A Living Page from 'Arabian Nights' ; Thousand-Year-Old Market Is a Living Snapshot of Morocco's Ancient Past

By Elisabetta Anna Coletti writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Living Page from 'Arabian Nights' ; Thousand-Year-Old Market Is a Living Snapshot of Morocco's Ancient Past


Elisabetta Anna Coletti writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Mohamed El Hissaoui sticks out his tongue and grimaces at the green viper writhing in his hands. The crowd squeals as he sets the venomous reptile on a kilim rug and covers it with a tamborine, for safe keeping. He begins to play his cedar flute as he lifts another tamborine from the pavement. A beguiled cobra rises from its coil, puffing itself and lurching rhythmically to the charmer's refrains.

A few feet away, Yaod Ait Lahsan yanks his testy gray monkey by the leash, hamming it up for a pair of giggling teenagers: "Okay, Coco, do the movie-star pose!" The 18-inch Barbary ape reclines like Betty Grable. "Now, the poor man!" Coco crouches on her belly and sticks out a paw like a beggar. Mr. Ait Lahsan grins at the girls, who reach into their knapsacks and hand over two shiny 10- dirham ($1) coins.

Welcome to the Place Djemaa El-Fna, an ancient marketplace in this pink sandcastle city of Marrakech. If this outdoor carnival seems plucked from the pages of "The Arabian Nights," there's a reason. For more than 10 centuries, jugglers, medicine men, fire eaters, belly dancers, and storytellers have converged here to enchant thousands of daily spectators.

Eleanor Roosevelt fell under its spell, and Paul Bowles, author of "The Sheltering Sky," called this "probably the most fascinating open square in the world."

But in an age of globalization and cultural homogenization, relics like Djemaa El-Fna are at risk. Nearly 700 cultural and natural sites - from the Acropolis to Yosemite National Park in California - have been designated as World Heritage sites by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

But for places like Djemaa El-Fna, whose magic lies in the people more than the architecture, protection has been more elusive - until now.

Next month, UNESCO plans to formally designate Djemaa El-Fna as its first World Heritage site for oral history. With this new program, the agency hopes to safeguard some of the world's "intangible treasures" - folklore, customs, rituals, and traditional medicine - from extinction.

Oral history sites under consideration in coming years include a street puppet theater in Japan and a basketweaving place in India, among others. The new status will give Djemaa access to everything from emergency restoration funds to expertise on preservation.

"The place is remarkable. Those storytellers ... transfix their crowds for hours on end," says Jane Wright, a representative for UNESCO in Rabat. "The phenomenon helps to keep the oral tradition alive in Morocco, which is so central to Arab culture - historically, much more so than the written word."

What makes Djemaa different

It's now 1 p.m., and the monkeys and snakes are napping with their masters. Across the plaza, a bearded old man in a faded cocoa burnoose and yellow skullcap crouches before a ring of grown men, whose heads rest pensively on their fists.

The storyteller waves his hands, directing their attention to a storyboard, showing 16 episodes from Adam and Eve in Crayola technicolors. Next, it's the story of how the knights were turned into pigs.

Depending on how rapt the audience is or what they ask for, the conteur, or storyteller, will vary his tales.

Abdellah Salih heads the campaign to preserve the square for Morocco's Cultural Heritage Ministry - a decade-long effort. "It is unique in all the world," he says, explaining that there is a schedule every day of the year, from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. "What is most amazing is that the spectators aren't obliged to pay," he says.

"They are part of the show, become ad hoc extras, and then pay what they want - if anything. They just have to face the wrath of the halaqi [entertainers]!

"When I laugh, I pay - it is not prix fixe," he explains. "That creates an amazing rapport between the spectator and the artist. …

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