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Sunday, 18 March 2012

Marrakech & Jamaa el Fna

Jamaa el Fna

The very 1st time I in was in Marrakesh (5 years ago), the first thing I did was to go to the Jamaa El Fna, better known as The Square’ or as the local call it ‘Jamaa’ or ‘La Place’.  and I found it incredibly scary.  The following time I embraced it – so to speak – and really enjoyed it ever since.
As I always stay at riads around the corner from Jamaa, I am in and out of it at different times of the day.  La Place is a huge square and very confusing, at busy times, if you have not been there before and got your bearings.  The 2nd time I got to see her it was deserted as early in the morning, when the street cleaners were giving her a thorough cleaning before it all started again.  Then so it again and again at mid-day when the stall holders started preparing for the days’ trade.  At dusk the lights and music envelope you as you go around and early in the evening, when it reached its peak, with its music, noisy, smoky and busy atmosphere, which makes part of her charm.  At night it becomes more manageable, a little less noisy and almost in a relaxed mood.

I am sure that going through during the day helped me to demystify it.  I got my bearings and I learned not to get lost and - very importantly - to get back to my riad!

Jamaa is a very large and irregularly shaped square.  In fact not at all a square more like an elongated trapezoid shape and therefore it’s easy to take the wrong corner / alley.  Get your landmarks and in no time you are wondering around it like one of the locals (minus motorcycle – more of these later).  I have run a couple of videos and I hope they are good enough to give you an idea of it.

This reminds me that as I was filming one of these, locals were not aware of what I was doing (as I was using my camera and clearly not taking pictures as my camera was at arm’s length and I was walking) so as I was wondering with my camera set to ‘video’ I got almost thrown a snake (yuck! :-~) and a monkey!!  It seems a lot of tourists in Marrakesh welcome the idea of having a picture taken with a monkey or a snake on or near them!  No accounting for tastes, and can you imagine the fleas on the monkeys?  Because they did not seem at all very clean or well looked after!

 What populates the El Fna? 

As you approach it from the big main Mosque, the Kartouba, there is a whole road / avenue full of ‘pony and trap’ awaiting to take you around the town and ‘skin you alive’ ..ehm, sorry, take your money (a lot of it!!).  As you reach the actual square there are all the monkeys and snake enchanters I told you above.  Also there are groups of singers and dancers who gather in large circles and play local traditional musical instruments and perform.  Somewhere I read or heard that the dancers are men dressed as women.  I must say I did stop once or twice to look at them and I could not decide one way or another... uhmmmm ... interesting.  Then you encounter ladies who are happy to give you henna tattoos and / or read you the tarot cards all for a modest fee. Just beware you only want the brown henna, not the black which is toxic.

Once you manage to pass this first layer of people, you reach the stalls.  On one side are the food ones. Proper mini kitchens/restaurants cooking food and perfectly equipped so you can sit and enjoy a meal in the open, usually balmy and warm evenings.
On the other side are fruit sellers: either of oranges, that they squeeze in front of you there and then (best way for you to see them doing it and then you know what you get) and the sellers of dry fruits (dates, figs, various nuts, etc.).  On one side of the square there is also a large stall holder selling lots of plants.  And finally you reach the other side of the square and the shops that border it and various entrances to the ‘souq’.

At another corner of the Jamaa there is a group of local people selling their wares.  You find the one selling incense and various oils, sticks and so forth; then the ladies that have weaved beautiful typical straw bags with geometrical colourful designs and sizes.  More of the tattoo and tarot ladies and then, my favourite ladies, of any age and mainly young with their young children or very old.  They all sell some wonderfully tasty small cakes, I think they are made with almonds and orange essence.  They are kind of macaroons, soft inside and crispy on the outside.  I love them.  They are incredibly cheap (you get two for 2 dirham, which is 15 pence - in less touristy part of town you can get them for 1dh, 7p!!!).
What I love about them is – apart from being really tasty – that I could eat them without worrying about spices (I am allergic to them), they provide a quick snack while you are out and about, and most of all you help these poor, poor people.

To think of all the work these women have done, during the day, to produce a batch of cookies / macaroons to sell in the Jamaa later in the day – you mainly find them from mid afternoon onwards – to get some extra money for their families or to help them survive.  The majority of the women have children with them and the kids are happy to ‘set up shop’ too and sell not far from their mums.  I bought from one or two of these children – their smile when they sold you a biscuit was amazing!  They would look at mum for approval and mum would nod a go ahead.  All the children I dealt with were too young to know how to count money and give change.

One evening I was stocking up on snacks and food as I was travelling back to UK the following day and – on that occasion I didn’t know if the snow would let me return home on the day I was due to fly back.  It was a bit later than usual when I got to the square and not many macaroon sellers were about.  I found this lovely lady, she had a very sweet, soft face and seemed I pain.  Ouch, ouch she was half murmuring – loud enough though that I could hear her above the surrounding noise as I was standing in front of her.  In my rusty French I asked her what the problem was and she pointed at her chest.  Under several layers of clothing – let’s not forget they are Muslim – she was breast-feeding her baby – he was very young – and it was hurting her while he was sucking at her nipple.  It was so touching and so sad at the same time!
All part of life in Marrakech.

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