From sunrise to sunset, snake charmers, storytellers, acrobats and street vendors animate the old walled city.

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’.

 With the light filtered through latticework and the sound of the muezzin calling the midday prayer, there’s a sense of limbo – the long wait for dusk. Nearby is a ramshackle caravanserai laid out around a central courtyard, its shops packed with a hotchpotch of treasures and junk. Perched on a stool amid a sea of battered old pots, pans, brass lamps, scales and vast copper urns, is Mustapha. Gently fanning himself with a dusty magazine, he rolls his eyes, takes a sip of piping hot mint tea and sighs.

‘It will change,’ he says slowly.

‘What will?’

‘All this – the fondouk [a storehouse and workshop], the shops, the life my family has always known. My sons don’t want any of it and I can’t blame them. All they want are computers the size of a matchbox.’ Mustapha motions to the lane outside and sighs again. ‘I’m a dinosaur, like so many others out there, and we’re about to become extinct.’

By late afternoon, the heat is suffocating, the sense of listlessness extreme. Leaving his shop unattended, Mustapha ambles away for a shave. The medina’s streets are largely deserted, the shops selling tourist knick-knacks closed up, their owners catnapping inside.

The one stall doing brisk trade is serving up ample lunches until sunset. A row of workman are gorging themselves on individual lamb tajines, the conical pots steaming away. Circling their feet expectantly is a family of cats.

A stone’s-throw away is a great wooden door, lacquered dark with varnish, a fluted arch above it providing shade. Tucked away in the eaves are dozens of housemartins’ nests. And, behind the door lies one of the jewels of Marrakesh – the 16th-century Kssour Agafay. A lynchpin of the old medina, the riad – now a guesthouse – is a showcase of ancient Moroccan craft.

To step across the threshold is to venture back through five centuries, the corridor spiralling upwards to a courtyard, itself open to the sky. The walls are adorned with hand-cut zellij mosaics, the floors laid in Andalucían tiles, and the magnificent doors comprised of geometrical fragments of cedar wood. The sound of water trickling from a fountain mingles with the scent of jasmine against a backdrop of sobriety – the kind only arrived at through the passage of time.

The night awakes
As the afternoon ebbs towards evening, the medina emerges from its slumber. Within an hour, the shops are awash with people. There are tourists, of course, bargaining for all they’re worth. However, the further you get from Djemaa el-Fna, the more ordinary the wares on sale. Twist and turn down the telescoping lanes and you find a life that’s changed surprisingly little in centuries. There are shops touting simple wooden sieves and rough bellows, sacks of charcoal, salt, scrubbing brushes and cones of sugar. There are plenty of trappings from the modern world, too – plastic buckets and cheap Chinese running shoes, satellite dishes, laptops and mobile phones.

Out in the square, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, as has been done five times a day, every day, for a thousand years. Then, as the last strains of his voice melt away into the lengthening shadows, there’s a thunderous roaring sound.

From all sides of Djemaa el-Fna, carts come flying forward, like gun carriages rolling out to war. On the back of each one is a jumble of cast-iron staves and struts, steel grills and trestle tables. Amid the deafening clatter of hammers, dozens of food stalls are hurriedly arranged.

On the square, the crowds are gathering again. Families out for an early evening stroll take in the free entertainment. Among them, Abdul-Rahim goes on with his tale, rescuing his hero in the nick of time from the jaws of death. Behind him, a band of spiritual Gnaoua musicians perform, the roots of their fraternity sinking deep into the African soil beneath them. They are a brotherhood of troubadours, dressed in desert robes, having emerged from the Sahara. Their caps are embroidered with cowry shells and they brandish qarkabeb (great iron castanets).

Across from them, there’s a troupe of acrobats in matching turquoise livery, tumbling and falling, then climbing each other to form a towering human pyramid.

On the other side of the square, past a line of stalls selling snails in hot broth, and a huddle of fortune-tellers, another circle is forming. At the centre, there’s a rough-looking giant, a week’s growth of beard on his cheeks. He’s wearing boxing gloves and is calling out for a brave man to take him on.

All of a sudden a young woman strides up, puts on gloves and throws a punch. To the delight of the crowd and, against all odds, she knocks the giant out.

Over at the food stalls, a haze of oily smoke is billowing up, as the last throes of platinum light fade into darkness. Above each stall is a number, and in front of each is a hustler cajoling lobster-red tourists and local Marrakchis to come forward and feast.

King of the hustlers is a fresh-faced man of about 30 who goes by the nickname Denzel Washington. Waving a laminated plastic menu at anyone within striking distance, he yells out his sales patter: ‘One-one-seven takes you to heaven!’

Behind him is a Moroccan smorgasbord of sheep heads and beef-heart kebabs, as well as spicy merguez sausages, oysters, scallops and fish.

With darkness descending, the food stalls take on an almost supernatural aura, illuminated by electric lamps, bathed in smoke and thronging with people.

On the stroke of midnight, there’s the whooping and hollering of a marriage party far away. Against the clattering of iron castanets and the heralding of trumpets, a bride is carried through the streets on a dais towards her awaiting groom.

In the medina, the shops have closed for the night. The water sellers, knife sharpeners and cigarette sellers have hurried off home. A stray dog barks loudly, but no-one cares. Most people are tucked away in the honeycomb of courtyard homes, watching the Egyptian soap operas of which Moroccans are very fond. In the square, over a bowl of harira – a thick Moroccan country soup – Abdul-Rahim is counting his coins. At the next table is the boxing giant, his young female conqueror seated close beside him. In a ruse that’s misled countless audiences, they are father and daughter.

Denzel Washington rubs his eyes and gives the signal for the stall to be dismantled. Like many Marrakchis, his days are long. By day he works in an orphanage, by night he hustles in Djemaa el-Fna. ‘Don’t forget,’ he calls out as I leave. ‘One-one-seven takes you to heaven!’

The Marrakesh night is punctuated by the occasional moped swerving loudly and lightless through the medina’s empty lanes. Then, all of a sudden, the call to prayer breaks the silence before dawn, and night slips into morning.

The circle completes
By sunrise, the scent of freshly squeezed orange juice wafts through the old city. There’s the aroma of m’semmen and baghrir – the flour and water pastries that form the backbone of the Moroccan breakfast.

Stroll through the streets early and there’s not a foreigner in sight. Donkey carts and bicycles laden with panniers restock the shops and market stalls. A woman and her daughter amble down their lane, plastic buckets and stools in hand. They’re off to the hammam. A little boy, a wide wooden tray balanced on his head, is taking bread to the communal oven to be baked.

By 8am, the shopkeepers are sprinkling the street with water, keeping the dust down. Only when it’s damp do they begin the business of hanging out their wares, a process which is re-enacted in reverse each night. At the same time, children hurry out to school in prim pinafores, book bags strapped tight to their backs.

Souqs selling meat and produce are bustling by 9am. Housewives are picking live chickens and selecting vegetables one by one. In Moroccan households, essentials are bought fresh daily, even now that most homes have refrigerators. Through the cool morning hours the most strenuous work is done. The dyers hang out dripping skeins of wool, blacksmiths pound away at wrought-iron grills and leather tanners beat the skins. Gradually, the tourists venture out from their cosy riads and explore, taking pictures of everything that moves.

At the far side of Djemaa el-Fna, Mustapha the shopkeeper sits at Café de France, a day-old newspaper spread between his thumbs. With business so slow, he doesn’t bother turning up until the sun is overhead. A favourite haunt of Moroccan men, Café de France is an institution, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The waiters weave solemnly between the tables, distributing clean ashtrays and glasses of tar-like café noir. By 10am, M’barak, a magico-medicine man, is laying out his stall. Dressed in the billowing indigo robes of Morocco’s south, his stock in trade includes dried Damask roses and lumps of sulphur, ostrich eggs, stork feathers, dried chameleons and hedgehogs, antimony, musk and phials filled with murky liquid.

Of all the square’s healers, M’barak does the briskest trade. Most customers are men who wave aside the treasure chest of obscure desert ingredients – they want his ‘secret remedy’. ‘They come to me for this,’ M’barak says furtively, the glass phial catching the light. Pinching the end of his nose, he sniffs. ‘Saharan Viagra,’ he says.

Beyond the snake charmers, the Gnaoua, and the dentists touting second-hand teeth, Abdul-Rahim continues his tale. Arms splayed upwards and frothing at the mouth, he enacts the latest trials and tribulations in his hero’s life. The audience presses in closer as he breaks into a whisper. Craning forward, they all gasp at once.

A woman near the front begins to weep. ‘It can’t be true!’ she yells. ‘He can’t be dead!’ Abdul-Rahim tugs off his cap and shakes it slowly from side to side. ‘Spare me a coin,’ he says, ‘and I’ll tell you how it ends.’

The article 'A day in the life of Marrakesh' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.