A day in the life of Marrakesh
Dusk falls on the market square of Djemaa el-Fna. (Michael Heffernan)
From sunrise to sunset, snake charmers, storytellers, acrobats and street vendors bring the medina to life.
The heat of day
With the noon sun above them, a circle of 50 people are standing in the centre of Djemaa el-Fna, the magical heart of Marrakesh. They’re packed in tight, shoulder-to-shoulder, necks craning forward, beads of perspiration on their brows. There’s a sense of raw anticipation, an electric atmosphere, like the meeting of a secret fraternity.
Push through into the halka (opening) and you glimpse the reason they’re there. Blindfolded and with outstretched arms, a tall, swarthy Tuareg named Abdul-Rahim is on tiptoes in the middle of the ring. To the delight of the audience, he is bellowing at the top of his lungs as he recounts a tale of war and love from One Thousand and One Nights. A storyteller by trade, Abdul- Rahim’s profession is as old as the square in which he performs day in, day out.
Its name translating as the ‘place of annihilation’– possibly a hint to the time when the square was used for public executions – Djemaa el-Fna is where Moroccan people come for food, for healing and, most of all, for entertainment. The labyrinth of streets that form the medina behind it creates a natural balance to the square. They were once part of a distant desert oasis, the spot where the seed of Marrakesh fell centuries ago.
No-one who’s ever strolled through Djemaa el-Fna can forget its eclectic stew of humanity – the snake-charmers and tumbling acrobats, the medicine men and blind men, the madmen and doped-out hippies and, of course, the storytellers like the inimitable Abdul-Rahim.
Taking a break from the epic tale, he knocks back a tin mug of water. ‘I have spent 40 years out here in the sun, the rain and the desert wind,’ he says. ‘Look at my cheeks – each day is recorded on my face.’
Sponging a rag over his brow, he calls out for the audience to come back that evening when the heat has waned.
How does he know they’ll return? The storyteller grins at the question. ‘I left our hero imprisoned by a wicked jinn [genie]. Of course they’ll be back – they’re desperate to hear what happens next!’
To the left of Abdul-Rahim squat a cluster of snake-charmers, the piercing hum of their rhaita flutes bewitching all who hear it. The serpents are knocked from their rest beneath a clutch of circular drums. Dazzled by the sudden blast of sunlight, a pair of spitting cobras rear up, poised to strike. Seemingly immune to the heat, their master is dressed in a thick woollen jellaba robe, a strand of ragged calico wrapped around his head. And around his neck – its tongue licking the afternoon air – is a frail water snake, a parched desert accessory.
Slip out of the square, past the orange juice stalls and the old men who sell single cigarettes, and you reach the cool, sheltered lanes of the medina. On the corner stands a water seller, his red shirt crisscrossed with bandoleers from which brass bowls are slung, his creased face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat from the Rif Mountains. The seller, with his bright costume, brass bowls and dripping goat skins, is part tourist photo-op, part deliverer of sustenance through hot afternoons, and is synonymous with the Red City like nothing else.
With no paying takers, the water seller approaches a pair of boys playing marbles in the dust. He fills a bowl for each of them, urging them to drink the water, with the words ‘children are a blessing from God’.