Jemaa el Fna – The Square of the Jugglers
A manual for Visitors
Marrakech is not a grown city, but an urban city planned almost 1000 years ago in all details under aspects urban life development. The heart of this city – at the same time the heart of Morocco – hits the Jemaa el Fna. 365 days a year, there is high activity. Especially in the evening hours until late into the night, there are thousands of people who want to be entertained and dine here. The tourists are rather a small minority, especially in the evening. Nevertheless, there will probably be no visitor to Marrakesh who would not have visited the square.
In the seventies of the last century, the city administration wanted to convert it in a modern shopping center and a huge underground car park. It was the foreigners who lived in Marrakech, who shouted out loudly and prevented the city from loosing its most important cultural heritage. They caused the UNESCO to declare the place to be a World Heritage site, thus protecting it from the plans of the city administration. Today, nearly 50 years later, the Moroccans are also happy that this heritage has not been lost. There are no architectural attractions and no artworks. What to see, or rather to experience, is the expression of the soul of the Moroccan people. The place was declared by UNESCO to be an “intangible immaterial property and heritage of mankind”, a term which was used for the first time in the history of UNESCO. I would consider the Jemaa el Fna as “The Harddisk (or heartdisk) of the maroccan people”.
The place changes its face sveral times every day. In the morning, taxis and small buses are allowed to enter. Here most of the organized trips start in the desert, the High Atlas or to the Seaside. From noon, the square slowly fills with acrobats, snake charmers and musicians, and in the afternoon about 50 mobile restaurants are rebuilt every day. Towards evening, the square filles with spectators who want to get entertained. There are Berbers, Arabs and dark-skinned Haratins, representatives of all Moroccan ethnic groups. They all celebrate here their own music and cultural heritage. Even the somewhat attentive tourist will soon be able to distinguish between three musical styles, such as Arabic music, Berber music with drums, banjo and mutual chanting, and the trancemusics of the colorful dark- skinned Gnawas with their castanets and the Gembri, a square “bass guitar” made from camel skin, which can hardly produce more than four tones.
Around the artists of the Jemaa el Fna – they are called “Halikis” – there gether Halquas, groups of spectators and listeners, who are always actively involved in the happening. Halqua means Circle. Artist and audience form an inseparable unity. There are acrobats, musicians, travesty dancers – it is amazing in a homophobic country, but it is actually men who perform the erotic belly dance dressed as women. This is because, in a Muslim society, the Shichat, the belly dance, has been associated with prostitution and is therefore not performed publicly by women. There you can find story tellers and quacksalvers, who mostly advertise potency drugs under the curious eyes of the men. There are improvised mini-golf and bottle- fishing and, of course, the famous snake charmers and monky tamers who have already done business with the tourists during the day. All around you will find orange juice stands, where glass of freshly squeezed orange juice costs only 40 dirhams. It is very interesting and revealing how a halqua is created. Usually there
are two musicians or artists who work according to the principle of oppositeness, Good-Corp/Bad-Corp, wise man – foolish person, sad – humorous, polarizing the viewers and taking them into the process. If finally the group of the spectators is large enough and enough money collected, the performance starts.
How do you behave as a stranger, as a tourist at the place?
- Photographing: While in Morocco as a Muslim country is not liked to show or take pictures of people (never photograph without questioning and accepting a no!) on the Square photographing is even expected – but for an obolus. People live on it. The price for a photo is one Euro. If you give less so there can be trouble, but even if you have given one euro, you are often forced to give more. Stay consequent. Do not give more except ypu take many picutes. Finally the will accept. Do not give anything if the obnoxious snake charmers or monkey holders put a snake around your neck or a monkey on your shoulders without your permission. Here one should reject friendly but decidedly, or best be attentive that it does not even come to that.
- It is different with the drum and music and artistic groups and the fairytellers. Here the locals give amounts between one and five dirhams. A little more is expected of the tourists. Since tourists are in the clear minority, they are detected immediately and one will be asked to give some money, especially since the artists know that the tourists only look for a moment and then go on immediately, in contrast to the locals who frequent stay in a Halqua for hours. It is no problem to join a Halqua and keep track of what’s going on, even if you do not understand. You can accept the invitation to a circle. It may be a nice experience of berber hospitality. For me it is best to follow the faces of the people warching the show and all the the interactions.
- Problem: Hennaladys. Please pay attention. The hennamwomen take the hands of the tourists, begin unasked with Hennapainting and then want to cash for horren- dous sums. In principle, I advise against putting on tattoos, here because here the henna is often mixed with chemicals and leads to skin irritation and the prices are inflated. Do not hesitate to withdraw the hand in a decided way. Good tattoos in peace and quiet are available at the Hennacafé in Rue Zitoun near the square.
- Drink: You can safely drink the freshly squeezed juice at any orange juice stand. It costs the same amount. I recommend Stand 35. There you are friendly and not intrusive and the juice is not fancied. Also try the spice tea with spice cake at the exotic tea-bars with its large copper kettles.
- Food: In contrast to most travel guides, I strongly advise against eating in the open air restaurants on the square, even if they may look very appetizing and seductive. It is said that the restaurants are controlled and hygienicly ok, but the only time I cought diarrhea in Morocco was after a meal in the place. My guests, who do not follow the advice frequently make the same experience. In addition, as a tourist, you are almost forced into the restaurants, so the walk through the stalls becomes running the gauntlet. In addition, the intrusive waiters tell you reasonable prices and show friendly faces. You can see the prices also on the menus, but it never remains at that price. It is almost the rule that the inexperienced tourist will pay up to ten times the actual price and is ripped off vigorously. So the food ends often in an unpleasant quarrel, in which the waiters who suddenly hardly understand English or French so the guest finally gives up the fight and pays the overpriced bill. It is quite the rule that you eat here at a price, for which one of one of the best restaurants in the city could get a fantastic menu.
- Water Sellers: At a time when there were no soft drinks or water bottles on every corner, the water carriers played an important role. They offered clean and cold drinking water. With their colorful hats and the goat leather waterbag and the coin- embroidered bag, they are now a favorite photo object on the square (1 Euro per photo).
- The restaurants and terraces around the square: the Café de France from the time of the French Protectorate is still an institution and popular meeting place with a Belle Epoque appearance. The food there is however not particularly good and overpriced. Very cheap and ok is the “Toubkal” on the corner to the entrance to Rue Zitoun. Even in the early morning you can get good coffee here and for 2 Euros a good breakfast. Many tourists visit the terrace of the “Glacier” as you have the best view of the fairgrounds and the action on the square. The owners are however clever and make the view expensive: no access to the terrace without consumption. Beside the Toubkal there are also nice terrace restaurants from which one has a beautiful view. The sunset over the square overlooking the Kotubia Mosque is certainly worth to experience.
- Beggars, begging children: I give no money at the place. The beggars are often obtrusive here and I have the impression that the begging children are organized by adult criminals and have to deliver the money. Sometimes I donate an orange juice to a child or a begging mother. In principle, giving alms is strongly anchored in the Islamic tradition. The “Zakat”, almsgiving is one of the five pillars of Islam. However, the needy are never obtrusive. They know that they will never starve in their city, and the Moroccans also give generously. I have made it my principle to look closely and give several times little money every day (between 2 and 5 Dirham) to beggars. Especially the women who are sitting silently with their babies along the way have mostly a terrible fate and need help.