Morocco is fascinating. There are two worlds in every town: the new world, made of tree-lined grid streets that ache to be European, and the other one, the older one, the crowded one, the world of tightly packed buildings and claustrophobically near horizons. It’s a world in which you’re almost forced to live in the moment: in the tightness of the alleys of the medina, you cannot see where you are going, and you cannot see where you have been. All of which makes for wonderful exploration and makes the sudden discovery of the wide open expanse of Marrakesh’s Jemaa El-Fna all the more enthralling.
The Jemaa El-Fna (which by the way, good luck finding agreement on how to spell it in English) is by day a square fronted by restaurants and tourists shops. In the daylight it is unremarkable but for its size. Much more interesting are the aforementioned alleyways that branch off into the medina’s maze. Here it is easy to wander, to drink tea and get lost until the hunger that accompanies the arrival of dusk begins to set in. The natural exit point of the medina, the Jemaa El-Fna calls first with smells, with scattered glimpses of white steam, then bursts once again into view, showcasing the evening sky, a sky that has been hidden by medina rooftops for hours of exploration. It is suddenly a transformed place, completely unlike the open stretch of sun-baked cobblestones earlier: it’s crowded, completely alive and awash in the sounds, smells and sights of delicious Moroccan cuisine.
It’s easy to like Moroccan food, and there is a whole lot to like crammed in stalls lit by strings of bare light bulbs, all of it lined into long smoky rows in what was formerly empty space. Wandering between the dozens and dozens of stalls beneath the open sky is a gastronome’s paradise. Each stall has a harried chef consumed in white steam in the back and a long narrow table in the front, complete with a young man whose paycheck is predicated on his ability to get you to sit down. If you’re like me, you stay away from the places without crowds and tend to hate waiting. There’s enough variety that you can choose a moderately busy table and peruse the board of options, or if foreign languages aren’t your strong suit (as in my case), you can walk up to the table in the back and pick from the bounty artfully arranged food in front of the grill.
And what kind of food is there? It’s a who’s who of Moroccan favorites. There are tagines of course, dozens of varieties, made with chicken, beef or lamb with beans and vegetables. For the adventurous there are racks of pigeon pies and boiling pots of sheep head stew. The variety is wonderful. The whole experience, taken together, walking between tables, is not unlike taking part in some massive banquet. There is so much food here. Sure, there are tourists, they’re everywhere, but they can’t ruin this, this is so much bigger than a loud American or a stuck-up European.
This experience has always been about the food, and after wandering around to find the perfect table, waiting to hear the perfect pitch from a menu boy, the food is cooked freshly at the hissing grill, it’s easy to see why. This is about the experience, not the necessity, of eating: eating as an individual, eating as a community. And cooking as a business, as a craft, as culture. What could be more human? To wander the Jemaa El-Fna, eating here and there as you go, is to sample a cross section of human life in the bright lit night air of the arid plains of Morocco.