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.
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.
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.
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.
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