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Volume 44, Number 4July/August 1993

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The Magic Circles of Djemaa el-Fna

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by David Melody

When world travelers think of Morocco, it's often the historical splendors of Fez, Rabat and Meknès that come first to mind. But it is the everyday mystery and magic of Marrakech that most intrigue the first-time visitor, that inhabit his dreams and beckon him to return.

Marrakech certainly has its own imperial highlights - the Almoravid Qubbah, Morocco's only intact architectural treasure from its first Berber dynasty; the Koutoubia minaret, an unrivaled Almohad construction towering nearly 70 meters (230 feet) over the city; and the Saadian tombs and the Ben Youssef madrasah or school, both covered in stunning zellij mosaic, carved plaster and white marble.

But Marrakech also feels like a world apart, a gathering place of disparate centuries, cultures and races. While the traditions and values of Morocco's northern cities might resemble those of the eastern Arab capitals, Marrakech is different.

Indeed, upon crossing the threshold of its Bab Agnaou, or Gate of the Blacks, visitors feel they are leaving behind the Arab world and entering a different - perhaps the real - Morocco. It is not surprising that Marrakech was long known to English travelers simply as "Morocco City."

Robert Cunninghame-Graham visited all of Morocco's main cities in 1897, "but none of them," he wrote enthusiastically in his classic account Maghreb el-Aksa, "enter into your soul as does this heap of ruins, this sand heap desert town metropolis of the fantastic world which stretches from its walls across the mountains through the oases of the Sahara."

And nowhere is Marrakech's otherworldly nature revealed in more telling detail than in the old city's main square, the Djemaa el-Fna - serving day and night as marketplace, outdoor eatery and musical fun fair all in one. Today, just as centuries ago, it is here that Marrakshis and their country cousins, be they Berber, Arab, Tuareg or black African, congregate to be awed, amazed, entertained and, very likely, parted from some, or all, of their money.

The square's name is often mistranslated as "gathering place of the dead," but this reflects as much its eerie power of suggestion as it does deliberate error. In fact, the Moroccan colloquial word fna can be derived from either of two classical Arabic words: fana', signifying annihilation and extinction, or fina', with the more prosaic meanings of courtyard and open space.

Djemaa is related to the Arabic jami', or mosque, and indeed the Saadian dynasty had once planned to build a great mosque here, on what is still the old city's last remaining expanse of open land. But instead they made it a place of execution, and subsequently permitted the area's use for public oration and display. Thus the square's literal meaning is perhaps best left to the imagination. It has, after all, more mysterious ways of communicating with outsiders.

There is no better way of making sense of the Djemaa el-Fna, of stopping its kaleidoscopic swirl and seeing instead the parade of human faces, than to remain in the square uninterruptedly from dawn until late at night.

Viewed from its most accessible vantage point, on the roof terrace of the Café de France, the square begins to take on a new shape as a complex of circles of people. Each circle is tightly bound, its components standing shoulder to shoulder. The perimeter of each pulsates with anticipation, its liquid outlines occasionally breaking and reforming. From here, the square is a living, throbbing carpet, patterned not by knots in woolen pile but by knots of human beings.

Each circle - or halqah, in Moroccan Arabic - is formed by tens or scores or hundreds of individual onlookers, their attention fixed on whichever snail-seller, storyteller, or snake charmer has been lucky enough to catch their eye and draw them inward.

As more people join the ring, it expands; as more of the crowd moves along, it contracts. And there is much jumping back and forth from halqah to halqah as spectators' attention falters at one ring and is teased away to another.

Maintaining the halqah's integrity is so important that even solo performers designate an assistant to exercise crowd control at its perimeter. Like dressing a stage to suit the act, an assistant might tighten the ring for a magician's trick and then expand it for an acrobat's vault. When the time comes to collect contributions, he walks the circumference, hat in hand.

But in the early morning, just after dawn and well before the rings form, the square is quiet - free of the entertainers' cries and empty of the pressing crowds. Solitary sweepers brush and scrape away last night's debris, while people hurry past on their way to work in nearby suqs (markets) or in the distant ville nouvelle (new town). Shoeshine boys set their kits in a neat row; orange vendors untie the tarps that covered their stands.

Khalifah Salami has been at his juice stand since five o'clock this morning, when he came to replace his partner on the overnight shift. "Something is always for sale in the Djemaa el-Fna," Khalifah says with a toothy grin. "Day or night, you find what you want." But his many customers undoubtedly come to savor the hour's peace as much as their drink.

The crowd has already begun to swell by the time the sun has peeked above the High Atlas's snow-capped range. Earlier, most people passed through the square on their way somewhere else; now they enter to stay. Men waiting for their morning tea huddle tightly around bucket braziers. Boys bearing charcoal, mint and sugar push their way through to resupply.

Among the first to arrive in the square are tarot card readers and amulet writers, each with an open black umbrella to protect the paying customer's privacy from the merely curious. They establish a characteristic kind of order here, sitting, cross-legged with their backs to the sun in a perfectly straight line. Later, when the square is choked with scurrying spectators and the sun is high, their strange geometry still holds firm.

Ghareeb Ahmad has been writing customized amulets in the Djemaa el-Fna for nearly 10 years. He also reads the Qur'an in a mosque and takes legal dictation outside the courthouse. But today he is busy with his bamboo pen and brown india ink, asking a superstitious petitioner to specify his particular problem.

A folk apothecary, his sales pitch as loudly colored as his potions, has installed himself nearby and is already doing brisk business. Tins of dried leaf, twig, nut and bud are set at the mat's outer edge. Roots and rose hips, carob pods and persimmon, a whale's bone and a snake skin are among his many other, less identifiable charms.

His patter is nonstop and lightning fast, accompanied by the rhythm of two spoons clattering back to back. In his palm he mixes blue, yellow, and red powders with attestations of each one's pharmaceutical credentials and claims. One for virility, another for longevity, a third for levity - all man's bodily needs are herewith catered for. Opening the way for others, he swallows a gulp and calls out for a buyer. His pet iguana hungrily eyes the crowd.

What the apothecary's secret dosages will not cure, a turbaned dentist wielding mean-looking pliers promises he can. Standing beside a work table piled high with molars and incisors, Al-A'aouni Ait al-Muqaddam waits patiently for a walking toothache to pass his way. He averages ten public extractions a day, he says, adding bit by bit to his mountain of human enamel.

By noon the first entertainers begin to gather, but these are the less polished, afraid perhaps of going against the finer talent that will appear in the late afternoon. But the crowds are nearly the same and a midday dirham, they need not be told, gleams like any other. Their main game here is more improvisatory than practiced, a kind of street theater cast from ready onlookers and unwitting passersby.

An early afternoon staple in the Djemaa el-Fna are the children's boxing matches arranged and refereed by M'barek Muhammad. Everyone loves to watch a good fight, and he has simply found a way to make them pay, without anyone actually being hurt. M'barek is in fact more monologue artist than match promoter, and between his long-winded bouts of gab few boxers have time to throw even a single punch.

Asking for two young volunteers, M'barek has them step forward for introductions and straps on their gloves. He asks why they want to fight. Before they can answer he interrupts to say that boys shouldn't fight; if they insist, however, they must box cleanly and fairly. From this lead-in he recounts, blow by blow, classic world heavyweight matches of the past.

The boys meanwhile are left waiting. Once scared and nervous, their faces grow bored as M'barek's story grows longer. The crowd first hangs on every word, then it too begins to lose patience. Sensing this, M'barek finally signals the boys to fight, then immediately waves them off again. Now he discourses on glove position and footwork. The boxing lesson momentarily recaptures his audience.

And on this goes - a whistle to box, a whistle to break, and more on the theory and practice of pugilism. The gloves are only props for the boys, who in turn are only props for M'barek. Each missed swing brings to his mind another story. Like a lion tamer in a one-ring circus, who makes his tired cats claw and snarl, M'barek promises blood sport but delivers only a children's ragtag game. And, brilliantly, he earns a living at it.

The sun is high enough overhead now to call up a strong thirst, which the square's red-smocked, tassel-hatted water carriers stand ever ready to slake. More buffoons than business men, Abid ben Khalifah and his grizzled side kick Boujamaa el-Fakaak stride through the crowd ringing handbells and clacking brass cups. Snowmelt from the High Atlas, which in truth pours from every spigot in Marrakech, is their special claim.

But drinking from a goatskin is not a city person's everyday experience, and thus the price seems fair to many customers. Abid's leather gear bag is studded with silver coins from around the world - "the payment of foreign tourists," he assures, "who lacked exact change." The Yemeni dinars, American quarters, French francs, and English pence seem to bear him out.

Suddenly the double-reeded shrill of a ghaita, or Moroccan folk oboe, pierces sharply through the background hubbub. Another ghaita joins, the steady beat of a drum orchestra comes in, and soon everyone's attention turns to the snake charmers.

Morocco's snake charmers and scorpion eaters all belong to the 'Isawi brotherhood, founded by Sidi Muhammad bin 'Isa in the 15th century. The Djemaa el-Fna's 'Isawi are led by Idris Hawishaan, who was taught to handle cobras, pythons and diamond-back rattlers as a child in his home village near Meknes. It is Idris, sitting crosslegged on a carpet, who conducts his musicians and musters his snakes here today.

Two wooden boxes hold Idris's serpents while his ghaitas and drums play an introduction. The performance begins with a lithe black cobra slithering from the box and coiling neatly before him. With head and both hands dancing, fingers extended and palms turning alternately up and down, Idris catches the snake's eye and induces its heavy hood to dip and bob in rhythm. A shaking tambourine makes it sit up straighter. To end the dance quickly, he caps the cobra with the same tambourine and turns now to a rattler.

The fat rattler apparently needs a more aggressive touch, so Idris must snap his fingers, tease with his tongue, and drape the snake over his head. But it still declines to dance and is popped back in the box. Showmen, it seems, have no patience with stage fright.

Finally only pythons remain, which despite their name and their angry, gaping mouths look more like harmless green garter snakes. Idris takes one in "each of his hands, their necks outstretched and tongues like spitting darts, and bumps their heads together, which puts them in a fighting mood. Held high over his lap, the snakes weave to and fro in mock aerial combat, one lunging forward as the other recoils.

Tiring of the duet, he loops the larger of the two around his neck and treats the smaller as a plaything. But this toy bites, its teeth sinking deep and holding onto Idris's left hand. Slowly, carefully, lest it rip the flesh, Idris backs the snake's teeth out and, still keeping time to the ghaitas' circular seven-note melody, raises his palm for all to see two drops of blood trickle from the twin puncture.

Idris's hand needs a bandage and this no doubt will close the show. The musicians too are tired, the ghaita players' eyes bloodshot and bulging. With the air now cleared of the insistent tune, spectators shuffle their feet and begin to wander, as if the spell that had first drawn them near could be broken by one bite.

The hour is nearing four-thirty, which, in the Djemaa el-Fna's own time zone, is time to eat. Disassembled food stalls have just been carted in and re-erected along the last remaining empty reach of the square. Each stall has a posted license number and each has a specialty that will be served by the light of gas lanterns until late tonight.

Sharif Ben Aissa sells grilled kidney and sausage to a hungry few. Next to him people gather around a conical pile of boiled land snails flavored with hot sauce. But most are lining up for shibakiyyah, a traditional Moroccan street sweet made of sugar, flour, cocoa and egg topped with walnut, coconut and jasmine.

Thus revived, it seems less daring to press oneself into the outer edge of yet another halqah. With a bit more burrowing, a front-row view is within easy reach for more street theater in the round. Here two actors play a comic, epic struggle between country Arab and country Berber. Each speaks only his own language, but both are perfectly understood by this bilingual crowd.

The characters seem inspired by Juha, the clever peasant of Arab folklore (See Aramco World, May-June 1971). One plays the donkey, with flip-flop sandals for ears and a rope around his neck; the other plays the donkey driver, wearing a wig and holding a paper whip and squirt bottle.

Their acting is pure slapstick, making full use of the clowning behavior known as mashkhara, meaning - appropriately - a donkey's bray. They prattle back and forth in endless variations on the time-tested routines of the commedia dell' arte. But their play's scenario rings with the genius of insightful social commentary.

The donkey, staying always close to character, begs the crowd to buy his freedom for one dirham. With acts of feigned cruelty - quirts, squirts and slaps - the donkey driver uses all his might to obstruct these pleas. Only by pleasing this tough audience with the most imaginative improvisation at his command can the donkey earn his dirham and with it, his liberty.

Roles and props are then reversed: Donkey becomes donkey driver and vice versa. Thus Arab and Berber compete ceaselessly for the upper hand which, once decided, is always soon to change. The contest's absurdities point a moral lesson while the incentive to overact becomes a plot device; Shakespearean comedy meets Marrakshi mise-en-scène.

Still pondering the act's simple truth, one must be careful not to back out of the halqah straight into the outstretched arms of an ape. Monkey trainers work this corner of the square, and often, just to enliven a slow day, they turn their charges loose upon the crowd. Any one of them is apt to jump up and run a quick and larcenous little hand through an open pocket.

Card sharps, storytellers and acrobats also ply their trades on this corner. It is an overused spot, near the Bank al-Maghrib and the Pharmacie de la Place, but it is where tour buses unload. Money here has a way of changing hands more freely, and some of it even has a good chance of dropping to the ground, where it is scooped up by the legions of small boys underfoot.

Now taking shape is a large halqah around the square's acknowledged masters of al-'aitah, the sung Arabic music of Marrakech's Hauza plain. The 'Abidat el-Rma were the first to play in the Djemaa el-Fna and have since become the city's most popular wedding musicians.

The orchestra consists of an electrified 'ud, or lute, two viols, two darabukkahs, a tambourine and an oil-barrel lid used as a foot drum. Its sound is loud and boisterous as the musicians take the stage, and the group leader uses his tambourine freely to beat the heads of passersby who transgress the still unclosed ring.

Ethnomusicologist Philip Schuyler, an authority on the music of the Djemaa el-Fna, has pointed out that a halqah must be formed rapidly but with precision - fast enough to steal spectators from rival entertainers, but with an expert eye for filling in each arc of a well-drawn circle. In this case it is done in a matter of minutes and the singing soon begins.

The leader assumes an eerie falsetto voice for the popular praise song "Muhammad, al-Nur al-Hadi." A seasoned showman, he patrols the halqah's perimeter so that his listeners - many indeed seem to be enraptured fans - can touch his hand. Passing the tambourine after finishing the last verse, he exhorts both crowd and orchestra to open wider their hearts.

After such a stately act, it comes as something of a surprise to run headlong into two high-hopping, drum-beating, head-twirling Gnaoua. The earliest Gnaoua were members of a brotherhood transplanted from the sub-Sahara - "Gnaoua" is a Berber corruption of the country name Guinea - that claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad's first muezzin, Bilal ibn Rabah (See Aramco World, July-August 1983).

In recent years in the square, however, they have become known more as entertainers than as members of a religious order. The crux of Gnaoua ritual is its up-and-down dancing and percussive rhythm, beaten out with metal castanets, qaraqeb, and oversized side drums, tbel.

Abdul Latif el-Dhahabi and his 12-year-old son Tayyib dance and drum with all the fervor they can summon after a long day in the square. Little Tayyib has been a regular here for nearly 10 years, so he knows well how to play an audience. Spinning his head to make fly the long tail of his sha'shiyyah, a red doth cap embroidered with cowrie shells, he smiles broadly and clangs his qaraqeba for all he is worth.

When night finally settles over the Djemaa el-Fna, the big musical shows pack up and leave. An impending chill pushes spectators into ever-closer circles around solo storytellers. Few of these rings have kerosene lanterns: Near-total darkness covers a hushed and spellbound crowd, undistracted even by the loud slurps and the din of spoons from nearby soup stalls selling spicy bean harirah.

"The month of Ramadan will soon be upon us," intones a wizened faqih, or religious scholar. "Come learn how to properly perform your ablutions." With this he begins his lecture, prepared no doubt after years of teaching in villages far and wide. His talk blends pantomimed gestures with gentle words of persuasion.

Lessons follow on the principles of prayer and fasting. His low voice trails on. His attentive listeners edge forward, learning at this late hour, now well past 10 o'clock, something new in the Djemaa el-Fna. It is time to put aside the pleasures of the day.and seek the higher aims of religious instruction. Whatever the reasons for coming to the square in the first place, such are the rewards with which people finally go home at night.

Author and filmmaker Louis Werner studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins sais and lives in New York.

This article appeared on pages 40-47 of the July/August 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1993 images.