A recent visit to Marrakech reunited with me with some of my (new) oldest friends – the street performers, henna artists, restaurant promoters and orange-juice squeezers of Jemma el Fnaa. Having been to Jemma el Fnaa numerous times, I know what to expect and how to react to the vibe of the place, which often borders on sheer craziness. First time visitors to Jemma el Fnaa should arrive prepared and in the right mind state in order to avoid anxiety, overload or a total freakout.
Yeah. A total freakout.
Any visit to Marrakech – unless you’ve been a few times and are attempting a spa retreat or really want to avoid the action – should include a trip to Jemma el Fnaa. Note that Jemma el Fnaa has two distinct personalities.
- During the day, Jemma el Fnaa is the stomping grounds of guarabs selling cups of water, street performers, henna ladies, dudes with monkeys, snakes, owls, etc “tamed” for your enjoyment and men selling fantastic freshly squeezed orange juice. Food is generally scarce. Scooters will be ripping through at top speed.
- Just before dusk a mob of restaurants set up and offer specialties ranging from snails to kefta to brains. The restaurants are fun – you are usually pretty close to the guys cooking your food and there is a real social element to dining side by side with locals and tourists alike. Be careful though, as some of the restaurants charge absurd prices for side-dishes delivered to you without your request. Many of the day’s attractions are still visible, though there is an definite shift-change around dinner – a new set of street performers moves in, the night crew including story tellers, musicians, dancing “ladies” and even more henna artists. Thankfully the orange juice guys stay set up through the night. Scooters will be ripping through at top speed.
Click through for some advice.
As far as visiting Jemma el Fnaa, I have a few suggestions to help make a first time visit more manageable.
- ALWAYS secure your wallet / purse / money to the best of your abilities. There is a heck of a lot of jostling and bumping in the crowd. Like everywhere else in the world, sometimes bad things happen. Try to minimize the chances of it happening to you.
- If you’re making photographs, always have a few coins in your pocket. Many of the performers do this for a living. Posing for photographs is a major part of their income. Even if you are Joe Streetphotographer and can navigate NYC crowds snapping close-ups of the human condition without being noticed, you will be noticed here. Prepare to pay a few dirhams for the pleasure of taking these photographs.
- Not everyone wishes to be photographed. Have some respect and a dash of common sense. If a woman is wearing a hijab and has her face covered, she may have a problem with you sticking your camera in her face and snapping away. Always ask first.
- Always negotiate prices before accepting a service (like henna, for example).
- Be careful around the snakes / monkeys / owls / etc. Many of the animals have been “trained” to jump on people and are sometimes only retrieved after the trainer has been handed a few dirhams. Be on guard and prepared to say “no” authoritatively if someone attempts to let their monkey jump on you. Unless you like that sort of thing.
- If you are planning on eating, go to a restaurant with a lot of people already seated and eating.
- Do not go to a restaurant based on how
pushypersuasive the hype man is. Go where they are serving what you want and are busy.
- Always make sure that you’re eating only what you’ve ordered. If you didn’t explicitly order it and you’re snacking away on it, you are probably going to pay for it and it may be expensive. If you find yourself arguing over a bill, best of luck to you.
- If a restaurant has multiple menus with different prices (i.e., the normal menu and the “you’re walking away here are better prices” menu) expect difficulty with your bill.
- A little Moroccan Arabic goes a long way. Remember “shukhran” and use it in place of “thank you”.
- Drink the orange juice – it’s great. Ask for a melange and you’ll get orange, lemon and grapefruit juice. After a kefta dinner, it’s great for the stomach.
- Remember that the police are located on the southern side of the square. If you need help, you can orient yourself by locating the Koutoubia Mosque. Walk towards it and you should see the police barracks.
I am a major fan of Jemma el Fnaa and look forward to my next visit, though I can see how it can be totally overwhelming for the first-time visitor. If you have any questions about visiting, please ask away in the “comments” section. Thanks!
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