The main square in Marrakech is called Djemaa el Fna – “Place of the Dead” – due to the habit of a previous sultan of impaling the heads of his victims on spikes around the walls, but there could hardly be a more inappropriate title today; the square throngs with life late into the night. Snake charmers and storytellers, musicians, herbalists, tooth-pullers, acrobats and drummers all draw crowds of people standing in small groups around the performers. There are stalls that sell orange juice, dried fruit and pastries that seem to be constructed of layers of caramel stuck together with honey which is then drenched in syrup. In the early evening, as the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque becomes a silhouette against the sky, numbered food stalls set out rows of tables and benches, and the best of these is number one, “Chez Aicha”.
Aicha herself is the matriarch, standing beneath the lights on a box amidst clouds of steam as she ladles spoonfuls of couscous into bowls which are dispensed around the tables by the waiters. It was Ramadan, and the place was packed with locals slurping bowls of harira soup as they broke their fast, eating for the first time since sunrise. I found a space on the end of a bench and a sheet of paper was laid down as a tablecloth. The waiter was about 12 years old, and he took orders for drinks in a mixture of French and English, then shouted them in Arabic to another waiter who brought them over. A flat loaf of bread arrived together with one bowl of chilli relish and another of tomato, and as I got stuck in the second call to prayer began, first coming from the mosque just in front of the stalls, soon joined by another mosque on the opposite side of the square. Then a third began from Koutoubia, the tenor voice of the muezzin there soaring above the other two, welling upwards in ascending scales of longing. It seemed everyone in the square was touched by it, and when the call finally ended and the clatter of life resumed, the notes still hung motionless in the air above the city before gradually fading into memory.
The main course arrived: vegetable tagine. Morocco isn’t a great place to be a vegetarian, as your options are basically restricted to vegetable tagine, or vegetable couscous, which is just a tagine served with coucous anyway. Aicha’s tagine contained a selection of veg – carrots, potato, pumpkin, chickpeas – in a stock flavoured with the spice mixture known as Ras el Hanout, which can contain 45 different spices, including rose petals. It was very good. All around were the babble of voices from the diners, the clamour of the kitchens, and in the background, a dozen different pieces of music weaving together from the performers in the main square. The food stalls aren’t really a place to linger after you’ve finished your meal, so I paid the bill of 27 dirhams (about £2) and headed to one of the cafés with a balcony overlooking the square for a mint tea. This is the national drink of Morocco, and is served syrupy sweet in a small pot stuffed full of mint leaves. Down below the crowds wandered by: horse-drawn carts trotted past taking people home for dinner, motor scooters zipped around the juice stalls, a furious row flared up between some snake charmers and a group of monkey handlers, seemingly along the lines of “Your snake bit my monkey”, gnawa dancers clattered after tourists with caps outstretched for tips, shoeshine boys clacked their brushes together and dived at the feet of likely candidates, and veiled Berber ladies painted traditional tribal symbols in henna onto the hands of blonde girls in shorts.
I heard the deep boom of a bass drum and saw a group setting up instruments on a small patch of ground. There were 6 of them, and the bass drum thumped out a rhythm which one by one they all picked up on. I finished my mint tea and went down into the square to watch. A crowd was gathering, and I pushed my way in, standing next to an old man in a djellabah and his grandson. A small cup was handed around and we each put in 5 dirhams. The drummer on the end, who I could see now was a young boy, got up and began to dance. He had bare feet and a bright red sweater, and he jumped and whirled in the centre of the circle as everyone clapped along. He joined both his hands together above his head and vibrated his entire body like a rubber band, and the three teenage girls in headscarves standing in front of me covered their mouths and giggled. Gradually the melody changed, moving into a minor key full of Arabic quartertones, a haunting tune that spoke of longing and loss. I looked at the faces opposite me in the circle, lit by the flickering firelight, each of them absorbed in the music. The lead drummer started to sing, and one by one the people around me joined in, their voices rising and falling in time with the chorus as the song echoed round the Djemaa el Fna.