Jemaa el Fna square on the edge of the souk of Marrakech is short-attention-span theater en plein air. Early in the day, it can be almost sleepy, with scattered peddlers and juice venders, but as the sun drops in the sky the place begins to sizzle and pop. If there was a lid, it would blow right off. A throbbing mass of humanity swims around the food stalls, story tellers, musicians, acrobats, sellers of potions, magicians, tooth-pullers, henna artists, snake charmers, monkey guys, and vendors of all sorts. A good share of the throbbing mass is tourists, either intoxicated by the surging energy or dazed and confused by it, but the square really belongs to the people of Marrakech. While there’s no shortage of really tiresome and pushy peddling, taken as a whole, Jemaa el Fna is a sanctuary of authentic culture, and has, in fact, been declared so by UNESCO.
If you’re rattled by over stimulation, find your Zen mind-space and a cup of calming mint tea (no sugar) before entering, or observe from a 2nd floor terrace at one of the many cafes on the perimeter. If you laugh at sensory overload and beg for more, dive in and enjoy the spectacle.
I’ve heard tell of the rare foreigner who can cross Jemaa el Fna without being hassled. I would like to meet this mysterious stranger and study at her or his feet. In one turn around the square, despite firm “no-mercis” and resolute avoidance of eye-contact, I had a henna tattoo and a Barbury ape applied to my body in quick succession, without consent. Then, of course, payment was demanded. In the case of the henna tattoo, no amount of refusal and walking away could shake the
conartist, and I finally paid her to go away. (If you want a henna tattoo, go for it, but beware of black “henna” which is not henna at all and can cause a nasty reaction. True henna is reddish brown.) The monkey guy was only slightly less persistent but didn’t get any money from me. Please don’t support these guys. The monkeys do not benefit from their work in the square. I don’t imagine the snakes have it any better. Every carnival has its dark side. Ironically, much of the scamming and hard selling goes away when the sun sets.
Do eat at the food stalls. They’re safe and very good, mostly. Look for those patronized by locals. The fresh orange juice is sublime. Make sure they squeeze it in front of you to get the freshest, undiluted juice.