Think of it as live-action channel-surfing: everywhere you look in the Djemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s main square, you’ll discover drama in progress. The hoopla and halqa (street theatre) has been non-stop here ever since this plaza was the site of public executions around AD 1050 – hence its name, which means ‘assembly of the dead’. By mid-morning the soundtrack of snake-charmer flutes has already begun, but the show doesn’t kick off until sunset when restaurants fire up their grills, cueing musicians to tune up their instruments.
Unesco declared the Djemaa El Fna a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ in 2001 for bringing urban legends and oral history to life nightly, and although the storytellers who once performed here have since given way to acrobats, musical performers, and slapstick comedy acts, Djemaa’s nightly carnival continues to dazzle. Berber musicians strike up the music and Gnaoua troupes sing while henna tattoo artists beckon to passers by and water-sellers in fringed hats clang brass cups together, hoping to drive people to drink. This is a show you don’t want to miss and it’s a bargain too. Applause and a few dirhams ensure an encore.
The square’s many eclectic exhibitions are not without a darker side though; you are very likely to see monkeys, kept in cages throughout the day, led around on chains for entertainment, and some of the practices of the plaza’s snake charmers are ethically questionable, to say the least.
While wandering around the Djemaa at any time of day stay alert to cars, motorbikes and horse-drawn-carriage traffic, which whizz around the perimeter of the plaza. Also be on guard against pickpockets and rogue gropers who are known to work the crowds particularly after sunset. To nab prime seats on makeshift stools (women and elders get preference) around musician circles, arrive early in the evening.