Saturday, 4 December 2010

Marrakech, Djemma el Fna and the Food Market

Later on the terrace we watched the sunset usher in the darkness and bring to an end a day of perfect blue sky and sunshine and refeshed and rested we made preparations for a night on the town. We were returning to Djemma el Fna and when we arrived there the place had taken on a whole new identity.

Sometime between the end of the afternoon and the early evening the square had been transformed from a market place to an open air theatre with swarms of people and this is something that occurs every single day of the year. The snake charmers and the monkey men had packed up and gone home and had been replaced by a carnival of musicians, storytellers, transvestite dancers and other entertainers. There were fairground stalls and all sorts of opportunists trying to sell things not just to tourists but to each other as well. There was a crackle of excitement around the square that was fuelled by the energy of all the players and it was impossible not to be caught up in it all.

Some more than others it has to be said because first Margaret and then Kim allowed a young woman to decorate them both with a henna tattoo, Margaret on her arm and Kim on the back of her hand. This didn’t look like a good idea to either Mike or me so we just stood and watched and wondered when they would come to their senses. Sadly they didn’t and they both ended up with a skin decoration that they didn’t really want. And then of course the woman wanted paying for her handiwork and although they both explained that they hadn’t asked her to do it in the first place so they wouldn’t pay it was obvious that this was never going to work.

She asked for 200 dirham (£20) and we laughed and offered her a few coins and now from behind her black veil that covered her face the dark opal eyes that had once been warm and friendly became narrow and angry as she hissed and cajoled and kept her hand extended for payment. I offered her the coins again and she explained that she thought that I was crazy and taking the piss and I explained that it was all that I had and she could take it or leave it. She remained persistent and a stand off ensued during which time Mike and Margaret took the opportunity to slip away and she must have noticed that our bargaining position was strengthening the closer we got to the edge of the square and the crowds of people in the food market. I offered her the coins for a final time and she cursed and scooped them out of my hand and disappeared to find another couple of mugs. I can’t be sure but I think she made off with about 40 dirhams or nearly £4.

Now we were in the food market where every night a corner of the square is transformed into an open air free for all restaurant with one hundred and sixty hastily erected stalls and kitchens all competing for business from hundreds of people, locals and tourists, as they pushed through the narrow aisles in between the steaming barbeque kitchens. At every stall there was someone trying to entice us inside by explaining the menu options and making impromptu offers to entice us and we didn’t get very far before we gave in and allowed one of them to lead us to a trestle table with a plastic tablecloth before thrusting the menus into our hands.

It was all really lively and good fun and there were local people eating here so we thought that might be a recommendation and we ordered a selection of food in a tapas sort of way and in only a short time the table began to fill up with bread and spicy dips, beef tagine, mixed skewers, couscous, salad, fish and chicken and we all tucked in to this rather unusual food combo. While we ate we were pestered constantly by young children selling a variety of things we didn’t need – mostly packs of tissues, but they were doing no harm so it was a bit sad when one of the waiters in an adjacent kitchen kicked one of them up the arse to chase him away and clouted him round the head for good measure. He didn’t half squeal and he didn’t come back in a hurry.

After we had finished we left and continued walking and had to explain every few seconds that we had already eaten to the waiters that continued to accost us every few metres or so. Most of the stalls sold fairly similar food but there were some speciality places and at the edge of the market there were five or six stalls, next door to each other and back to back, all cooking and selling portions of steaming snails with glistening shells which seemed to be really popular with the locals but which didn’t especially appeal to us.

It had been a long day and we seen all that we wanted to by now so although it wasn’t especially late we negotiated our way back to the Riad first through the jostling crowds of people and then the traffic that even now showed no sign of easing up. Once inside the walls of the back streets we left the noise of the city behind and then through the heavy wooden door of the Nafis it was though it never existed at all.

This was a perfect place, an oasis of peace and quiet deep inside the disorderly mayhem of the city and we had a final drink on the terrace served by the attentive Rashid who was already working on his end of our stay tip. While we chatted Kim and Margaret scraped the brown henna from their skin only to find that it wasn’t henna after all and it had left behind no sign of any decoration. The mixture that the tattoo artist had used had probably been a simple mud solution (we hoped) because it washed off without any difficulty and there was nothing left to show for our 40 dirham.

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