Suddenly the path widens even as the traffic becomes more choked. This has got to be Djemaa el-Fna.. the square at last.
-- continued --
Welcome to Djemaa el Fna, UNESCO designated "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity", a public square in the Marrakesh medina. It is noisy, it is crowded, it is historic. This is definitely a part of the wider Morocco tourist funnel you've been trying to avoid, but simultaneously it's as authentic as it gets. Locals go here to eat, congregate, and listen to live music and a variety of other performances. It's not just that it's a extremely interesting phenomenon, apart from that the openness of the square is an important landmark for navigating in the otherwise maze-like medina. You arrive at midday or early in the evening, you arrive late at night, you arrive over and over again to get a feel for the place and it's changing moods.
The exact meaning of Djemaa el Fna is obscure, but the most exciting translation is perhaps "the mosque at the end of the world". In any case the titular mosque is gone at this point, largely replaced with open space that holds snake-charmers, dancers, and story-tellers. Although there are no permanent structures in the square proper, hawkers and eateries roll in and out on wheeled contraptions pushed by humans or pulled by animals. August's first full moon is obscured by steam rising from food carts that park where they please, pedestrians wander aimlessly, and the occasional motorcycle is still zipping right through the center of the chaotic scene.
Alcohol is forbidden by the prophet and doubly so on Ramadan, which is probably good since the noise and the crowd and the complex smells are intoxicating enough. Orange peels and dirty bodies, the subtle slightly sweet odor of dried fruit and nuts, horse shit, olive medley and roasted lamb, the ever-present heady scent of spice in a hundred kinds and a hundred colors, crimsons and deep blue purples sometimes but mostly soft pastels from pistachio-green to nut-brown.
Your ears are assaulted with peculiar instruments that buzz and burble and drone. Behind and under the sound of the music, human noise in languages that you cannot understand tend to form their own drone, and the rhythms of excitement, surprise, or anger have their own music don't they? Walk to the fringe of the square to get the measure of it and also to breathe, feel in your bones the throb of the drums that are now too far away to hear with ears.
Meanwhile the story-tellers perform for delighted crowds that form in circles around them, speaking Arabic or Berber or sometimes French. Pity, but without any plying their trade in English, you can only hope to understand whatever you can take away from the body language. Children sit in these circles too and stay very serious and quiet. The kids not involved in story-time are less reserved, and occasionally they run past you, chasing each other and screaming. There are lots of games for kids too, silly carnival stuff like soda-bottle ring-toss, but also including what look like variations on dominos and backgammon for adults.
Elsewhere, a man leads around a barbary ape on a short leash. The ape's keeper is in traditional Berber costume from turban to toe, which in this case means a loose-fitting garment in a fantastic shade of sky blue. The primate himself is also dressed for success, but his own costume is less colorful and includes only a fez and a diaper. You take orange juice to a snake-charmer you befriended yesterday and sit with him in the shade. He bows slightly and drinks deeply, then uncaps the basket with a pit viper so you can watch it. The snake-charmer's name is Mustafa, and Mustafa told you yesterday the viper is named Asshole. Asshole the viper evidently misbehaves frequently, which rates him a name.. the cobra in the next basket minds her manners and she gets no name. Mustafa knows your name too, and you realize you are no longer getting lost when you shoulder your way through the medina's shouting crowds.
It must be time to move on...
The next day finds you in Marrakesh's largest train station, sipping coffee and reading Lawrence of Arabia. You turn the last page on this chapter, finish your drink, and get in line for a train heading east towards the Algerian border. Next stop: the biggest dunes in the Sahara!