Marrakech, Marrakech

With the noon sun above them, a circle of fifty people are standing in the centre of Jma el Fna, the magical heart of Marrakech. They’re packed in tight, shoulder-to-shoulder, necks craning forward, beads of perspiration on their brows. There’s a sense of raw anticipation, of wonder, an electric atmosphere, like the meeting of a secret fraternity.

            Push through them into the halka, the opening, and you glimpse the reason they’re there.

Blindfolded, and with outstretched arms, a tall swarthy Tuareg named Abdul-Rahim, is on tiptoes in the middle of the ring. To the delight of the audience, he’s bellowing at the top of his lungs, as he recounts a tale of war and love from A Thousand and One Nights. A storyteller by trade, Abdul-Rahim’s profession is as old as the square in which he performs – day in, day out.

            Its name translating as ‘the Place of Annihilation’, Jma el Fna is where ordinary Moroccans come for food, for healing, but most of all, for entertainment. Along with the labyrinth of streets that form the medina behind it, the square lures locals and visitors alike. A natural balance to one another, they were once part of a distant desert oasis, the spot where the seed of Marrakech fell centuries ago.
            These days getting to the red city is simplicity itself. Low cost airlines ferry tourists in from Europe and beyond. But, despite all the visitors, Marrakech has retained the allure that’s made it such an iconic destination.
             No one who’s ever strolled through Jma el Fna can forget its eclectic stew of humanity – the snake charmers and tumbling acrobats, the medicine men and blind men, the madmen and doped out hippies and, of course, the storytellers like the inimitable Abdul-Rahim.
            Taking a break from the epic tale, he knocks back a tin mug of water. ‘I have spent forty years out here in the scorching sun, the rain, and the searing desert wind,’ he says. ‘Look at my cheeks – each day is recorded on my face.’
            Sponging a rag over his brow, he calls out for the audience to come back that evening when the heat has waned.
            How does he know they’ll come back?
            The storyteller grins expansively at the question.
            ‘I left our hero imprisoned by a wicked Jinn. Of course they’ll be back – they’re desperate to hear what happens next!’
            To the left of Abdul-Rahim squat a cluster of snake-charmers, the piercing hum of their rhaita flutes bewitching all who hear it. Draw near, and the serpents are knocked from their rest beneath a clutch of circular drums.
            Dazzled by the sudden blast of sunlight, a pair of spitting cobras rear up, poised to strike. Seemingly immune to the heat, their master is dressed in a thick woolen jelaba robe, a strand of ragged calico wrapped around his head. And around his neck – its tongue licking the afternoon air – is a frail water snake, a parched desert accessory.
            Slip out of the square, past the orange juice stalls, and the old men who sell cigarettes one by one, and you reach the cool sheltered lanes of the medina.
            On the corner stands a water-seller, his red shirt crisscrossed with bandoleers from which brass bowls are slung, his creased face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat from the Rif.
            Part tourist photo-op, part functional deliverer of sustenance through the scorching afternoons, the bright costume, the brass bowls, and dripping goat-skins, are synonymous with the red city like nothing else.
            With no paying takers, the water-seller approaches a pair of boys playing marbles in the dust. He fills a bowl for each of them, urging them to drink the crystal water, with the words, ‘Children are a blessing from God’.
            With the light filtered through latticework and the sound of the muezzin calling the midday prayer, there’s a sense of limbo – the long wait for dusk.
            Nearby, is the Fondouk Fteuh.A ramshackle caravanserai laid out around a central courtyard, its shops are packed with a hotchpotch of treasures and junk. Perched on a stool amid a sea of battered old pots, pans, brass lamps, scales, and vast copper urns, is Mustapha. Gently fanning himself with a dusty magazine, he rolls his eyes, takes a sip of piping hot mint tea, and sighs.
            ‘It will change,’ he says slowly.
            ‘What will?’
            ‘All this – the fondouk, the shops, the life my family has always known. My sons don’t want any of it and I can’t blame them. All they want are computers the size of a matchbox.’ Mustapha motions to the lane outside and sighs again. ‘I’m a dinosaur like so many others out there, and we’re about to become extinct.’
            By late afternoon, the heat is suffocating, the sense of listlessness, extreme. Leaving his shop unattended, Mustapha ambles away for a shave. The medina’s streets are largely deserted, the shops selling tourist knickknacks closed up, their owners catnapping inside.
            The one stall doing brisk trade is serving up ample lunches. A row of workman are gorging themselves on individual lamb tajines, the conical pots steaming with juices. Circling their feet expectantly is a family of cats.
            A stone’s throw away is a great wooden door, lacquered dark with varnish, a fluted arch above it providing shade. Tucked away in the eaves are dozens of house martins’ nests. And, behind the door, lies one of the great jewels of Marrakech – the Kssour Agafay.
            To step across the threshold is to venture back through five centuries, the corridor spiralling upwards to a courtyard, itself open to the sky. The walls are adorned with hand-cut zellijmosaics, the floors laid in Andalucían tiles, and the magnificent doors comprised of geometrical fragments of cedar wood. The sound of water trickling from a central fountain mingles with the scent of jasmine, against a backdrop of sobriety – the kind only arrived at through the passage of time.
            As the afternoon ebbs towards evening, the medina emerges from its slumber. Within an hour, the shops are awash with people. There are tourists, of course, bargaining for all they’re worth. But, the further you get from Jma el Fna, the more ordinary the wares on sale.
            Twist and turn down the telescoping lanes, and you find a life that’s changed surprisingly little in centuries. There are shops touting simple wooden sieves and rough bellows, sacks of charcoal, salt, scrubbing brushes, and cones of sugar. There are plenty of trappings from the modern world, too – plastic buckets and cheap Chinese running shoes, satellite dishes, laptops, and mobile phones.
            Out in the square, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer as has been done five times a day –every day – for a thousand years and more. Then, as the last strains of his voice melts away into the lengthening shadows, there’s a thunderous roaring sound.
            From all sides of Jma el Fna, carts come flying forward, like gun carriages rolling out to war. On the back of each one is a jumble of cast iron staves and struts, steel grills and trestle tables. Amid the deafening clatter of hammers, dozens of food stalls are hurriedly arranged.
            On the square itself, the crowds are gathering again. Families out for an early evening stroll take in the free entertainment. Among them, Abdul-Rahim goes on with his tale, rescuing his hero in the nick of time from the jaws of death. Behind him, a band of gnaoua musicians perform, the roots of their fraternity sinking deep into the African soil beneath them. A brotherhood of troubadours, dressed in desert robes, caps embroidered with cowry shells, they brandish karkabeb, great iron castanets.
            Across from them, there’s a troupe of acrobats in matching turquoise livery, tumbling and falling, then climbing each other to form a towering human pyramid.
            On the other side of the square, past a line of stalls selling snails in hot broth, and a huddle of fortune-tellers, another circle is forming. At the centre, there’s a rough-looking giant, a week’s growth of beard on his cheeks. He’s wearing boxing gloves, and is calling out for a brave man to take him on.
            All of a sudden a young woman strides up, puts on gloves, and throws a punch. To the delight of the crowd and, against all odds, she knocks the giant out.
            Over at the food stalls, a haze of oily smoke is billowing up, as the last throes of platinum light fade into darkness. Above each stall is a number, and in front of each is a hustler cajoling lobster-red tourists and local Marrakchis to come forward and feast.
             King of the Hustlers is a fresh-faced man of about thirty who goes by the nickname Denzil Washington. Waving a laminated plastic menu at anyone within striking distance, he yells out his sales’ patter: ‘One-one-seven takes you to heaven!’ Behind him is a Moroccan smorgasbord – sheeps’ heads and beef heart kebabs, spicy merguez sausages, oysters, scallops, and fish.
            With darkness descending, the food stalls take on an almost supernatural aura. Illuminated by electric lamps, bathed in smoke, and bustling with people from all walks of life, you can’t help but be sucked in.
            Back in Fondouk Fteuh, Mustapha is packing away his wares. When asked how much he’s taken, his smile disappears.
            ‘I told you,’ he says grimly, ‘I’m a dinosaur, and dinosaurs never do well.’
            On the stroke of midnight, there’s the whooping and hollering of a marriage party far away. Against the clattering of iron castanets and the heralding of trumpets, a bride is carried through the streets on a dais towards her awaiting groom.
            Elsewhere, the shops have closed up for the night. The water-sellers, the knife sharpeners, and the cigarette sellers, have all hurried off home. A stray dog is barking loudly, but no one gives a care. Most people are tucked away in the honeycomb of courtyard homes, watching Egyptian soap operas of which Moroccans are very fond indeed.
            In the square, over a bowl of thick harira soup Abdel-Rahim is counting his coins. At the next table is the boxing giant, his young female contender seated close beside him. In a ruse that’s misled countless audiences, they are father and daughter.
            Denzil Washington rubs his eyes and gives the signal for the stall to be dismantled. Like many Marrakchis, his days are long. By day he works in an orphanage, and hustles in Jma el Fna by night.
            ‘Don’t forget,’ he calls out as I leave. ‘One-one-seven takes you to heaven!’
            The Marrakech night is punctuated by the occasional moped swerving loudly and lightless through the medina’s empty lanes. Then, all of a sudden, the call to prayer breaks the silence before dawn, and night slips into morning.
            Long before the shopkeepers have hung out their wares, it’s the time of the street cleaners. An army of them scrub where the food stalls had so recently stood, their hard-bristle brooms stripping away an evening of mutton fat.
            The medina too is given a hurried make-over. In the age of the boutique-style riad hotel, where every room has an en suite bathroom, plumbing’s a constant worry. Fifty years ago most buildings there would have been lucky to have a single loo. The majority that cater to tourists now have half a dozen or more. The result are clogged sewers, which are opened up in the night and cleaned.
            By sunrise, the scent of fresh squeezed orange juice wafts through the old city. There’s the aroma of m’simen too, and begrir, flour and water pastries, that form the backbone of the Moroccan breakfast.
            Stroll through the streets early and there’s not a foreigner in sight. In the wild rumpus of the Marrakech day, it’s those first hours that hold the most magic. The morning routine is a local one that goes unnoticed by most visitors. Donkey carts and bicycles laden with panniers restock the shops and market stalls. A woman and her daughter amble down their lane, plastic buckets and stools in hand. They’re off to the hammam. Coming the other way is a little boy, a wide wooden tray balanced on his head. He’s taking bread to the communal oven to be baked.
            By 8 am, the shopkeepers are sprinkling the street with water, keeping down the dust. Only when it’s quite damp do they begin the prolonged business of hanging out the wares, one which is re-enacted in reverse each night. At the same time, children hurry out to school in prim pinafores, book bags strapped tight to their backs.
            The souqs selling meat and produce are bustling by nine. Hordes of housewives are choosing live chickens, and selecting their vegetables one by one. In Moroccan households, essentials are bought freshly each day, even now that most homes have refrigerators.
            Through the cool morning hours the most strenuous work is done. The dyers hang out their dripping skeins of wool; the blacksmiths pound away at wrought iron grilles; and the leather tanners beat the skins. Gradually, the tourists venture out from their cosy riads and explore, taking pictures of everything that moves.
            At the far side of Jma el Fna, Mustapha the shopkeeper is sitting at Café France, a day-old newspaper spread out between his thumbs. With business so slow, he doesn’t bother turning up until the sun is right over-head. A favourite haunt of Moroccan men, Café France is an institution, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The waiters weave solemnly between the tables distributing clean ashtrays and glasses of tar-like café noir.
            By ten, M’barak, a magico-medicine man, is laying out his stall in the shadows across from where Mustapha is sitting. Dressed in the billowing indigo robes of Morocco’s south, his stock in trade includes dried damask roses and great lumps of sulphur, ostrich eggs, stork feathers, dried chameleons and hedgehogs, antimony, musk, and little phials filled with dark murky liquid.
            Of all the square’s healers, M’barak does the briskest trade. His popularity is due to the secret remedy he sells to those in the know. As soon as he’s ready, the customers start to arrive. Most of them men, they wave aside the treasure chest of obscure desert ingredients.
            ‘They come to me for this,’ M’barak says furtively, the glass phial catching the light.
            ‘What is it?’
            Pinching the end of his nose, he sniffs.
            ‘Saharan Viagra,’ he says.
            Beyond the snake charmers, the gnaoua, and the dentists touting second-hand teeth, Abdul-Rahim continues with his tale, the noon sun glaring down. With arms splayed upwards, and frothing at the mouth, he enacts the latest trials and tribulations in his hero’s life. The audience press in closer as the storyteller breaks into a whisper. Craning forward, they all gasp at once.
            A woman near the front suddenly begins to weep.
            ‘It can’t be true!’ she yells. ‘He can’t be dead!’
            Abdul-Rahim tugs off his cap and shakes it slowly from side to side.
            ‘Spare me a coin,’ he says, ‘and I’ll tell you how it ends.’
            (Written for Lonely Planet Magazine)
Click to share thisClick to share this