These are all things I actually saw one night at the Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh

acrobat

That’s not Photoshop. That’s a dude standing on top of another dude’s head. They did crazier stunts, but this was the easiest to photograph.

Street performers are one of the great cultural advantages of living in a city — or at least, they can be*. They add variety, texture and flavor to a place. They remind us that art isn’t just for special occasions. And they’re one of the few things we have left to help stave off the homogenous tide of all-chain everything.

Marrakesh makes the case for street performers like no place I’ve ever been. The city’s oldest quarter, the Medina, would just be a walled Moroccan slum with a handful of crumbling palaces if it were not for the Jemaa el-Fna — the city’s largest square. It is not an architectural marvel. It wouldn’t be remarkable at all, except that it gives the people of Marrakesh the space needed to put together an otherworldly mixture of meeting place, performance venue, banquet hall, carnival and open air market. It is wonderful and terrible and strange and elemental and impossible to explain.

I’ve tried to describe the place, to construct a helpful analogy or share some impressionistic insight that will help you understand what it was like. And I got nothing. So I’m just going to list the things that I saw there and maybe by the end you’ll have a charcoal outline what I’m trying to say. Ready?

In one evening, I saw:

  • A chanting contest — like a free-style rap battle, except everyone in the audience knew the chorus and helped keep time by clapping an elaborate rhythm. And everyone was jumping the entire time.
  • A man brandishing a wrench and a vial of black liquid, screaming at a crowd of concerned Moroccan men. At his feet lay a mat covered in human teeth. He later explained to me, in broken English (and with a lot of gestures) that he was a dentist. The liquid made you feel no pain. The wrench took care of the rest. The teeth were an exhibition of his skill — they’d all been removed intact, which showed that his patients did not struggle. Then he waved the wrench at my mouth and asked if I needed his help.
  • Musicians playing drums, flutes, huge metal castanets, fiddles and a sort of three-stringed banjo. Every song I heard in the square was new to me; every song felt like I song I’d heard before.
  • Sticky-sweet pastries of all sorts covered in a blanket bees and flies. And people still bought them and ate them. Right there with the cloud of flies! But not me. Even my Fat Kid-ism has its limits.
  • Men charming snakes, antagonizing snakes and draping snakes across the shoulders of unsuspecting tourists. At one point, one of them chased after me while brandishing a long, black cousin of Nag and screaming “YOU LIKE COBRA-SNAKE.” He wasn’t asking a question.
  • Storytellers who, sadly, all wove their tales in Arabic, or else I’d share one with you. Some used props, some had actors dramatize sections of their stories and others held the crowds’ attention with only their voices.
  • Gleaming green-and-brass horse-drawn carriages pulled by horses that did not seem to be especially well-trained. They would speed up, slow down, change course and sometimes fight with each other, all very much against the will of their drivers. At one point, I saw a local child laughing at a driver who struggling with his horses. The driver turned his whip on the child*** instead, perhaps reasoning that at least he’d get the reaction he wanted out of the child.
  • Fortune tellers claiming they could look right into your soul and through to your future with a deck of cards. One of them made clients climb under a giant umbrella-tent hybrid, the better to hide their arts from the world.
  • Women drawing henna tattoos applied in layers, giving them texture — bumps and ridges and patterns emerging from the skin.
  • Men with tame falcons, hedgehogs** and monkeys they would let you hold and take pictures with for a coin or two. One of the monkeys was wearing leopard skin hotpants, presumably to cover up a diaper.
  • Merchants selling potions they claimed cured all physical ills, quieted quarrelsome spouses and could change your luck for the better.
  • Family-friendly belly dancers who twirled and shimmied in richly ornamented full body coverings and veils. I can’t imagine how hot they must have been under there.
  • Fresh orange juice stalls that were squeezing citrus at such volume that occasionally you’d be overcome with the wafting scent of citrus. It is better than fresh-baked bread.
  • Men in traditional Berber costumes who danced and sang.
  • Row after roll of baby dolls hanging from wire nooses above store fronts. From a distance, in the low light of evening, they looked like warnings to wicked children.
  • An entire food court of about 3 dozen restaurants that is constructed anew every afternoon and then taken apart at the end of each evening. Sheep brains, testicles and enormous bowls of snails were prominently featured at many stands.
  • Acrobats who flipped and twirled and climbed on top of each other to make geometric shapes.
  • A fairground-style game where people would pay 5 dirham (about $0.60) to be given five minutes in which pick up a two-liter bottle of soda using only a rubber hoop tied to a fishing pole Contestants were paid 5 dirham for each bottle the picked up. It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but the game had a hypnotic quality, with all those little hoops swaying like pendulums between the bottles. I watched it for an embarrassingly long time.
  • A man in a suit who appeared to be conducting his own version of the people’s court. He’d take a person aside and let them speak into his ear, then he’d repeat the process with one or two other people. Then he’d give a short speech and at least one person would stomp off in a huff — though sometimes everyone involved was unhappy with what he had to say. Again, this was all in Arabic and I couldn’t get a very intelligible account of what was actually transpiring. But, man, was it ever entertaining to watch.

There was more. There were things I couldn’t understand or have explained to me or even guess at. And that’s the way it should be.

The thing I liked best about the Jemaa el-Fna was that it wasn’t only for the tourists. Cities the world over are filled with attractions that no local ever goes to visit — but the Jemaa el-Fna isn’t one of them. Some of the activities were only for foreigners (like the people in the Berber costumes) and some, like the story tellers, were just for Arabic speakers. But almost everything in the square seemed to be enjoyed equally all.

The show is going on, even now as you read this. And it will keep on going until the walls of the Medina crumble to dust, for people who come from thousands of miles away and for people who walked just five minutes to be there. The Jemaa el-Fna does not put on a show; it is the show.

* In a just and perfect universe, Leonard Cohen would spend the rest of his life traveling around the world in the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by Donovan, firing a high-velocity bean-bag cannon at anyone who tried to pull off an wet-noodle imitation of Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah.” But would this task be his reward or his punishment? Only the fates know for sure.
** At one point, I saw a stray dog try to run up and eat the hedgehog. Thankfully the hedgehog’s owner kicked the dog in the face before it could get its jaws around the hedgehog — who seemed totally unaware of the fracas, or at least, no more terrified of the outside world than usual. Hedgehogs don’t see danger, only validation of their worldview.
*** It was hard to tell if the driver’s whip actually hit the child or not, but I don’t believe any serious physical harm was done.The child was wearing a jacket that would have offered some protection, though he still screamed as he ran away.

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