global travel shot: uninterrupted storytelling in djemaa el-fna

Welcome to my blog post series on Morocco. 🙂

I was travelling through Morocco these past three weeks. Exploring its four Imperial cities, camping under the stars in the Sahara Desert, hiking through the Todra Gorge, soaking in the sun, sand and sea in Essaouira, and falling in love with pearl-blue Chefchaouen.

What better way could there be to kick-start my series than by writing a post on Morocco’s most popular city’s most famous site: Djemaa el-Fna.

Nothing has changed in Djemaa el-Fna since 1070 AD, the largest square in Marrakech in the heart of Morocco.

Nothing at all. The uninterrupted storytelling. The cacophonic pantomime acts. The mesmeric snake-charmers. The rhythmic beat of the drums. The magicians and black magic “doctors.” It is where news was, and still is, exchanged and ideas are shared through the spoken word.

When Yusuf Ibn Tashfin, the desert warrior king, laid the foundations of his Almoravid dynasty’s capital city 20 miles from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, little did he envisage its city square would live on a thousand years. He had christened the city “Marrakech” meaning “land of god,” and the square “Djemaa el-Fna” meaning “assembly of the dead.” The latter served as a site for public executions back then.

As the day weaves into the night, the living sound today, as then, rises to a crescendo only to ebb away briefly before rising again to a fresh set of performances and new audiences. No two days or two acts or two audiences are the same in this vast square. Yet, the oral tradition is constant. Enough to merit it a listing as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity Site in 2008 for holding in its folds unabated oral Moroccan culture.

Wandering on, I saw hundreds of Marrakechi staring up into a large screen, completely engrossed, reading the subtitles diligently. Looking up as well, I found to my delight Shah Rukh Khan’s face [a Bollywood film star] beaming down on me as part of the International Film Festival Marrakech. And I knew I was home, humming to ‘challa ki labda phire’ [what does this crazy wanderer seek?] together with the local crowds swarming around me, listening to storytelling albeit from a different land. 

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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December, 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]

12 thoughts on “global travel shot: uninterrupted storytelling in djemaa el-fna

  1. Pingback: photo essay: marrakech, stories told and untold | rama arya's blog


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