How to describe the Cirque du Soleil main square in Marakesh, fondly named Jemaa el-Fna. Apparently the government beheaded criminals up until the 19th century, executing 45 poor souls on a single day whose heads would travel to the city gates to be used as welcoming decoration.
Perhaps 2-3 football fields in size, Jemaa el-Fna is ringed by restaurants and stalls selling soccer t-shirts, leather goods, and lamps. It is paved. During the day, there is a line of identical carts piled high with oranges, selling fresh squeezed orange juice offered in glasses with a straw. There is another line of dried fruit carts as well, selling everything from dates and apricots to nuts of all manner and kind. Again, outrageous piles of them, ten million peanuts strong. The seller has a hole in the middle, in which he stands as King of his nutty kingdom.
There is an area of neatly lined up shoe shine men, who fortunately, like shoe shine men the world over, said it would cost what we wanted to pay when Anders asked. That’s how Anders brought his black loafers back to life, I brought my black leather walking shoes back to life, and Hans enjoyed a quick buff of his sneakers. There is an area selling plants. There are snake charmers and men with Macaque monkeys from North Africa on leashes. The tooth puller shows off his prowess with a mound of pulled teeth and a diagram of the mouth. The healers have all their wares spread out before them on the ground, from incense and dried whole iguanas, to spices, dried herbs, and emu eggs. Arabic storytellers gather huge crowds who encircle them, hanging on every word. Or other more intimate storytellers gather two or three others around them on low stools. Musicians and acrobats vie for your attention.
At night, the snakes and monkeys and henna ladies go home for dinner, and a whole city of open air restaurants with simple picnic tables end to end magically arrive, serving safe things like grilled lamb chops and chicken, or chicken and cous cous in a pointy hat tagine, to the abjectly startling whole grilled sheep heads (with teeth) that locals are scooping out the brains with great abandon and using bread to soak up the soup.
Now then. That is the description. Here then is the feeling. Magical, maddening, frantic, wonderful, pushy chaos.
Everywhere you turn, there is something to catch your eye. “Hello, Madam. Bonjour? Come over here please, please.” Suddenly you have a snake around your neck. “Oh, no thank you, you say,” and they put two more on. “Take a picture, it is ok. Ok. Nice snake. Look over here, cobra.” The snake charmer starts to play on an instrument, and sure enough, there’s a black cobra snake, ramrod straight, striking at his fingers. And your husband has two snakes around his neck, and they’re telling you to take a picture. “Photo, photo. Nice photo.” They even gently maneuver you into the right place, so that the sun is just so. You take the photo, to stop the madness as much as to capture the moment, and just as soon as the shutter clicks, the snakes are quickly removed and they request $20 for the pleasure of being brow beaten into the whole shebang.
They speak enough English to make some sense, but not enough for you to actually reason with them. Like, “Are you joking? You never told me it would be that expensive.” Our first trip in, we purposefully didn’t take any money with us, and when we told them that, they just kept saying, “No problem, give us your change.”
Hans literally had his hand taken by a very pushy young woman with a bottle of henna, who made a scorpion on the back of it, even though Anders said over and over, “We don’t have any money. We don’t have any money.” She kept intoning, “Scorpion is good luck,” and “will stay for three months” until she was done. And then, of course, asked for money. We reiterated that we had said up front that we didn’t have any money, and if she had spoken better English, I would have probed the depths of the selling strategy of forcing someone to endure a procedure that they didn’t ask for, and in fact, had said up front they didn’t want to, or have an ability to, pay for.
But I didn’t, of course.
She went to Level Two of the Marrakech sellers manual, and starting saying “Give her/him/me what you want.” Again, my internal marketing dialog suggested that we didn’t want it in the first place, so we wouldn’t “want” to give her anything.
She changed her strategy when she realized we were serious about the money thing, and used her fingers to wipe the aforementioned scorpion made of brown henna into something that resembled smeared dog shit on the back of Hans hand. Then turned on her heels to find the next tourist. Hans response was a very small, “I want to go now,” which I totally understood. We counseled him to not let someone do that to him again, and he said, “But she just took my hand and started.”
“So grab your hand back if someone does that,” Anders said. Hans did it his way, of course. After a nice orange juice salesman offered us some water so we could rinse it off, he stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. The orange smudge on the back of his hand lasted for 3 days.