JEMAÂ EL-FNA SQUARE
Petit Futé's opinion on JEMAÂ EL-FNA SQUARE
"La Place was both the end of the universe and the birth of exile, of a paradise fallen and flattened by the footsteps of passers-by and itinerant travellers where, around the fire of the tale, we revisited the phantasmagorical moment of genesis. Thus, if the Square was a crossroads delimited by the police station, the Koutoubia minaret and the former Bank of Morocco converted into a museum [...] the triangular borders of this forest of narrative were, for us, pure fantasy where fantasy and sacrilege were mixed. "(Rachid Mansoum, Jemaâ El Fna Square, Marrakech, evanescent places)
More than just a public square, Jemaâ el-Fna is the flagship attraction and has long since established itself as the initiatory crossroads of Marrakech. Here, day and night, it vibrates and pulsates. It is the liveliest place in the city and brings together tourists and locals alike! You can climb onto the rooftops: it's a feeling of flatness: everything is built like a large, well styled checkerboard that gives the illusion of being able to walk over the city.
It is also from here that most walks start: towards the Ben Youssef medersa or the Bahia palace (taking the street just to the left of the Café de France) and the Saadian tombs. You will be led to stay there, stroll around or simply pass by, if only to park your car, on the orders of the guards who are waiting there permanently (be careful, never park on the square, you risk... the impoundment!).
The architecture of the square is not particularly original: no singular building except the Quessabine mosque, at the entrance of the souk, and facing the old Café de France. This same establishment, which has not moved one iota, with its wide terraces, was hated by Lyautey, its facade contributing, according to him, to distort the square. At the other end, towards Avenue Mohammed V, Club Med was discreetly set up in 1972 behind a wall covered with vegetation. It is now awaiting a potential buyer. Opposite, near the tourist police station, are the buildings of the Post Office and the Bank of Morocco.
History. Originally, this square was used as a place of Strike: this is where criminals were beheaded and where the heads of rebels or thieves were publicly exposed. From this cruel custom, which is lost in the mists of time, popularized by the Alaouites, the square takes its current name which means "the assembly of the Dead", or "the meeting of the Passed Over" ... A gloomy name that nothing justifies, whatever the storytellers of the square say, who claim that, some evenings, the souls of the tortured come back to haunt these places.
You have to learn to appreciate this strange place, where the atmosphere of medieval squares reigns, a theatrical space for meditation and encounters, for mystery and entertainment. The best way to get in touch with Jemaâ el-Fna is first to observe it as a whole: so climb up to refresh yourself on one of the many terraces. From these cafés, always full, you will discover a world that is swarming, constantly changing and bustling. The spectacle is fascinating when the sun sets behind the minaret of the Koutoubia, while the dry clacking of the gnawi rattlesnakes can be heard (photographers, sound recorders, to your cameras!).
Until the inauguration of the new bus station near Bab Doukkala in 1982, Jemaâ el-Fna square was the starting point for the large taxis and buses that were on the road to other cities. A sort of vast souk, provider of everything and anything, a real court of miracles, had then settled on the square, representing a sort of extension of the well-ordered souks (despite appearances) of the medina. This permanent presence of itinerant merchants had, certainly, the effect of energizing the life of the place, but also to considerably affect the commercial harmony of the official souks. This flea market was expelled when the new bus station was inaugurated, and there is no trace of this period in Jemaâ el-Fna square. Only street vendors selling fake trinkets and loose clothing still walk around, looking for a good opportunity to sell their goods to the tourists who are frightened by the souks: this is becoming increasingly rare, as everyone is able to tell the difference between the (overpriced) products of these street vendors and the better quality and cheaper products of the specialized craftsmen of the souks.
Of all the transport, there is only that of the carriages lined up in Indian lines waiting for customers. They will take you to the small trot along the ramparts or to the Menara basin during a romantic walk.
A masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. In the 1990s, the square was under serious threat: there was talk of building an underground car park. In 1997, the Catalan writer Juan Goytisolo, who literally fell in love with Marrakech, sounded the alarm! In order to preserve all the cultural and artistic wealth that characterizes the place, he brought Unesco experts to Marrakech and created an association for the safeguarding of the Jemaâ el-Fna square. At the same time the nerve centre of the city, a symbol of social mixing and an essential meeting point between the two sides of Marrakech, this square is above all a showcase where the expression of Morocco's intangible heritage (tales, music, dance, song, gastronomy, folklore) is played out daily. Its international recognition was proclaimed on 18 May 2001 when UNESCO inscribed its name on the very selective list of properties classified as Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
A permanent show. Like a play, Jemaâ el-Fna Square offers visitors scenes of life divided into three major acts. There is something for all our senses in perpetual awakening: for the ears, with the buzzing of the crowd (particularly compact on Friday evenings) or the tambourines; for the nose, smells of leather, earth, spices and fresh mint. And finally for the skin, with the brushing of a djellabah or the henna brush that will draw oriental patterns on your hand or ankle. In the morning, she wakes up as soon as the souk doors open, between 7:30 and 9 am for some! It becomes a big open-air market. There are few people yet, but already the wooden huts and the caravans of the vendors of squeezed orange juice are coming to life. The spice merchants set up their displays in the shade of mats supported by sturdy poles. Vendors selling rare fruits and herbs will arrive only later, often from the surrounding villages. This is an excellent time to come and have an unusual breakfast: early in the morning, you will often be offered a second tea or a second delicious orange juice (which is inexpensive), while the pistachio and roasted peanut vendor, his display barely unpacked, will offer you a few seeds before starting the conversation. Moreover, at this time of the day, stalkers of all kinds - who, let's face it, are not lacking in the square - are not awake. It is therefore in complete tranquillity that you will taste the morning pleasures offered by this vast esplanade.
But the real show doesn't start until later, towards the end of the afternoon (from 5pm onwards, it's ideal). This is when the Gnawa dancers, descendants of black slaves from Guinea, appear and the Amizmiz acrobats come to perform their human pyramids and spectacular dervish pirouettes, to the delight of the crowded onlookers. The square then becomes a monumental theatre stage where each actor takes his place at the centre of a circle formed by the spectators, the haqla, blessed by a saint! It's time to watch the public writers crouching in the shade of their black umbrellas, to work on their works, to muse among the boatmen, to listen to the storytellers tell you about the djinns (geniuses) hovering over the city's minarets or to evoke the fabulous treasures of the former sultans - treasures hidden in the abandoned riads of the medina, to be told your fortune by veiled fortune-tellers (a future all the more smiling as the banknotes will be numerous), to try your luck by betting on the lucky charms or other games of skill with convoluted rules, to admire the watchers of scholarly monkeys or the snake charmers who push the show to the point of surrounding the torso of passers-by with their charming reptiles... It is always better than being groped by the tooth puller who awaits you sitting in front of a mound of quenottes... in this colourful crowd of street artists, vibrating to the sound of tambourines and flutes, the kids make their way by offering kesra (breads in the shape of barley, wheat or, more rarely, buckwheat pancakes), honey pastries and doughnuts. The guerrab, the water carrier in his multicoloured dress, lined with copper or tin cups, constantly waves his bell and poses complacently in front of the tourists' cameras. Be correct, thank them all with a few dirhams.
Finally, at sunset and as the animation becomes more intense, a smell of fried food, skewers of meat, offal or grilled fish seizes the place where small mobile bouis-bouis come to settle : Jemaâ el-Fna turns into a huge open-air restaurant. The acetylene lamps in the gargotiers and cafés gradually illuminate the square, which is slowly being emptied of its actors. One sits tightly glued around a rough wooden table where one tastes a harira or a kefta skewer, in front of a sheep's head, proudly displayed on the stall! Or let yourself be tempted by a bowl of snails bathed in a healthy broth whose recipe is kept secret. Jemaâ el-Fna becomes a haven of international friendliness, tranquillity, magic, in the contemplation of the night.
However, during Ramadan, the square offers a slightly different vision. Its spectacle allows the fasters to forget the hunger and thirst that taunt the spirits (and the stomachs), until the siren of the muezzin sounds: the square empties at high speed while the nearby gargotes, serving full ladles of harira and skewers, fill up in the blink of an eye. Then, hunger calmed down, the square fills up again and the show goes on..
Yes, we are in colours and an atmosphere worthy of the Middle Ages, but the square, even if there is no more dirt, remains as bewitching as ever, with its crossroads of caravan routes... which is not to displease us. Wherever we go, we pass through it.
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