Jemaa el-Fna The Heart of Marrakesh

Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

I entered through Bab Doukkala, an old city gate built in the 12th century to the Northern side of Medina. Walking through a maze of souks, I reached the square of Jemaa el-Fna, “la place” or “the square” as it is called in Marrakesh. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a city centre and by all means a comprehensive Moroccan cultural hub. The cacophony of sights and sound at this triangular shaped place attracts tourists from all around the world. It is a robust meeting place for Moroccans, busy merchants and engaged street performers. Together they all appear to be part of a beautifully choreographed live cultural performance right out of the Arabian Night tales. This was my second visit to Marrakesh and fourth trip to Morocco during the past decade, so I can say that I have explored a good bit of this North African wonder. Jemaa el-Fna and the old Medina are very different from any other place in the world that I have travelled. I, with a group of my colleagues was attending an international conference in Marrakesh. Every evening as soon as we would be out of the last session, all of us would ride towards Medina, the old city centre. My friends would get busy scanning the souks (markets) which are narrow streets and alleys selling everything one can think of. I personally could not get enough of the vibrant alleys clustered with pottery shops, the intricate hand-painted pieces of arts in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. If anyone got lost, which is easy roaming in these souks, we would culminate around the stalls sipping freshly pressed glasses of refreshing juice. The stalls here are brimming with brilliant seasonal fruits – which is quite a treat in the hot and humid July weather for the tourists thronging the streets round the clock.

I spent several days photographing and talking to people, marvelling at the array of exquisite handicrafts and merchandise at the souks of Medina around the square. Documenting observations while sitting around exotic squares and streets of a city around the world is one of my favourite travel activities now. One of the evenings around sunset when my friends were still shopping, I was sitting alone at one of the tea shops overlooking Jemaa el-Fna sipping mint tea listening to Azan from Koutoubia mosque. Scribbling my notes, I was thinking of an equivalent of this place in Pakistan or elsewhere that I have travelled. I found a group of tourists nearby huddled around a storyteller, listening intently to him, a tradition from 1000BC when Marrakesh was the caravan traders’ route, so much like Qissa Khwani of Peshawar. Another bunch of wide-eyed youngsters looked at the reptiles of a snake charmer. Putting down my cup of tea, I picked my notepad and chatted briefly with a few excited German girls, admiring their palms, on which one of the artists just finished a henna tattoo. I then joined the crowd and enjoyed watching the monkeys, and a performance by costumed traditional Berbers, who reminded me of Times Square in New York. Flashes of Chow Kit and night markets of Kuala Lumpur appeared in front of me upon seeing fresh produce carts and sprawling restaurants.

The narrow alleys of clustered shops selling spices, dry fruits, olives, pottery, leather, jewellery, baskets and their assertive merchants calling customers brought back memories of Sunday bazaars and Empress Market of Karachi. Jemaa el-Fna is a unique space for public, known for providing cultural activities and a chance to meet interesting people. As the night fell, the street filled with a melodious Andalusian music played by a small group of traditionally-dressed Berber musicians – my group couldn’t help join after all the shopping and haggling. The food stalls lit up and filled the air with rising smoke carrying aroma of delectable cuisine, attracting all the by-standers to the incredible array of food on display. The fun part of dining here is that one is able to enjoy a multi-course meal hopping from one food stall to another. We started from the stalls ladling bowls of harissa soup from a huge bubbling pot, which we sat on wooden benches and devoured by dipping crusty pieces of bread in it. For the main course we picked mixed sea food that was barbequed, along with roasted vegetable. Moving to a stand selling desserts, my night turned into an epicurean delight, as I sampled Ghoriba, sesame-coated biscuits, and Kunafah, a delicious cheese dessert. On our way back, we discussed how we felt that there is something mysterious here that we never felt while exploring other cities. Maybe it is the fact that the street-scape here is defined by ancient art and trade which is still thriving with tourists and locals who engage in these traditional activities like olden times. This is what makes it a UNESCO heritage site despite the lack of significant historic architecture.