“Mon ami! Eh, monsieur! Where are you from, my friend?”
Friendships are forged quickly in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square. The proffering of a laminated A4 menu — whether freshly coated in plastic, or crinkled and floppy through repeated handling — is one symbol of amicable intentions. An invitation into a food stall (perhaps with free bread and mint tea) is another.
On my first night in Marrakech I make many friends. Every few metres I’m engaged in conversation by a young man seeking my patronage at his family’s food stall. My Australianness is always met with the same response: gday, mate! Kangaroos! Hamish and Andy! Lookamoi, lookamoi.
The friends whose establishments I choose not to dine in are, for the most part, stoic. They wave me on, instructing me to remember their stall’s number for the following night. There are rows and rows of near-identical stalls, all covered with tarpaulins and packed with wooden benches. Helpfully, some of my friends give me business cards to jog my memory.
It’s a boring choice, but I eventually settle on the stall numbered 1. It’s one of the busiest outfits in the square, and its chief salesperson is a woman. Wearing a leopard-printed garment that I can only describe as the intersection of a dress, a onesie and a dressing gown, she stands with her hands on her hips in front of the stall. Her selling voice carries. She seeks testimonials from current diners, and greets returning patrons with hugs and kisses.
I order a tagine with almonds and prunes, and a vegetable couscous. The square is filled with noise: conversation, salespersons’ showmanship, the sizzling of meat and vegetables, distant music. Still, the leopard print woman’s voice stands out. She brings in diners with ease and charm, and the stall’s other salespeople (as well as a few patrons) applaud each time she does so.
The meal is, of course, delicious. It is also very large, and my shovelling is punctuated by conversation with a Swiss woman seated next to me. We finish eating around the same time and the leopard print woman adds up our respective bills, scribbling on the paper tablecloth (slightly dirtied on my end) that we have shared.
Ever the salesperson, she informs my dining companion that her sister does beautiful henna for great prices. The Swiss woman declines the offer of some discounted work, citing her regrettable allergy to henna.
Leopard print woman is persistent and polite, even at a dead end. “Maybe next time,” she says.
Conscious of the improbability of her allergy fading, the Swiss woman bats back: “maybe next life!”
“Inshallah!” shouts leopard print woman, her face spreading into a large grin. We all laugh.
Djemaa el Fna is covered with a layer of smoke. It hangs over the square’s large block of food stalls, a by-product of the grills that cook, burn and char for six hours every night.
Keen to preface tonight’s dinner with a show, I bypass the rows of eateries, dodging would-be friends and the menus they thrust towards me. I emerge into relatively open space and relatively smoke-free air. In front of me, set against the illuminated tower of the Koutoubia mosque, are circles of people.
The largest, densest circles are centred around Halaiqis — Moroccan storytellers relaying traditional tales and legends. The Halaiqis speak only in Arabic, and their largely-male audiences pay close attention, arms folded and brows furrowed.
Other groups are much smaller. Audiences wander between displays of drumming and dancing, and women in twos and threes sit on low plastic stools around the edges of the Djemma el Fna. Some of these women talk amongst themselves, but others are curved over, carefully applying henna to tourists’ hands.
I wander from one group to the next, but actively avoid the men carrying vest-wearing monkeys on their shoulders. The animals are all leashed and some of them are fitted with nappies. (By this hour the snakes and their charmers have disappeared — I guess they’re too difficult to observe in near-darkness.)
Amidst the sound and movement, my eye is caught by a comparatively static display. Two-litre bottles of Fanta, Coke and Sprite are arranged in rows that converge at a kerosene lamp. People standing just beyond the outer rim of soft drink bottles hold long red rods fitted with strings and hooks. They dangle the rods with concentration, fishing for a sugary catch.
The scene is oddly picturesque — the kerosene lamp casts a dull yellow glow that bounces off the plastic bottles and illuminates the faces of their would-be retrievers. I pick my camera from out my bag and take a couple of photos. Seconds later, a young man arrives at my side and demands money in return for a retrospective photographer’s permit. The price he sets is 200 dirham — the equivalent of about $30. I scoff. He halves his asking price and I scoff again. I explain my ignorance of any photographer’s fee, turn my heels and start walking back towards the food stalls. He follows alongside me.
The man’s asking price drops and his insistence rises, but I don’t acquiesce. As I near the food stalls, smoke looming overhead once more, the man makes a last-ditch attempt, shouting that I must pay for the photos I took. I tell him I won’t.
“Juif,” he spits. “Fuck you.”
Marrakech is quiet. Salesmen are at various stages of opening their shops for the day, hoisting up roller blinds and shifting over-sized ceramics to the sidewalk. Those few men whose shops are already open for business sit outside, smoking idly.
The luggage I wheel towards the Djemaa el Fna signifies me as a lost cause to the traders. Now, rather than trying to coax me into their stalls as they have done so persistently over the last few days, they wish me “bon voyage”. I smile, thank them and wheel away.
When I reach the Djemma el Fna it’s as close to deserted as I’ve seen it. The food stalls are empty and partially dismantled. Men and women dressed in fluorescent yellow and blue vests sweep up the dust that blows endlessly into the square, their mouths and noses covered by strips of cloth.
Peace in the square is broken by a taxi driver who skims alongside me. He extends his neck and shouts through his window: am I going to the airport? He offers me a ride for what he promises is a very cheap price — 70 dirhams. I’m en route to a bus that’ll take me to the terminal for far less, so I decline his offer. His vehicle continues to crawls alongside me and he tries again, reducing his asking price from 70 dirhams to 40.
I politely refuse and he swerves away from me, circling back around a row of stands that sell orange and pomegranate juice. I keep walking and wheeling towards the bus stop. In the distance, a snake charmer begins his first trills of the day.