Jemaa el Fna at the Crossroads
At nine in the morning I walked through the large main square of Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech, the insistent sound of drums leading me from my riad through the winding alleys of the souk like aural breadcrumbs. It was a few days into my weeklong trip to Marrakech and I had already been through the square a half dozen times, with each visit offering up another version of the city I was just starting to come to know. This was my first visit to the square alone, and I was happy the drumming had helped me find my way among the sometimes-confusing snaking paths of the inner walled city known as the medina.
The square was dotted with groups of mostly men – sitting around a carpet chatting with one another, playing drums or charming snakes with a wooden clarinet-like instrument called a pungi. While I had assumed that these shows were mainly for the tourists, few were there that early, and yet the men continued on, weaving a tapestry of sound as I zig-zagged across the square, taking it all in, not pausing long enough at any of the shows to be asked for money as payment. It appeared as if this Marrakech was quietly going about its business, and despite my obvious outsider status – a woman alone, in jeans, wild curls and a pink scarf – I was free to observe or take part as I wished.
I had experienced a different Marrakech in the very same place, however, the previous evening as one of three women who had decided to visit the food stalls for dinner. Every night in Jemaa el Fnaa dedicated teams erect and disassemble dozens of tented stalls offering nearly every aspect of Moroccan food, from snails to goat brains, all cooked on the spot for just a few dirham. The calm of the square in the morning was a stark contrast to when the three of us were standing behind the filled stools at stall fourteen, jockeying for position. They had the best fried seafood and silken cumin-spiced eggplant we were told, and were worth the wait. The three of us were in jeans or long skirts, hair uncovered and clutching our purses to our chest, while men pushed us from behind and the sides, all aiming for the next open stool. After ten minutes, a twenty-something student from Fez offered up his seat and struck up a conversation in excellent English – it was clear we were westerners in a roiling sea of Muslim men. Soon, with help from our new friend, we had three adjacent stools and had placed three orders of mixed seafood.
Stall fourteen was, as reported, delicious. The fish was sweet and fresh and crispy, the smooth spice of the eggplant and traditional fresh tomato and green pepper salad a worthy complement. But the three of us agreed: we would not be getting our dinner at the food stalls every night. This most talked about of experiences in Marrakech represents one version of Morocco that a western visitor can experience. There is the frenetic energy – as we walked through in search of our stall we were accosted by workers who would aggressively block our path or tug our arms to bully us into giving them business. It was exciting, yes, but also frightening at times, in the ways that Moroccans’ perception of personal space differed from our western one. It was not unlike the trip from the airport to the riad at which I was staying – my mini-van taxi shared the road at sometimes dizzying speeds with extended families on motorbikes, the occasional mule-drawn wagon and plenty of small hatchbacks all vying to merge around one of the city’s many roundabouts.
But that morning, the food stalls were just a memory, and I circled back and turned down a narrow pedestrian street at the far corner of Jemaa el Fna, heading to a cooking class, passing women stirring soup pots in the open window of a narrow shop – likely harira, a tomato and lentil soup – to be offered in a few hours for lunch for the shopkeepers. Again, I was ignored as Moroccans went about their day.
A few hundred yards away from the square down a shadowed walkway, I pushed open the heavy wooden door of Le Riad Monceau, and experienced yet another Marrakech – the one that caters to foreign travelers with beautifully appointed rooms, excellent food and wine, and stress-free activities to help while away the day between shopping and eating. I spent the rest of my pleasant morning chopping vegetables and then enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the December sun in the riad’s rooftop dining area. Once inside the beautiful riad, I spent most of my time chatting with Europeans – in English – with the Moroccan staff offering their services whenever they sensed a lull.
In my time in the city, I experienced this same high-end European luxury while sipping expensive cocktails overlooking world-renown gardens at La Mamounia or shopping for handbags and jewelry in Lalla’s second floor shop in Geulitz, a hip, upscale neighborhood just outside of the walled medina. This is the Marrakech that continues to bring countless vacationers from Europe, eager to soak up the desert sun and indulge in the generous hospitality of the Moroccan people, coupled with luxurious, but exotic amenities.
But perhaps my favorite version of Marrakech was the one apparent in the everyday interactions. Like the hour spent chatting with a shopkeeper who I met the following day while shopping for jewelry deep in the medina. Within a minute of meeting, he had volunteered his belief that the politics that often kept our parts of the world at odds were not necessarily his beliefs. Perhaps this was at first a sales pitch, but then while I browsed his beautiful selection of antique Berber necklaces and Taureg rings, he asked a local boy to bring us mint tea and cookies. And he told me how he believed that both Americans and Moroccans were at their cores generous, open-minded people. He sought to forge a bond, even after it became clear that I wouldn’t be purchasing anything that day.
After meeting the shopkeeper I ended up back in Jemaa el Fna, which I tended to walk through at least three times a day, sometimes just to get my bearings among the winding alleys of the souk. It was late afternoon and the stalls were being erected for the evening among the crowds that populated the square; I could feel the energy changing from the daytime meandering of tourists and locals to the nightly hustle for customers among the stalls. I purchased a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the vendors who I had seen there no matter the time of day. And instead of turning back towards my riad, I took in that moment near sundown where Jemaa el Fna reflected the many versions of Marrakech that I experienced in my time there – full of both tourists and locals, people both passing through and there to work or play, men and women from around the world and around the corner who all helped define the city as a crossroads of culture, with something for everyone.