In my wildest dreams and most intrepid travels I have never encountered such an intense, exotic scene as the nightly market of Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco.
Commonly known as ‘the big square’, Djemaa el-Fna is the centre of Moroccan exotic displays, where traders, touts and performers have been gathering for a thousand years. As the tenacious Moroccan sun burns itself out, casting a dying pink hue across the stone-walled medina, the day-dwelling touts, storytellers and juice vendors welcome the night shift of food stalls, musicians, dancers and snake charmers. Cross-eyed cobras twist and twirl at your feet and monkeys in dresses catch tourists unawares. Berber women in colourful cloth try their best persuasion tricks to sell bracelets, henna and scarves.
In the centre of the square, the nightly food market is lit by swinging bulbs and shrouded with smoke. It comprises rows of carts, stoves and tables waited by men in white coats and serves all manner of exotic foods– snails, camel, kofta and sausage, tagines and salads and sweets. Each stall seems to specialise in something and all will try to usher you in with their jokes and charm: “You not eat yet, you skinny Minnie, starvin’ Marvin, see you later alligator”.
In the darker spaces edging the square you will find more mystic things. There are belly dancers jingling, acrobats flipping, flame twirlers creating golden arcs in the night, and drummers gathered on the still-hot pavers. The brightly-lit souqs line the other side of the square and continue to trade into the night, selling shoes, clothes and trinkets among rugs, furniture and jewellery.
My first encounter of the Djemaa el-Fna evening madness was an abrupt smash to the senses. I wandered out, relaxed after a filling meal, with my guard down and head turned to every exotic distraction. Within minutes I found myself penned by two Berber women selling henna. Despite my at-first polite, and increasingly stern protests, my elbow and wrist were secured and gluggy brown henna was scribbled across my hand. Once the damage was done, I resigned to it all and payed far too much for the vandalism (which I bashfully wore for the two weeks after).
Hand wet with henna and defensively held, I dodged my way through the crowds, avoiding the man with the python, ducking out from the hat put on my head with a demand for money. I aimed for a drumming circle, past the strange ‘apple bobbing’ contest but was paused at every step by a tout or beggar or performer. It all felt a bit like being the ball in a pinball machine.
My second and third nights were much more enjoyable. I knew what to expect and I was ready for the challenge, seeking the exotic thrill without the sour taint of my first encounter. Armed with assertiveness and a good dose of humour, Djemaa el-Fna was more like a friendly circus than a haunted house, laced with enchantment instead of intense confusion. I realised that for every aggressive tout there was a gentle soul, for every greedy child there was a generous mother, and for every near miss there is a cultural delight.
Dinner at no. 32 ‘restaurant’, which we lovingly dubbed ‘Smokey House’, was perhaps my highlight experience of Djemaa el-Fna. Crowded along trestle tables, the locals love this place, which specialises in little fried sausages dipped in chilli sauce and served with bread. For only 30 Dirhams per person we ate to bursting and had front row seats to the frying, yelling, laughing logistics of the kitchen.
Tips for surviving Djemaa el-Fna:
Learn ‘no thank you’ in Arabic and wear your assertive coat out for the night. I learnt it phonetically ‘la shook-raan’, said with a smile at first and then a straight face and hand gesture to enforce the point.
Don’t carry things you don’t need, like excess cash or cards. The square is busy and distracting and it is just easier not to worry about your pockets and purses.
If you clearly said ‘no’ to an offer of help and you were helped anyway, don’t be pressured into tipping. This rule also stands for the people in traditional costume that thrust themselves upon you for a photo, despite protests, and demand a tip even if no photo was taken.
It is customary that you tip performers after you stand around and watch. Carry change in your pocket to save the wallet withdrawal and make sure you give it to the people who performed, not other people wandering with a tin and taking advantage.
Know the worth of things. I worked out that 1.5L water is 5-6 Dirhams everywhere but the square, where it costs 10 Dirhams. A taxi from the big square to the new city for 3-4 people should not cost more than 30-40 Dirhams, which is still too much by local standards but the least we could barter down to.
Avoid the snakes, seriously! I saw quite a few tourists with cobras over their feet or pythons around their neck while they were being harassed for a tip. If you really want the experience, be willing to pay as you give up all authority once a snake is wrapped around you.
Watch out for the henna ladies. I am understandably a little embarrassed and a little bitter (just a little) about my henna attack but have it on good authority that you can have lovely henna done if you sit, explain and pay a reasonable price. Just don’t pause to talk if you’re not interested.