Everywhere you look in the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh’s main square, you’ll discover theatre in progress. The street theatre has a natural home here ever since this plaza was the site of public executions around AD 1050. Even if there are discussions on the origin of its name, Jemaa means ”congregation” in Arabic, probably referring to a destroyed Almoravid mosque. ”Fanâʼ” or ”finâ'” can mean ”death” or ”a courtyard, space in front of a building.” Thus, one meaning could be ”The assembly of death,” or‘assembly of the dead’.
It is not just a tourist attraction since many locals also enjoy the activities that make Djemaa el- Fna come alive. During the day, the square has numerous stalls, most of which sell fresh fruit juice, water and fruit.
By 10am, the daily performance is under way. Snake charmers with their hissing cobras and men with chained Barbary apes, despite the protected status of these species under Moroccan law; henna tattoo artists ( women with piping bags full of henna paste, ready to paint you with “tattoos” that will last up to three months – though beware of synthetic “black henna”, which contains a toxic chemical; only red henna is natural. The Henna Café guarantees to use only natural henna).
Water-sellers in fringed hats, with water-bags hanging and brass cups clanging. Medicine men display their cures, and tooth-pullers display trays of extracted molars to prove their skill. And if you wonder…fortune-tellers sit under umbrellas with packs of fortune-telling cards at the ready.
At dusk people come out for an evening promenade, and the square gradually fills until it becomes a whole carnival of storytellers (telling their tales in Berber or Arabic, to an audience of locals), acrobats, musicians and entertainers. If you want a respite, you can move over to the rooftop terraces, such as the Café du Grand Balcon, or Café Glacier, for a vista over the square and all the activities, and the crowds who come to see them. Very much recommended. We enjoyed a rather expensive bottle of juice and a less expensive mint tee – having a great view without being crowded.
Arrive early in the evening to get a good seat. Applause and a few dirhams will encourage the performers. It’s a great show, but be prepared…taking photos immediately brings at least one man to your door…dirhams!
In 2001, Djemaa el-Fna was recognized by UNESCO in the project Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – the initiative coming from people concerned about the Djemaa el-Fna. Since long known for its concentration of traditional activities by storytellers, musicians and performers, but now threatened by economic development pressures. The residents wanted protection of their traditions, and called for action on an international level. In 2001, this ”cultural space” got its protection.
In Marrakesh, this meeting place is a must. Remember – this is far from only for tourists. Most people strolling here, enjoying themselves, are locals. This is, even today, a genuine piece of Arabian Nights…no ”assembly of the dead”.