Squealing music accompanies the slow rise of acrid smoke and clash of hand-beaten metal on metal. This is Jamaa el Fna square. This is Marrakech.
Toothless water sellers from the Atlas Mountains whirl in colourful headdresses, opening their empty mouths in exaggerated, money-hunting smiles. They’ve been here since the place was just desert and will still be twirling when the city returns to dust.
Stalls line the nest of activity: chubby Merguez sausages, mountains of steaming snails, fly-strewn sweets and, above all, orange juice. The Moroccans’ love of the stuff borders on an unhealthy obsession. The juice pedlars are everyone’s best friend, calling at lobster-pink tourists through the encircling din.
“Where you from? England? My juice is Marks and Spencer’s quality! None of that Aldi bullshit! Have a butcher’s, mate.” Their patter, learnt from time or friends in London, lends the dusty square a familiar, jovial air. This quickly evaporates when you spurn their advances. Eyes narrow, teeth tut in disgust and heads waggle. You’re dead to them.
Westerners either gasp in dismay or rub their hands in childlike glee at the sight of chained, sad monkeys dressed in stained baby clothes. For a fistful of dirhams you can get a picture with the poor things.
We once saw one of the monkeys break for freedom. It danced amongst the legs of shrieking women and laughing children. Its owner, sweating and bald, grasped at the slender creature with fat fingers, but only touched air. The monkey was eventually captured by a dead-end of teenagers, rebuked and squashed into its narrow box.
Similarly, you can’t walk though the square without almost stepping on jet black snakes. Their charmers, dressed in loose, cotton shirts, don’t seem particularly bothered by the gapes of the French, British and Americans. They’re there to smoke, spit and chat. Of course, they occasionally break to lure the liquorice-coloured animals into action with discordant noise, but it almost seems like an imposition. Their body language says: “Yes, we’ve got snakes – so fucking what?”
That’s Jamaa el Fna in a nutshell. As you stand in the centre of the square, listening to the echoing call to prayer and watching the ageless pantomime play out, it feels like you’re intruding. It’s for the Moroccans, not us.
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT