit gamin melts into the crowd with a neat row of pens hooked to the top of his board.
Recently a more obvious, although not heavy-handed, police presence in the Djemaa has fostered an apologetic, almost endearing, characteristic in the few remaining hustlers and aggressive guides are a thing of the past.
As the sky begins to blush the best place to head for is one of the terrace cafés on rooftops around the square. Southwards, over the stretching palm trees and the castellated roofs of the palace, the ravines in the mountains seem to bleed as the snowy peaks reflect the spectacular blood-orange sunsets of the High Atlas.
To the west the Koutoubia Minaret, nearly seventy metres high and nine-hundred years old, is perhaps the most famous landmark in Morocco and its silhouette forms the perfect backdrop to the changing scene down in the square.
The centre of the Djemaa is now occupied by food stalls. Tables are piled high with couscous, fish, chicken, harirah (meat and egg soup), tajine, vegetables, eggs, rice, salads and kebabs. Three or four dollars will buy you a meal of half a dozen meat kebabs with a seksou (stew) and salad, a coke, warm khobz (small loaves) and as much of the refreshing ‘whisky Marocain’ (mint tea) as you can drink.
Because the cooking is so visible the standards of cleanliness are perhaps higher than in many restaurant kitchens and the only stomach complaints that I heard of were from over-eating; it’s impossible to sample everything. The vendors of boiled snails – along with the boiled meat stalls specialising in heads, brains and feet – are frequented almost exclusively by Moroccans.
Clouds of blue smoke billowing up from all of these stalls flare around swinging lanterns and make the chain of orange-carts look more like a wagon-train barricade.
In the alleyways leading onto this laager are rows of market stalls which operate late into the night. A whole section is reserved for the fine spices that have traditionally arrived in Marrakech on camel trains from all over North Africa. I once sampled and haggled for three little bags of varying fire-power. One was more expensive than the others because: “…Well, of course, this is fine a mixture of only the best…”
Not only were three pre-sealed packets of identical…but they were almost entirely sawdust. Far from being disappointed, my little bags of ‘gold dust’ seemed to symbolise the unknowable mysteries of Marrakech. The spice of life.