Street Theater: A Night in Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech

Marrakech is a city that lives in the streets, and the hub of those streets is the main square of the medina, Jemaa el-Fna. One English translation I’ve seen of the name is “assembly of the dead,” but I’ve rarely seen a place more alive. It’s on UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. That’s a grand title, but Jemaa el-Fna lives up to it, especially once the sun goes down. You want dinner and a show? Sure, they’ve got that.

The Dinner

As evening comes on, eager cooks and their excitable and multilingual young touts set up more than a hundred food tents. (They’re numbered so you can remember your favorites.) There’s a whole variety of food available, and my recommendation is to allow yourself to get pulled into a couple of different places and get a bite or two at each. The food will be displayed raw and then will be cooked in front of you. I’d recommend staying away from anything that looks a little pre-prepared; for example, I didn’t eat any of the fish that was already breaded, because who knows what was under that breading.

You’ll sit at common tables with plastic tableclothes, and you might get a fork or you might not. Whatever–you’ve got fingers. (And you’ve got hand sanitizer, right?)

NB: The waiter may give you olives, bread, sauce, and salad without you asking for it. They’re usually tasty, but just so you know, you’re getting charged for those unless you send them back.

I paid about a dollar for the extras that accompanied by kebabs, but it was worth it. Also, those were the best kebabs I’ve ever eaten. See those chunks of fat? Yum.

Grilled eggplant and peppers and a fried potato cake. I wanted four more plates of this.

Oh also? Snails!

As I discovered thanks to a taste from this vat, I do not like snails.

Still a little peckish after dinner? (You won’t be–you’ll be overstuffed–but trust me, you want to save a little room.) Time for dessert.

Bakers push carts through the crowd piled high with sweets made with almonds, dates, honey, and pastry. The standard rate is 15 pieces for 30 dh (about 3 bucks). You get a little box and tongs to take your pick, and then the vendor will probably throw in another piece or two for good measure. Sample a few while you stroll along to the evening’s entertainment.

The Show

Part of the show, of course, is just the people watching. The square is crowded with people of all ages, little kids, old women, gangs of teenagers, whole families, with motorbikes and handcarts cutting through at dangerous angles. It’s so packed that it can be a little intimidating, but try to enjoy the experience, take a breath, and see everything that’s around you (while also keeping an eye on your wallet).

But then there are the more formal shows: where the crowd gathers in a circle around performers showing off their talents. There’s a whole gamut: storytellers (less interesting to those not fluent in Moroccan Arabic), snake charmers, musicians, and acrobats.

The important thing in this photo are the two little kids off to the side who just ran up and grabbed some spare drums from the band to join in the song.

These folks are earning a living out here, so remember to tip, especially if you’re going to take photos. I tipped the acrobats and then took some photos, and apparently I took so many that the youngest of them (maybe 8) decided I needed to tip again. He was quite convincing. Again, it was 50 cents well spent.

Maybe you don’t just want to watch; you want to participate. Well, then there are games. This was my favorite, because it’s so odd. There were rings on the end of fishing lines. You went fishing for 1-liter soda bottles. If you got the ring around the bottle top (harder than it sounds) you won the soda. This would be a big hit at every suburban fun fair this summer.

I’d recommend spending a couple of hours wandering between the food stalls and the performers. Then, as your evening is winding down, head up to the balcony of Cafe Glacier on the edge of the square and take the long view. That’s the cultural heritage of humanity down there.

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