have a street food dinner
Anyone who’s been there knows that a self-care involving street food in Jamaa El Fna Square* in Marrakesh is about everything but having street food.
Street food is an excuse.
A good –sometimes delicious- one but still an excuse.
This place is a timeless, paradoxical, overwhelming and magical square.
An improbable hybrid: a mix of the “Thousand and One Nights” and “Les miserables”.
A concentrate of human nature sprinkled with magical fairy dust.
Remove all contemporary potential clues and try to tell what century you’re at.
Look around you and tell if what you see is beauty or ugliness.
Judge by yourself.
As soon as you get there, young men working for food stalls start following you. They call you, speaking Spanish, English, French, Arabic, any language they think you understand. They touch you, fingers on their menus and tell you to eat at their place. When you’re tired and ready to yell, they make a pun, say a joke or two. With the brightest smiles, they make you forget you wanted to bite.
You end up choosing one, randomly. Or maybe because it’s owned by a woman, managing more than 20 men, who are serving and attracting the clients. Maybe you like this distribution of roles. Or maybe you’re there because the woman’s name is the same as your daughter.
While you’re eating a street kid comes. He takes a seat and his dirty and innocent mouth orders a meal: sausages, French fries and a soda. The way he jumps on the bench tells his happiness. You raise your eyes. A man with a stroller standing in front of the shop is paying for his dinner. Waiters serve the kid like a prince. The boy holds his first fry, looks at you proudly and starts savoring his dinner. The fish, calamaris and olives you’re eating take a different taste.
When you’re done with your meal, you ask your server, the same guy that bothered you to get in the shop, to take you a picture. He stops everything. He stops harassing tourists, locals and whoever is susceptible to eat there. He becomes your official, untitled and professional photographer. A picture here near this table, another there, move that way, a little more on the left. You almost hated him when he was trying to get you in. Now his contagious good mood gives him a place in your heart.
You leave, almost against your will. But there is more to see.
You walk and go from show to show. Halqas* here and there. Huge circles with performers at the center and lurkers like you forming a circle around them.
You watch here. There. Waiting for one show to catch you.
At this one, they insistently, ask you for money: “If you’re here to watch, give a coin or two. Otherwise, feel free to leave”. You don’t feel like staying here. Too aggressive.
Here, acrobats. 2 girls, and a young boy making contortions. The young boy winds up, runs, makes a somersault and… lands on a man in the crowd. The man was too busy filming to see that the acrobat was coming his way. The phone still in his hand, he starts shouting at the boy. The 2 girls come and push him. “Cool. Another show to watch.” thinks the crowd. But no, the man leaves, calmed down.
You walk again.
On your way to another Halqa, you don’t pay attention to monkeys wearing diapers, to fortune tellers, to henna stands, to improvised roulette wheels, to tourists dancing with Gnawas.
You stop when you see a handsome young man, well dressed: white sneakers, white jeans, and a blue polo shirt. On a carpet, surrounded by musicians and singers, he’s dancing a mix of traditional Moroccan dances and Tectonic. His feet stomp like those of a horse. He’s happy and a hell of a dancer. People are clapping. My cousin thinks: “Do his parents know that he’s working as a street performer”. Less than a minute later, he leaves the center of the circle and joins a veiled woman, who’s showing him the video she filmed while he was dancing. His mom. Before he decided to dance, the guy was just like us: passing by.
You walk again.
Another band. Another type of music. Right timing. The show is starting. It never lasts long. They stop every now and then to take money form the audience. 1 Dirham, 2, 5, 10. “May God bring you health” “May God increase your wealth” say the performers. “Amen” replies the crowd. Suddenly, a 50 Dirham bill comes. One of the drummers leaves the band and runs all over the circle galloping, tapping on his drum: “A 50, a 50, a 50, ladies and gentlemen, we have a 50 here!” His energy attracts more people. You’re staying.
You’re still looking at him when your attention is captured by a toddler. 3 or 4 years old. He’s wearing a white Jellaba*, green Chucks and is holding a bendir*.
While his father, the troupe leader, is dancing, singing or talking to people, the little boy is playing with a girl from the audience. She’s wearing a flowery white and purple dress. They dance, hug, and kiss each other. Early romance on a hot summer night.
You stay a little longer. Listening to music, watching the show, the kids, the red faces of people around you, the glass half-full of coffee at the center of the circle, the coins and bills next to it.
Starting to get tired.
You want to leave when a hand holds your forearm: “I swear to God you’re not leaving” says a musician.
You sit back. When you feel you’ve been polite enough, you stand up, making the promise to come back some day.
You make your way out of the square.
Cross horses, rickshaws, carriages, monkeys again, wearing 18th centuries clothes this time, orange juice, crepes and sugar cane juice stalls.
You’re feeling a little drunk.
You’re not exactly tired.
Your senses –overfed- can’t absorb more.
On a dark night with a round moon, they stay on the surface of things.
There are lots of people and lights, but all you see are silhouettes and shadows.
Is all this but a dream?
*Jamaa el fna square: a 1000-year old immense public square with merchants, entertainers, musicians, street food stalls, magicians…
*Halqas: street shows, held by musicians, singers, performers. The audience forms huge circles around them to watch the show.
*Jellaba: male traditional gown
*Bendir: hand drum
WHY IS IT SELF-CARE? Street food is simple, it’s cheap and it’s authentic. When you’re in Marrakech, in Jemaa El Fna, it’s the right thing to do to take care of yourself, and your stomach 🙂
MORE ABOUT THIS
I love a show from National Geographic about street food. Here is the one the made about Marrakech.
I thought you might like it too.