Djema el Fna

There is something otherworldly to the atmosphere surrounding Marrakech, Morocco. Dubbed as the “red city,” on account of its red clay walls, Marrakech is situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains and the outer edge of the Sahara desert. Once an oasis for passing caravans, Marrakech is now a bustling, noisy, chaotic metropolis with nearly a million inhabitants, and replete with all the “comforts” of occidental life. Strolling around the new part of the city one can spot unveiled and “fashionable” women with cell phones attached to their bejeweled ears. Men gossip at any number of outdoor cafés. Women are conspicuously absent from the café terraces—they are banished to the inside, thus out of sight of passing traffic. This was the greatest curiosity I had concerning Islamic practice. Morocco is fairly progressive when it comes to the rights of women, yet women are not allowed to sit on the terraces of cafes. When I searched for an explanation to this, no one could tell me why. A billboard advertising a McDonald’s Big Mac written in Arabic invites the hungry traveler to an all too familiar meal. What is particularly evident is the number of new hotels being built; all the same red-dyed concrete as the ancient walls surrounding the old city. The tourist trade is alive and well in Marrakech, calling the Westerners to come experience the allure of the east, just as long as they bring their wallets. At dusk the air assumes a reddish tint as the sun sets over this kingdom. In fact, the hours of sunset provide the inhabitants with an eerie reddish glow themselves as they hurry about their business.
Khadija, our guide, is sitting next to me talking quietly into her cell phone. It is late afternoon and the group I’m traveling with is taking a caleche from our hotel in the new part of the city to the old, medieval part, with the intention of visiting Marrakech’s main square, the Djemaa el Fna. Due to the time of day Marrakech’s red walls shimmer in the afternoon sun, giving off an eerie other-worldly glow as we pass though its walls. Once through the tiny gate I’m immediately struck by the chaos. There is little evidence of any type of traffic rules here. Cars, of all makes, including American, honk their horns at those who daringly, perhaps defiantly, ride their bikes or motor scooters carelessly through the winding passages of streets. Walking, that most ancient mode of transportation is certainly a game of Russian Roulette here. It seems that every step is followed by a car horn honking wildly for the pedestrian to jump out of the way. If it’s not a car horn it’s a bicycle horn or mad shouting. Towering above it all, like some silent sentinel standing guard, is the Koutoubia Minaret, built in the twelfth century under the reign of Yacoub El Mansour. Beneath its shadow our caleche winds its way along a broad palm-lined avenue. We pass the Hotel La Mamounia, that grand old place Churchill retired to. As we disembark from the carriage and make our way toward the square Khadija informs us that the Djema el Fna is just a short walk east from where we are now standing. Reluctantly I slip into the seemingly suicidal streams of traffic.
Once a place of execution, the Djemaa el Fna (loosely translated as “assembly of the dead”), is centrally located in the Medina. This vast, open space functions as an enormous open air market by day. Replete with food stalls, snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, and of course, the storytellers, the Djemaa el Fna is like nothing I’ve experienced before. At first glance the Djemaa el Fna looks like nothing more than an enormous flea market. Vendors are continually busy setting up their wares and goods. Smoke rises from hibachis and the scent of grilled meat hovers in the air. We pass an old woman sitting on the ground mixing fresh couscous with her bare hands, while at the next stall over a man in a brown Nike jumpsuit grills skewered meat. The aroma is intoxicating. Nothing can prepare one for the assault of noise, confusion, and the general uncanniness attached to the atmosphere of this place. Upon entering the square we are immediately arrested by the noise. It’s incredibly disorienting for the foreigner to enter into what I can only describe as some kind of sacred space. As an occidental I’ve never felt so out of place in all my life. We are not fifty yards into the square when we are approached by half a dozen young men asking us if we would like a “tour” of the souks just to the north of the square and the seemingly endless carpet manufacturers situated at various points throughout the city. With a polite “no, merci,” (French is as fluent here as Moroccan Arabic—polyphonic voices add to the eclectic nature of the square) we try to move on. But, “no” is never really “no” in Marrakech. It takes several yards before the men finally give up and focus on the next group of naïve foreigners. The origins of the Djemaa El Fna are shrouded in mystery, and that is part of its power. There is a certain charge in the air here that is absent from other parts of the city. Clearly the main “attraction” in Marrakech, the square can be as dangerous to foreigners (especially in the post 9/11 world) as it is intriguing. Therefore, one has to pay attention to the “vibrations” of the square at all time, but especially at night. We are told to travel in pairs.
We’ve come to experience the snake charmers and the storytellers. It is quite a pleasant surprise to make our way past acrobats, fire-eaters, and jugglers practicing their art in the hope that we toss them a few coins. I’m informed by Khadija that this is how the “performers” in the Djemaa el Fna make their living; it is how their ancestors have made their living for generations. I stop at a stall (really no more than a tarp covering their heads) containing two men and what appears to be a wicker basket and a tambourine turned over lying on the pavement. One of the men picks up his flute and begins to play something light. The other man uncovers the tambourine and a small cobra is revealed, perhaps to its dismay. During the playful tune the other man handles the snake with ease, even enthusiasm. I can’t help but think that he is putting on this show for my benefit; but then it’s hard to leave the tourist mentality behind. I start to take a picture and I’m accosted by two other men in the background shouting something at me in Arabic. Khadija tells me to give them some money. As soon as I hand them a few bills (I’m not sure of the denomination) I am welcomed into the scene. Another snake is pulled from the wicker basket and placed around my neck. The nervous look on my face brings a smile to the handler. It’s harmless, he tells me. After several rounds of pictures (which tells me that I tipped them an obscene amount of money) we move through the increasing congestion of people and toward the storytellers.
It’s really the storytellers that I’ve come to see. In his travel book, The Voices of Marrakesh, Elias Canetti writes: “The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that people throng most densely and stay longest.” Gathered around one man, various people from various places in the world stand in complete hypnotic attention. The man telling the stories (the storytellers are always male) is perhaps the most animated in the entire square. His storytelling consists of speaking at times loudly, at times softly, flailing his arms up and down in almost hysteric convulsions. The entire time I witnessed his story (for you do not just “hear” a storyteller recount a tale, you witness it, you experience it in a sort of terrifying glory) I did not understand a word. He spoke in what I took to be Arabic (Moroccan Arabic is much different than, say, Egyptian Arabic). What strikes the observer of the storytellers immediately is the rhythm with which they recite their tales. Standing there I thought how much they had in common with some of the Baptist preachers we have in the southern United States. However, I wasn’t getting fire and brimstone from these speakers, I was getting a sense of how the structure of stories and storytelling is fluid, moving rapidly in and out of moments, characters, and scenes. Written narrative, that Western doctrine of containment, attempts to enclose all aspects of story, unlike the storytellers here who seem to be more concerned that the story reveal itself through the vehicle of their being. Watching the scene play itself out I think to myself that this is what possession must be like; a willingness to let oneself become filled with the power of something completely beyond one’s control and, perhaps, understanding. Following the epileptic-like movements my initial feeling of disconcertedness and anxiety gradually gave way to acceptance. As I stood there I came to realize that I didn’t have to understand what the storyteller was saying, it didn’t matter. I had become possessed by the story myself; a willing participant in a ritual older than history. The story took flight and came to possess the entire Djemaa el Fna, filling it like some kind of electrical charge. It was at this point that I understood the power this place had. It wasn’t merely the historical ties to its centrality; it went back to the etymology of the word “assembly.” As a spectator I was a part of the story itself; I was a witness to its power. That power (perhaps the better word is enchantment) in turn contributed to the electrical charge that emanated from that small circle to expand increasingly outward. I was no longer an American, a tourist, an outsider, I was witnessing something primordial which far outstripped the exaggerations of nationality; standing there I became part of the story. This something was enigmatic and timeless. Its aura of mystery superseded the words emerging from the mouth of the storyteller. Standing there, listening in the dying light I was at once attracted and repelled by this mystery. I was a student of the novel who was at this moment reminded that he had forgotten the essence of story. “Mystery,” states Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude, “is an occult force or efficacy that does not obey us, and we never know how or when it will manifest itself.” Narrative is the attempt to force time into a structured, controlled environment. Here, in this land of desert sand and endless sky, the enigmatic was sovereign. Here, the listener, the spectator, the witness, was on his or her own. The listener is led astray from any directional narrative force that seeks to impose a form, or “home,” on the situation. Instead, one comes to dwell within the power of the story. This was a place that still believed in magic, still lived with it. What the Westerner might think of as “primitive,” the storyteller (as well as the inhabitants) of Marrakech will think of as natural. “Progress” was not a word whose meaning was the same for the storyteller. Progress signaled the death of the mystery of being. It also signaled the death of magic, of enchantment, in storytelling. Whereas reading is mainly a solitary act, what I was experiencing was a collective listening and performing. Listening to the storytellers of Marrakech one becomes a part of the story; a willing participant if you will. It is during the performance that the listener sheds his or her inhibitions and begins to feel their foreignness slip away. The thinly disguised veils of otherness drift off to reveal a commonality. That commonality binds the listeners to this space, which is magical, familiar and foreign at the same time. It is an encounter with the uncanny in its most resonant sense. Taking part in the story, we become lost in its embrace. We give ourselves over to the power (if such a term can be applied here) of the square. We are not only listeners taking part in the primordial act of storytelling, we are dwelling within that story, which in turn dwells within the magic of the square. If there was ever a time when I left my metaphysical reference points behind it was listening to the storytellers in the Djemaa el Fna.
There is no hint of vanity in the actions of the storyteller. There is just a willingness to allow the story to live and breathe through the mouth of his human form. Possession inhabits the mind just as much as the body. The feeling, as I said before, is contagious. The spectators were all taking part in possession with the electric impulse of the atmosphere enveloping the Djemaa el Fna. Its history, its story, was something alive; something which refused to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—in other words—capital. The listeners were forgetting (at least I was) for the moment that they were tourists, and became part of the story. “For storytelling,” writes Walter Benjamin, “is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory.” Storytelling, Benjamin later goes on to argue, constitutes, at least in part, the “communicability of experience.” As listeners we became part of the tale, and, at least for the moment, were dwelling in the matrix of the words and actions of the storyteller. The storyteller was relating an experience to us, and in turn that experience became part of our own condition. Amidst the heat and the noise, one forgot any concept of boundaries that existed between east and west. If the novel is a western phenomenon, then surely storytelling in its essence is an eastern phenomenon. When one sits down to read a novel, or a play, or a poem, or listen to a recording, he or she is listening to something that is already “dead,” already after the fact. The storytellers present the listener with a living experience that does not leave him or her for quite some time. Walking away from the storyteller I had the uncanny feeling that I had witnessed something that would stay with me for years to come. And in fact, it has stayed with me. As we ventured further around the square I slowly became aware that I had somehow changed. It was as if I had something impressed upon my soul that would not easily wash off. I began to identify with Bradbury’s Illustrated Man. It occurred to me that while I stood there listening to the storyteller I was engaged in a way that I had never been while reading a novel, or listening to a recording. It is this engagement, this interest, that corresponds to what Heidegger might have meant by dwelling in its proper sense.
Western words like “security,” “safety,” and “comfort” do not apply here. This is not to say that one does not feel “safe” in the Djemaa el Fna; for the most part one does. Yet, there is an overwhelming feeling of unease as we make our way through the square. We have been told to stay with at least one other person from our group and to keep our money in our front pockets. The Djemaa el Fna is notorious for the skills of its pickpockets and scammers. Perhaps it’s the chaos of the music always playing in the background by the hundreds of musicians vying for attention. Perhaps it’s the alacrity with which we are approached by would-be “guides,” anxious and very willing to show us the souks and the carpet retailers for negotiable fees. Nevertheless, I did feel slightly ill at ease as I wandered around feeling like some trashy tourist come to behold the spectacle of the east for myself, only to abduct its essence and intellectualize it into some banal philosophical statement. When we located a café two floors above a shop, we beheld the spectacle that was the Djemaa el Fna. Seen from above the Djemaa el Fna looks exactly like a flea market you would see anywhere in the United States. Standing on the terrace with a cold Coca-Cola in my hand, surveying the chaos of the square from above, I came into my inheritance. I had inherited the spirit of every Western traveler that came before me. I looked out over the square with the gaze of the colonizer. At this moment I had arrived at that place Mary Louise Pratt calls “The monarch-of-all-I-survey,” in her thought-provoking but deeply flawed  book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Here I was, a white, American male whose gaze took in the whole “primitive scene.” Up above the cacophony of voices (unintelligible and strange) I tried to make some sense of what I was witnessing. On the left the Atlas Mountains were barely visible in the twilight, to my right, the awesome mystery of the Sahara. I was placing myself in the scene, but from the vantage of being above it all. “The white man’s lament,” writes Pratt, “is also the lament of the Intellectual and the Writer. It may be thought of in part as an attempt to drown out the chatter of another monolithic voice emerging in the same decades: the voice of mass tourism.” Yet, how was I to think my situation in this strange and wonderful landscape? Does Pratt suggest that the only writers qualified to record their observations are natives? Pratt unfairly criticizes Paul Theroux and Alberto Moravia for blindly negating what they see by intellectually colonizing the places they travel. She is less harsh on Joan Didion’s wonderfully and honestly written Salvador, I suspect, because Didion is a woman. What I was witnessing was not a “heart of darkness,” but an enchanting world completely different from the one I dwelled in. How then are travelers supposed to reconcile their journeys with their whiteness? Pratt never leads us in that direction. Stranger still is the fact that Pratt also never mentions Edith Wharton’s travels throughout Morocco in 1917, later published as In Morocco in 1925. Wharton’s account of Morocco is racist almost to the point of absurdity. Her descriptions are full of references to Oriental sexuality and seduction that, one suspects, Wharton looked upon with a uniquely interested gaze. Describing the Djemaa el Fna from the vantage point of a roof, Wharton’s gaze falls upon a circle of people surrounding the storytellers: “In the middle of the square sit the story-tellers’ turbaned audiences. Beyond these are the humbler crowds about the wild-ringleted snake-charmers with their epileptic gestures and hissing incantations, and farther off, in the densest circle of all, we could just discern the shaved heads and waving surpliced arms of the dancing boys. Under an archway near by [sic] an important personage in white muslin mounted on a handsome mule and surrounded by his attendants, sat with motionless face and narrowed eyes gravely following the movements of the dancers” (emphasis mine). The detail with which Wharton is able to describe this scene is incredible, especially since she is not in close proximity to what she is observing. Her eye for detail suggests a decidedly romantic gaze at the very least. More fantastic still is her choice of words which lend an almost poetic air to the action. It’s a scene that would have complimented Pratt’s thesis well; an occidental woman’s gaze taking in the spectrum of Oriental mystery and primitiveness. As I gazed down upon the same scene more than eighty years later I saw much of the same. However, at no time did I encounter “dancing-boys.” I saw acrobats and fire-eaters, but no hint of sexual allurement. Nevertheless, I did feel my own foreignness returning while looking down upon the square. It was not reconcilement that I was searching for after experiencing the storytellers, it was understanding. I soon realized that I was on the periphery of the known world. Yet, this did not constitute a periphery for most of the people dwelling in the city; it was a periphery to my own known world that I was experiencing. I was the outsider, the foreign element gazing down upon the square. In any case, I felt no better than Wharton, Moravia or Theroux while I was casually sipping my Coke. (Not bad company to keep I might add, despite Pratt’s argument.) In each case, the writer attempts to enclose what he or she experiences in the form of a story, of narrative. Implicated in the narrative is the domestication of the primitive mind by the much more progressive and linear civilized mind.
Still, the Djemaa el Fna must be experienced and not intellectualized to degrees that place it in danger of becoming just another thesis on orientalism. The music possesses the wanderer to such a degree that he or she experiences what I can only think of as a sort of out of body experience. As one navigates his or her way through the crowds (getting thicker and more hysterical as twilight approaches) in a hypnotic daze, the only recognizable point of reference is the Koutoubia Minaret. Paul Bowles writes in his essay “The Route to Tassemsit” that “In order to be really present,” [in Marrakech], “you must have your feet in the dust, and be aware of the hot, dusty smell of the mud walls beside your face.” The heat and the dust and the noise follow the traveler wherever he or she goes in this desert oasis. The profound feeling of disconnectedness the Westerner experiences is a fundamental aspect of dwelling here. Moreover, I felt myself constantly giving in to the temptation to romanticize my experience. But what of it? Does romanticizing a profound experience in a completely foreign land necessarily negate its validity? Although Marrakech is unfortunately succumbing to the awesome gravitational pull of globalism, one can still feel as if he or she were beyond the boundaries of the “known world.” Around every corner lurks the possibility of receding into the anxiety of not belonging, of being utterly and inconsolably “foreign.” This foreignness, in my somewhat limited travels to Europe, is nearly impossible on that continent. Traveling throughout Europe, one is constantly reminded of the growing Americanness of the world. Here that “Americanness” can make you an easy target. What the traveler feels here remains long after they have returned to their homes. It becomes a fundamental part of their being.
What the experience of a place like the Djemaa el Fna teaches one is that “home” is also a Western concept. To feel “at home” one must feel comfortable. Yet, feeling comfortable and secure surely must leave out the essence of experiencing dwelling in its proper sense. To feel comfortable one is always in danger of becoming lazy, of losing attention, of not caring. “Interest means,” writes Heidegger, “to be among and in the midst of things, or to be at the center of thinking and stay with it. But today’s interest accepts as valid only what is interesting. And interesting is the sort of thing that can freely be regarded as indifferent the next moment, and be displaced by something else, which then concerns us just as little as what went before.” For the traveler there is no possibility of being indifferent to what he or she experiences. This is something that is lost on the tourist who pushes his or her way through the crowds and on to the next attraction. As I made my way through the café I never felt more like an interlocutor. The question of the relationship among humans, space and dwelling began to articulate itself as I descended from the café terrace to the square. Before I reached the noise the call for this issue was already at the door announcing its arrival through the sound of the drums constantly banging away.
As we continued our way through the labyrinthine streets just beyond the Djemaa el Fna we came upon four men kneeling in prayer. I had not heard the call to prayer, so I asked Khadija why they were praying. She told me that these men could always be seen here praying. They were praying for Palestinian autonomy. In short, they were praying for the dispossessed. Everywhere I looked I saw what I can only describe as a third world condition. The streets were often no more than dust and stone. The shops had carpets for doorways, and the shopkeepers were often talking animatedly with each other. Sixty-two years before I stood in this street George Orwell wrote of his encounter with the inhabitants of Marrakech:

“When you walk through a town like this—two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in—when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces—besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil. Sometimes, out for a walk, as you break your way through the prickly pear, you notice that it is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons.”

What I was witnessing was not unlike what Orwell describes. However, where he struggled to find humanity, I was confronted with it. Before me was humanity in all its terrifying and vulnerable fleshiness. Humanity is, after all, the dirty, the sad, the unacknowledged and forgotten. It is quite curious that Pratt never mentions Orwell in her book. Still more curious is that Orwell, that man who lived among the tramps and homeless in Down and Out in Paris and London, could fail to find humanity here, despite its looking him squarely and unblinking in the eye. Our conceptions of what it means to dwell in the world, and the power our dwelling places have over us is constantly in danger of going unnoticed.  A shop owner was beginning to show signs of agitation at our idleness (doubtless he wanted us to buy something from him), so Khadija recommended we move on. Someone in our group purchased a bottle of water and this seemed to pacify the shop owner. Someone else snapped a picture of the shop owner with a digital camera and all hell broke loose. Once again we were surrounded by concerned and angry men. Once the shop owner was shown his picture (and yet another bottle of water was purchased), we were allowed (I say allowed because that is what it felt like at the time) to move on. With thanks and one last look at the shop owner and the men kneeling in prayer, we started and left them there, standing in the heat and the dust of some tiny shadowed street just beyond the Djemaa el Fna.


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