What is there about those magical cities that boast the magnetizing fulcrum of a central plaza – a place where multitudes in their rich diversity can merge into a many-hued whole? Think of the zocalo in Mexico, where even the Hacienda-walled galans mingle… just occasionally, with the campesinos, or the Bund in Shanghai, a place of strolling romantics and ageing Maoists, or Ipanema where size and age have no part in the selection of swimwear. New York doesn’t have it: Broadway is a place that real New Yorkers wouldn’t be caught dead in – its left for those waddling tourists with their shiny white sneakers and upturned eyes. And London? Picadilly Circus is a place best avoided.
Not so Marrakech, where the Jemaa el Fna is, if not the geographic, at least the spiritual center of an ancient city in an ancient culture.
It lies under the long shadow of the Koutoubia minaret, completed just as the twelfth century merged into the thirteenth. It is from within these ornamented walls that the urgent call to prayer starts long before shadows can be found – about 4.30am. Obeisance to an obelisk .
There are really three faces to the Jemaa, three phases to its day. The second call (who on earth answers the first I wonder), about 6.30am is the one that even Islamic dreamers cannot resist. From that moment on (cars are allowed to scatter pedestrians until 1pm), the place is abuzz with the still cool hurry of work-headed crowds: the whining scooters, driven mainly by men, who seem to feel more comfortable sitting almost sideways – a style of sitting guaranteed to make steering a challenge, and of course, a proof of skill; a modern Moroccan’s take on horsemanship.
And the young women – Moroccan women seem to have mastered the art of coy head-scarfed modesty with body-clinging jeans and tights that would make Allah blush.
And there are the horse and donkey-cart load carriers that tear through the parting throngs like a rehearsal for Ben Hur (which was probably filmed here, like everything else seems to have been).
Slower moving are the caleches and the cruse-ing pale ochre Renault taxis, eager for tourists with their ever open wallets. Eager too are the caleches – ornately decorated coaches whose horses are bridled with flutes of beaten copper and who clip clop their high seated customers around the city to marvel at its ornate entranceways and imposingly thick walls.
And the traditionalists – men and women in long woven kaftans with pointed klan-like hoods, who float across the wide bustling plaza like illustrations. Perhaps one or two might stop to buy a glass of orange juice from one of the many orange sellers standing high up in Cindarella sculpted wagons, reflecting the sunlight in their glowing, golden fruit.
The tourists are of course there, conspicuously obvious and economically vital. The Moroccans seem to accept, even appreciate these, often inappropriately clad foreigners. But this place doesn’t feel like just another holiday town so tarnished by tourism as to drain away the integrity of its culture. Apart from those – blessedly – alcoholic hot spots (Kosybar and Café Arabe to name a few) where non-Islamic indulgers can escape the sun’s sear with a chilly Sancerre, the place feels Moroccan to its very heart.
By midday, when the sun has reached a zenith of relentless ferocity, when even the shadows slink into doorways and shy away from the glare, the pace slows to a studied indolence. Better to duck for cover into the dark souks – those Alladin-rich tunnels of wonder that makes you feel as though you’ve suddenly burrowed underground, enfolded by stalls hawking, bargaining, negotiating the magic of Moroccan master-craftsmen. Here you’ll find leather bags of every shape and size, for which many a noble camel was sacrificed; earthenware pots, some glazed, many still the colour of the countryside; brass pots, knockers, jewelry, cutlery, dishes, trays and of course, in the bigger stalls, those layers upon layers of lovingly embroidered rugs – the carpets and kilims of the many loom-rich, wool heavy tribes, with their tea offering, you-just-have-to-look-and-don’t-buy, emissaries. And the spices: large sacks brimming with saffrons, turmeric, black peppers of various sizes, cayennes, cinnamon, and mixed spices – the irresistible Ras-al-hanout, all longing to be bought.
Finally around seven, the sun begins to think about maybe tempering its rage and the empty hot blaze of the Jemaa begins to change so that by nightfall, it has become a world of storytellers, snake charmers and celebration.
Now, scores of pop-up restaurants turn the hot grill of the open square into a magnet of hot grills – offering skewered meats, bubbling bowls of lentils and broad beans, steaming tagines and cous cous, sizzling snail soups and sundry offerings of (no doubt delicious) delicacies from other, more esoteric cuts of meat.
And all around, suddenly, new vendors have come alive, offering bargain bins of clothing from cheap Bangladeshi nylons to Nike.
There are people everywhere, and even the feared and fearless cyclists now have to put put putter their way hesitantly through the pulsing crowds. By now the tourist/local dichotomy is clear. The boldest of the tourists brave the vagaries of the street food (I fared well, my wife less so), others hover on the fringes of the frenzy, paying a few dirham for shots of themselves swaddled with snakes.
The locals, freed from the punctuation of prayer, who aren’t shopping or sightseeing are spellbound by the storytellers – those Moroccan Scherezades spinning who knows what fantasies to their hushed audiences.
I never found out what time all this nocturnal activity dies down. Maybe the 4.30am call to prayer isn’t. Maybe it’s just some paternal muezzin reminding late night celebrants that it’s time to go home, time to get ready to face another day.