CHRIS ALLEN: Morocco Journal — Marekech: Yes It Is

Whatever you might have thought about Marrakech, it is. At least in the market at Jama al Fna square.

There are actually two markets. One, during the day, is busy, but somewhat laid-back. People wander though the huge square on their way to the covered souks, stopping to buy a smoothie from the many carts lined up end to end, or peanuts, dates, figs and other temptations opposite the smoothie stands.

But that isn’t what you thought, is it? You thought snake charmers. You’ve seen cartoon parodies and movie depictions. Bearded men in turbans and flowing robes play exotic tunes on flutes in front of a round basket, from which a cobra, hood fully deployed, rises menacingly. It sways back and forth to the tune, glowering unblinkingly at the charmer, poised to strike at any moment. Few snakes, we know, are deadlier than a cobra. It looks spooky on the screen. What is it like in person?

(Let me just say here, I hate snakes. I am terrified of them — even garter snakes, which most people label as harmless. They aren’t. A garter snake siting will give me a heart attack — hardly harmless. Coming upon a bull snake or a blue racer — also “harmless” — might land me in a dead faint.)

Anyway, there are snake charmers in Marrakech. A lot of them. At least a half-dozen during the day, when crowds are fairly sparse. But there are some differences from the image you may have. First, there is no basket. The snakes are just sitting on the ground, which to me seems even worse. Can you really trust a snake to stay put and not speed off to chomp on some unsuspecting smoothie slurper? Second, the charmers do play a reedy flute, but there is no tune. They mostly just pass their fingers over the holes in a caucophony of sounds that probably does more to attract tourists than hypnotize snakes. If you want to take a picture it’ll cost you a few dirhams. If you want them to drape a (nonpoisonous) snake around your neck it’ll cost you more. I was prepared to pay a lot to “not” have them put a snake around my neck.

The night crowd is something altogether different, especially on the weekends. Swarms of people almost shoulder to shoulder flow in waves though the carts, the snakes are gone, musicians abound, more stands selling all sort of things pop up and the party goes until around midnight

Day and night hawkers stroll through the crowds. They confront everyone selling watches, sunglasses, shirts, scarves, souvenirs, leather belts, cheap bracelets. Others have those items and more displayed on blankets spread on the cobbled square.

Clear down at the end near the Khoutouba mosque a line of horse-drawncarriages waits to take people on rides around the medina or out into the “new” city. At the other end, restaurant after restaurant, some good, some not, all interesting.

And this is all before the miles of intertwining passages that make up the covered souk. I think you can find just about everything in the souk. Certainly clothing. Caftans, shoes, spectacular dresses, T-shirts advertising everything from Emirates Airlines to Hark Rock Cafe, but also silver tea sets, junk souvenirs, cool mementos, lamps, fruits, vegetables and meats, spices and herbs, natural health products, bogus health products, musical instruments, mosaic tiles, hand-carved and hand-assembled boxes, toys and utensils, artwork, leather goods, daggers, tools, sweets, bread, haircuts, copper and tin cookware, jewelry, things made in Morocco and things made in China. The only things not prominent seem to be Christmas ornaments — not surprising in a 99 percent Muslim majority country, but do they realize what they’re missing out on with all the Christian tourists from Europe? Geez — automobiles and alcohol. Alcohol, though, is available in most restaurants.

All of these things are available for the “best price,” which is the seller’s opening bid. He (almost exclusively males) will be delighted if you pay that, but he realizes it’s only an opening salvo. You are expected to counter with a ridiculously low bid and liven both your day and his with a brisk round of bargaining. You have to hang tough.

There are other small market areas, but no square quite like Jama al Fna. (By the way, the name means Meeting Place of the dead; the square was once used for public hangings long ago.) The square’s survival has its roots back in World War II. Marekech was the place where President Franklin Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make a historic decision — to settle for nothing less that a total surrender by Adolph Hitler. Eleanor Roosevelt went along.

After the war, she returned and was quite taken by Jama al Fna, its snake charmers and its merchants. When she learned that city leaders wanted to close the square and souk to modernize the area, she led an effort to preserve the historic significance of the square. Other similar market areas have been closed in the decades since, but Jama al Fna remains. It’s still an important place for tourists, which make up a good chunk of Marekech’s and Morocco’s economy, but it’s obviously still an important place for Moroccans themselves.

It’s tempting to stereotype Marekech by it’s ancient market that sits across the street from a mosque built in the 12th century. But in fact, Marekech is a modern hub of culture and education. It’s nearly 1 million people are involved in a lot more than charming cobras. Outside the medina the streets are wide, well-lighted at night and busy with traffic.

Motorcycles weave among the cars and tourist buses by death-defying inches. Friends walk along the sidewalks to cafes for late evening dinners, which usually end with the signature Moroccan mint tea, fortified with sugar. Its King Mohammed V Airport serves all of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

It’s wrong to call Marrakech a study in contrasts. More accurately, Marrakech is a city that spans centuries — and manages to celebrate them all.

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