Thursday, December 04, 2008

Djemaa el Fna: Marrakech’s Assembly of the Dead

It seems odd travelling on an Irish airline from France to Morocco. The onflight ads are jauntily delivered in an Irish-tinged English. Yet the flight is packed with French and Moroccans heading from Marseilles to Marrakech and most of the other departures from the terminal were the same airline’s flights to Agadir, Fez and Casablanca. The carrier is of course Ryanair. The budget airline has a serious bums on seats policy and they have made significant inroads into the French-Moroccan market. As for me, this flight for 10 euro was too good to pass up. The hidden extras of checked-in baggage and credit card payment more than doubled the cost but it was still ridiculously cheap compared to European train travel. Others evidently agreed. There is not a spare seat on this plane.

And so when flight FR5152 landed on time in Marrakech, the happy travellers greet the Ryanair horserace jingle with cheers, clapping and hoots of laughter. When we get off there is much jostling for position in the passport line. The local immigration police take their time processing the queue and have to type in all the garbage information from the immigration cards onto their computers. I say garbage as my handwriting was barely legible and when asked where I was staying in Marrakech (at that stage I had no idea where I was going to stay the night), I put down “Marrakech Radisson” in a probably vain bid to seem wealthy and therefore not worth hassling. I’m not even sure there is a Radisson in Marrakech, but I knew that on my budget I certainly wasn’t staying there even if there was.

Similarly I avoid the fleet of Mercedes “grand taxies” lined up outside the terminal building and find a cheap and cheerful local bus to get me to the “centre ville”. I’m hoping that means the medina and not the new European town. The heart of Marrakech and its undoubted centre ville is the Djemaa el Fna. The name in Arabic could either mean “assembly of the dead” or “place of the vanished mosque” but there is nothing ghostlike about the Djemaa. It is a massive square packed day and night by locals and tourists alike. It is a heritage site listed by UNESCO whose cultural space is a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.

At least, that is what it said on the cracked plaque in the square. It didn’t take long for me to see it. Thankfully the bus dropped off its load in the medina at a convenient spot between Djemaa el Fna and the magnificent 12th century Koutoubia mosque, the largest in Marrakech. Around me was a flurry of activity and noise. The road space was a seething mass of activity and a never-ending contest between cars, buses, taxies, donkeys, carts, horses, mopeds, bikes and many intrepid pedestrians. It looked daunting but when I was forced to cross the road the sea of traffic miraculously parted for me. I made it to the other side safely enough even if a few motorbikes whizzed by a bit too close for comfort.

On the other side of the road, I found my “Radisson”. This was a one star just-north-of-fleabag hotel, perfect for me. It was clean enough, and most importantly it was just a couple of hundred metres from the Djemaa el Fna. The huge square is teeming with people and noise. The squeal of singers is matched by the pounding beat of African drums. From the distance it looks as if the square is ablaze with pales of smoke rising above the rooftops. On closer inspection the fires are from the endless rows of grills and the victims are piles of chickens, pigeons, snails, pigs on spits and a bevy of other unfortunate roasted animals. Perhaps the assembly of the dead doesn’t refer to humans, after all.

Each of the restaurants comes with its own aggressive spruiker or two. These guys won’t take no for answer. Or even several noes. They plant a menu into your hand, attempt to steer you to a table and even if you are still insistently against the idea, they implore you to at least take a look at the kitchen in all its outdoor glory. And assuming you are not vegetarian but are hungry (like I was), you won’t resist their charms for very long.

Charms of a different kind take place in the square during daylight hours. The musicians are still there but instead of beating out a frenzied rhythm, the music now attempts to raise snakes from their torpor. There seems to be dozens of snake charmers scattered along the square and when walking it pays to be careful and watch where you are going. Those snakes seem drugged and probably harmless but I would imagine a dozy viper wouldn’t take too kindly to being trodden on.

Behind the square lies a dense network of souks selling every produce under the sun. And there is a sun here, even in December. It gets very cold at night as winds drift down from the nearby snowy High Atlas Mountains. But during the day, the warmth comes as a pleasant change from the European winter.

The earliest travellers to Marrakech called it Morocco City. The word Morocco is derived from Marrakech which has a Berber root “murakush” meaning land of god. It was the country’s capital for many centuries with the Djemaa el Fna the city’s heart and soul. Here people met and listened to storytellers spinning their yarns. Acrobats, musicians, dancers, charmers and healers vied for attention and money. The square became a hub of trade and entertainment, a gift it has not lost to this day.

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