Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marrakech, Part II: Djemaa el-Fna

We saw so much of Marrakech during our four days there; but had we simply stood in one spot in the Djemaa el-Fna the entire time, looking around, taking it in, our trip would have been no less interesting.

Djemaa el-Fna is the main square of Marrakech, the throbbing heart of the city for both tourists and locals. Calling it a “square” is wholly inadequate and inaccurate: it suggests a certain familiarity, a certain refinement, and Djemaa el-Fna is anything but refined and familiar. Around the edges of Djemaa el-Fna are shops, cafes, restaurants, and small newspaper stands. In the heart of the square are donkey-drawn carts piled with dried fruits and nuts—dates, apricots, figs, almonds—and buzzing with flies. Interspersed among the dried fruit carts are glass-encased carts full of oranges, where you can buy fresh-squeezed orange juice (unless you’re a tourist with a wary Western stomach). At night, these carts multiply a hundredfold with the food stalls, some selling steamed snails, others boiled lambs’ heads with teeth intact, and smoke fills the air.

If you need dried chameleons or spare human teeth, you’ll find them in Djemaa el-Fna. Around the square, wrinkled apothecaries have their wares spread out on rough blankets: dried and live chameleons, turtles, skins of all kinds, powders, potions, herbs, and barks. Piles of human teeth and discarded dentures are displayed on small tables. Water sellers circle the square with tin scoops and heavy leather bags of water. Fortune tellers sit with clients; storytellers draw huge crowds of rapt robed men around them. You have to be constantly on guard against the veiled women offering henna tattoos, who will grab your hand and squirt henna onto it—“Just a flower, for luck”—if you don’t refuse aggressively enough (I had to jerk my hand away so roughly it actually hurt). Snake charmers face off with black cobras; and their lilting, ominous, discordant music mingles with the rhythms of drum circles and, five times a day, the wailing call to prayer blasting from the Koutoubia minaret.

We ate several meals at cafes and restaurants overlooking Djemaa el-Fna—places where we were careful to order specifically from a menu; we’d learned our Marrakech lesson the hard way at the food stalls on our first night. At Le Marrakechi, I had chicken, olive, and lemon tagine; Andrew had lamb brochettes. At CafĂ© Argana, we had chicken and pigeon pastillas, flat pastries stuffed with meat and dried fruits and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. We had lovely food away from the square as well, at Restaurant 33 in the “new city”: eggplant caviar and vegetable couscous for me; a cheese omelette and lamb tagine for Andrew. And everywhere, sweet, nutty, honey-drenched Moroccan pastries, and endless pots of sugary mint tea.

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