Guest Author - Dawn Denton
The largest mosque in Marrakesh is the famous Koutoubia. Its minaret overlooks the Jemaa el Fna, the square at heart of Marrakesh. There is nowhere on Earth like it. The square is the soul of this remarkable city.
Jemaa, which means ‘congregational mosque’, is the focus of the eating and entertainment culture of Marrakesh for the locals and tourists alike. During the day you will be entertained by snake charmers, tooth pullers, Barbary apes and medicine men. The henna tattoo artists will entice you with a booklet of the patterns they can create. They will seat you on crate and fifteen minutes later you will walk away with a part of Marrakesh on your body, albeit temporary. Even the water sellers are dressed in traditional outfits including bright red hats. The fruit stalls offer freshly squeezed juices from oranges to berries.
As dusk approaches an array of performers appear on the square. The energy is raised as acrobats from Atlas Mountains, dancers in drag and storytellers all keep their ancient art alive. Musicians use drums, iron castanets and chanting to showcase Moroccan folk music as well as the trance-like religious music and acrobatics of the Gnaoua tradition. Steeped in slave history, Gnaoua expression blends African magic with Islamic ritual.
The atmosphere is enhanced by the incredible smells from the wooden ovens and the fragrant traditional dishes. Gas lanterns light up the various food stalls as the stars come out. Spicy harira soup (tomato and lentil) and merguez sausages (mutton or beef) are worth a try, and for the brave, a whole sheep’s head, including the eyes is also on offer.
For over a thousand years, the Jemaa el Fna has been the gathering place for those of Marrakesh. To preserve this ‘cultural space’, the people called on the UNESCO to get involved in the project of 'Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' to keep their traditions alive. The Jemaa has embraced the twenty first century by being the backdrop for films, music videos and television, including 'America’s Next Top Model Cycle 16' and yet, at the same time, it is as if time has stood still.