View from above of large square with market stalls
Culture & tradition,  Morocco,  Sunday Stills

Day into night in the Jemaa el-Fnaa

Sooner or later it seems, all paths in Marrakesh lead to the Jemaa el-Fnaa. The name (sometimes spelled Djemaa el Fnaa or Jamaa el Fnaa) means ‘Assembly of the Dead’ in Arabic; but a visit here suggests life in all its vibrancy.

To call this the city’s main square doesn’t begin to do justice to it. This is a meeting place, a shopping centre, a performance space, a happening. It is surrounded by restaurants and cafés, each with a roof terrace to offer a ringside seat from where to observe all the action; but it’s better by far to get immersed in it all yourself.

Large square with passers by and market stalls on the far side
The Jemaa el-Fnaa by day

Here is a snake charmer with a sleepy cobra waiting for tourists’ dirhams before luring him into action. Here is a man with a monkey wanting payment so you can pose with him perched on your shoulder; but don’t support him please, as the monkey is almost certainly poorly treated. And over there a colourfully dressed water-seller is making more money from posing for photos than he ever will from selling water.

Rows of stalls sell dried fruits; others freshly squeezed orange juice. Women offer to decorate your hand with henna, and men to shine your shoes – even if you are wearing trainers. You can buy a leather handbag or a packet of tissues, a lantern or a cigarette lighter. Mopeds weave past pedestrians; men push carts and donkeys pull them; horses trot past with tourist passengers perched in the caleche behind.

Stalls selling fresh orange juice and dried fruits

Over it all towers the minaret of the Katoubia Mosque, the tallest building in the city; and at regular intervals the call to prayer rings out above the hubbub. But that one spiritual note barely seems to make an impression on all the secular activity at its foot, although the faithful no doubt pause briefly in their actions before returning to earthly matters of commerce and enterprise.

The Katoubia minaret

And by night

If the Jemaa el-Fnaa is a performance by day, at night it becomes a spectacle. Your first sight of the square will be the glow of a myriad lights, with against them the dark silhouettes of what appear to be thousands of people, and above these the smoke rising from a hundred barbeques at the many food stalls. As you approach, and start to immerse yourself in that milling crowd, you will find every sense stimulated.

Bustling market square at night with steam rising
The Jemaa el-Fnaa at night

Your eyes strain to make out what is happening in the shifts from darkness to pools of brightness, as they dart from sight to sight. Performers with locals and tourists jostling for position around them; women crouched over a few handicrafts they have brought to sell; stalls with steaming glasses of tea; family groups gathered in a circle to talk and eat; a couple in their best and most colourful djellabas on a celebratory night out …

Your ears ring with the chatter around you; the drums beating incessantly; the haunting music of the street performers; the sound of stall holders calling out to passers-by and extolling the wonders of the menu on offer at their food stall. Occasionally the voice of the muezzin rings out from the several minarets that surround the square; but it seems only a minority pause for prayer among this multi-cultural, multi-faith gathering of mankind.

Minaret at night with blurred traffic and people
The Katoubia Minaret at night

You can smell the kebabs and spicy sausages grilling, fish frying, cinnamon and ginger from the tea stalls, and your mouth waters, longing to taste them too. It’s time for dinner!

Eating in the Jemaa el-Fnaa

Eating here is definitely as much a performance as it is a meal and is best regarded as such. It won’t be the best meal you ever had, but it will only cost a few dirham and is worth it for the spectacle alone.

All the stalls are numbered and are grouped together in one part of the Jemaa el-Fnaa. And you won’t need to search for them; you will see the smoke rising from numerous grills, and smell the grilling meat and spices in the air. As soon as you come close the performance will begin. ‘Good as Jamie Oliver!’, ‘Cheap as chips!’, ‘Air-conditioned restaurant!’ and so on.

We found that other tourists were happy to stop and compare notes about where they had enjoyed something in particular; and the stand numbers make it easy to track down these recommendations. Some stands specialise (one was selling only eggs) but most have much the same menu. It’s really just a question of where you can find space, which ones seem to be appealing to other diners (check for locals especially), and which salesman can lure you in with his patter.

You might like to enjoy your dinner in instalments: soup at one stand, kebabs at another, and so on. But we chose to eat at just one of the stalls, partly because I was nursing a broken foot at the time! We settled on stand 97 as we could see the kebabs or brochettes there being freshly grilled. A helpful guy found us a seat at the end of one of the long tables and whisked my crutches out of the way to the cooking area. There his colleague manning the grill proceeded to mime using them as extra long kebab skewers, to the amusement of all around us. We found the quality of the food to be a bit mixed, but the brochettes as good as they had smelled!

But this isn’t a meal to linger over, and others will be waiting for your place at the table, so you need to pay up and move on.

View from above of bustling market square at night
The Jemaa el-Fnaa at night

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing how the Jemaa el-Fnaa Night Market lights up the night of Marrakesh. So I’m sharing this for the last of Terri’s Sunday Stills challenges for this year, Light the Night.

I visited Marrakesh in 2009 and again in 2016; these photos are a mix of those taken on both visits

22 Comments

  • starship VT

    Sarah, with your words you have summoned up some of my most vivid and wonderful memories of Marrakesh and Djemaa el-Fnaa and transported me back to that magical place!! Your photos have the same effect! Just seeing the Gnawa musician with his krakebs (or Qraqeb Castanets) in your photo brings back incredibly strong memories of how mesmerizing I found that music and it will always remind me of Morocco!

  • Prior...

    This was an informative post and so nice to learn about this culture. My favorite photo is the three shoppers at the dried fruit stalls – and then the way you noted the pryer amidst the secular activities really connected to the layers in so many ways.
    wishing you a great week (and I came here from the Sunday stills challenge and nice way to lead into #Ligth up Night)
    🙂
    ~Yvette

  • Rose

    Your images and descriptions are so vivid. This is an area I’m unfamiliar with, yet I can almost ‘smell’ the barbecues, and ‘feel’ immersed in the action.

  • CliffClaven

    You keep posting about places that trigger so many memories! Nowadays there is a speedy motorway linking Casablanca and Marrakech, but when I worked in Casablanca nearly 50 years ago I regularly drove my Little Red Car along the meandering two-lane highway across the scrubby landscape, weaving past lumbering trucks, on the four-hour drive to Marrakech. I remember eating spicy merguez sausages at 2 a.m. on the square when the temperature was below zero, I remember a crazy evening in a dodgy bar just off the square, I remember sitting on the rooftop terrace of a cafe overlooking the square. Ten years ago a similar cafe – perhaps even the same one – was the target of a deadly terrorist bomb.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m happy to have triggered so many interesting memories for you to share Michael – and of course there would have to be a bar among them! I remember that cafe, as we ate there on our first visit in 2009. They were really lovely people. I was on crutches after breaking my foot and they usually only served full meals upstairs, the ground floor was more of a coffee shop. But when the stairs seemed too daunting for me they offered to serve their full menu to us down on the terrace and even brought complimentary little sweet treats from the bakery counter to have with our coffee after it 🙂 I really felt for them when I heard about the bomb.

  • Oh, the Places We See

    Thanks for bringing back fond memories of a very interesting place. We weren’t brave enough to stay after dark, but in our brief time there, we were fascinated by food, dancers, music, and animals! What a remarkable place in the world.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m happy to have brought back those fond memories for you. It’s a shame though that you didn’t get to experience it after dark. Do try to do so if ever you go back to Marrakesh – it really isn’t scary and is no less safe than the daytime as long as you keep your wits about you. I never felt threatened – hassled a bit, yes, but never threatened 🙂

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Sarah you’ve captured one of our favourite places really well. That unique, buzzing atmosphere as you walk into the square at night is wonderfully stimulating. In fact we’d go so far as to say, you never forget the feeling of that moment – your first time entering the square at night. Love the place, love the experience. Although we resisted the temptation to buy any second hand teeth…..

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 😊 I’m really pleased you feel I’ve done it justice. I’ve rarely been anywhere where the air has felt so electric, except perhaps a big football stadium before an important match!! And yes, entering at night, seeing the smoke hanging in the air even from a distance, smelling the meat grilling … It’s like nowhere else 😀

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    How amazing to see the Marrakesh market place in all its splendor, Sarah! As you describe, daytime is a performance, but night is a “spectacle!” You captured the frenetic pace and colors of the markets! I bet it was a noisy place too! I think it’s perfect for this theme for Sunday Stills. I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a fabulous (but safe) start to 2022!

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