In the mornings, Djemaa El-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco is just a large, mostly empty square, but that soon changes. As the day progresses, the square starts to fill up with storytellers, acrobats, snake charmers, dancers, musicians and food and tea stalls. Djemaa El-Fna has been the center of life in Marrakech for much of its almost 1000 year history, but in modern times it has also become the city’s center of tourism.
Ambling through the square in the afternoon, you spot a stall piled high with brightly colored oranges and decide to stop for a glass of freshly squeezed juice. Excited by the thought you hurry toward the vendor forgetting to pay attention to the commotion around you. Big mistake—within seconds, you have a snake draped around your neck.
You grab the snake as you spin around looking for the vendor who just played a game of ring toss with a snake and your head. He’s already right behind you with his hand out demanding money for the privilege of holding his pet. You toss the snake back at him and turn around to walk away, but he grabs your arm and starts yelling hysterically that you owe him money. While he is turning in an Oscar worthy performance—a mixture of shock, amazement and outrage that someone who is so much richer than he would stoop to cheating a poor innocent vendor—you suddenly find yourself with a monkey on your head.
You toss the monkey back at his handler and now have two apoplectic Moroccans groping you and imploring anyone and everyone to help them deal with this cheating foreigner who clearly came all the way to Morocco just to have dangerous and filthy animals thrown at him for free. You give them a shove to create some space and turn to walk away when a crazy-eyed woman grabs your hand and starts putting ink on it while dragging you away from the commotion.
You tell her that a henna tattoo is the last thing you want, but she informs you it’s free and she’s almost finished anyway. When she has finished, you look at the disgusting mess on your hand, thank her halfheartedly and get up to leave to which she replies, “100 Euros!” with a big grin. You start to remind her that she promised to hideously discolor your hand at no cost, but think better of it and just walk away briskly, ignoring the shrieking that follows you for the next few minutes.
You decide to leave the square for a bit. On your way out, you spot another henna tattoo scam artist who has clearly just finished forcing her craft on a little girl and is now dragging the child toward her unsuspecting parents to extract the surely very reasonable fee.
Once outside the square you walk around aimlessly for twenty or thirty minutes at which point you realize that walking around aimlessly in the old town of Morocco is the last thing you should be doing. You stop to look around and realize you’ve walked into a regular neighborhood, with people going about their daily lives and not another tourist in sight. At this point, the guy who’s been quietly following you since you left the square suddenly steps in front of you with his hand out demanding 10 Euros for leading you to your destination.
You just laugh and ignore him, but realize that you are going to need some help finding your way back. All the streets look the same and none of them follow any direction found on a compass; and that’s not limited to the standard four—it includes such directions as north northwest. Conventional methods of navigation simply don’t apply in old town Marrakech. A whole new system needs to be invented.
But it hasn’t, so no one is ever able to tell you exactly which way you need to go to get anywhere. Plenty of people are willing to try and they approach you at a rate of about ten per minute with a spoken promise of guiding you for free and an unspoken promise of throwing a huge tantrum when you end up taken them at their word.
Instead, you look around for someone who might help you without wanting something in return and are pointed in the general direction of the square. You follow the indicated road for twenty meters at which point it abruptly changes direction at some odd angle while intersecting five other, completely identical roads, all also angling off in yet unnamed directions. You look around for the next person to ask and in this way you slowly make your way back to the square, twenty meters at a time.
You arrive shortly after dark to a completely transformed scene. Gone are the annoying animal handlers and henna shrews. In their place, the square has been filled with hundreds of tea and food stalls, barely visible in the smoky haze rising from the countless grills. And of course hundreds touts scurry about, all looking to drag you to their particular stall which is always by far the best among all the completely identical offerings.
You choose a stall no one has yet tried to force you into and order a steaming hot tagine and some bread. When your order arrives and you savor the first spoonful, you finally realize why Djemaa El-Fna is the place to be in Marrakech.