Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jemaa El Fna

Wednesday night, August 19, and we’re sitting on the couch in our apartment. Paul pops open a Flag Pils, at $1.60 a can, and we realize this is Hazel’s first day in Marrakech not having eaten an ow-ow (that’s olive). And so we tumble back into last night’s trip to Jemaa El Fna—a plaza that sits almost in the shadow of the city’s landmark mosque, La Koutoubia—an outing fueled mostly by a big bag of olives that keeps Hazel alive into the night:

She looks out the Citroen window from my lap as Moustafa, the school’s driver, takes us to Place Jemaa El Fna; she’s watching the horse-drawn carriages going by us to right and left, “Gallopa-gallopa-gallopa,” she says, and then wonders where the horses go. “So many people,” she says.

The people are pouring out from wherever they have been during the day, into the gathering evening and the streets, scooters zing by on both sides, one with a baby sandwiched between the driver in front and the scarf-clad woman on the back (her scarf hangs down and covers the scooter’s brake-light, the baby looks back over her shoulder); above us strung every so often across the boulevard are arabesques of white lights, getting brighter as evening descends. Everyone beneath them on sidewalk and street are weaving this incredible tapestry of movement and energy, people watching and pausing to cross at just the right moment, go and more go. Moustafa noses the car around a large traffic island where a woman in a lace headscarf poses for a picture beside a cannon (she looks and nods at what her friend has taken), and a Caucasian couple stands with backpacks and front packs each facing the other but looking out around over each other's shoulders at the swirling scooters and cars and the standing traffic police in their blue and darker blue and white holsters and extended white cuffs. Given the couple's expressions, wide-eyed and dazed, I wonder where they’ll find to stay tonight. An older woman—small, swathed in long tan dress and scarf, hesitates, gauging the flow, then steps out from the island into the moving tide of people and cars—one of those faces in a flash and then gone. Mouad, a young Moroccan teacher at the school, had said to us the day before as we walked out to buy groceries that people just cross the street as they can, wherever, “That’s how it’s done here.” Bryan, head of school, was with us on that excursion and said that in Vietnam he was instructed to just keep his tempo steady as he plunged into the stream of bikes and scooters and cars, that everyone else will adjust as you move along, and you’re safe only as long as you keep your chosen pace.

By the time we’re dropped off to meet Bryan and his family and Moustafa returns from having parked the car who-knows-where, it’s dark. The group now includes Vladimir, the new history teacher, and his wife Natalia, their 5-year old son Niki, Bryan and his wife Cha-cha (she’ll be Hazel’s Montessori teacher, already “Mizth Thca-thca”), and their high school senior son. Moustafa, now our guide, snaps shut his cell phone, leans down to kiss Hazel, takes her hand, I take her other—and there she is walking bravely between us toward the great bank of lights illuminating the blowing curtains of smoke from the cooking fires of the food stalls at the center of Jemaa El Fna. There is a sea of people between us and the lights and the smoke—all beneath the great bowl of the dark sky. Her little face is flushed, her dress swinging, and once she spots the single star you can see right above us here, she’s singing her version of “Star light, star bright.”

And it’s a crazy scene. We stop first to watch one of the many monkeys with handlers—this one is in a purple pleated dress (her handler gestures to us to pet the coarse, grey, oddly abundant fur of her forearm), she does several back flips when vigorously prodded, and then lays herself coyly back on the cobblestones, on her side, tail curled just so. Endless sellers, mostly teens or children it seems, hocking this or that drum, bouncy-sparkle toy, single packet of tissues, wooden but undulating snake, move through the throng (no live snakes after 6PM, however, much to Hazel’s dismay). We drink fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of the dozens of juice stalls—Moustafa chooses one, for what reason I’m not sure and neither of us recalls which number (the stalls are each numbered, but not lined up chronologically), and I wish I spoke enough Arabic to know what he is bantering about with the juicers up behind the counters, probably a good three feet above us. He gestures, he laughs, they joke—clearly part of the culture of choosing one but not leaving the others out. At one point he leads us off the plaza and into the twisting streets of the souk—shop upon shop, leather goods, pottery, silver, clothing, and then the olives—great glistening pyramids, pale, black, green, spiced. We buy a bag (Moustafa, since he is here, enacts the exchange)—and we’re good to go for at least another hour. We have a late supper at one of the food stalls (be prepared to say no to each emcee at each stall until you reach the one you want—one says to us, smiling, encouraging, pegging us in a heartbeat, “Fingehr leekin ghood!” ). And then it’s home through the streets still thronged with people, lights still lit, the guards at the King’s Marrakech residence chatting in their booth, home to bath and bed. 

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