A living page from 'Arabian Nights'

Thousand-year-old market is a living snapshot of Morocco's ancient past

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. When you go to Boston or New York, you'll find exhaustive listings for operas, theater, and dance, but the tickets are simply prohibitive for most people.... The beauty of this place is that you are never turned away."

Across the expansive, French-horn shaped square, men in tassled red hats, called guerraba, carry dripping goatskins filled with water to thirsty spectators, serving them with shallow brass bowls they carry on their smocks.

Many halaqi shelter themselves from the baking African sun under striped umbrellas.

Scribe and numerologist Mohamed Laarouss balances a spindly umbrella over his right shoulder as he writes. He has been working in the square for 12 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

"I found my calling here in the square. Lots of people think they have bad luck and are afraid of the 'evil eye' [bad luck], so they come to me for guidance."

He scribbles a complex maze of glyphs with saffron pigment around the border of rough sheets of paper, and then pens a customer's requested love note with black henna paste.

"I studied the art of the alphabet corresponding to numbers. I also write letters for people who don't know how to read and write. I get a lot of business in the summer, when it is time to draft wedding contracts, since there are few people who know how to do Koranic calligraphy anymore."

He wants to teach his daughters how to read and write - a distinct advantage in a country where illiteracy among women ranges from 60 to 90 percent - "or else they might be angry at me when they grow up."

In efforts to make a case for the cultural value of Djemaa, officials have worked to make the square more clean and orderly over the past six years - a process that has met with mixed reviews from the merchants and entertainers.

"The police [known here as the tourist brigade] are too harsh," says Ait Lahsan, the monkey trainer.

"I'm not allowed to approach tourists and ask if they want a picture with Coco. It's too strict - they're constantly harassing me," he says. "How am I supposed to make a living if I just stand here like a mute?"

Camel bones anyone?

"Djemaa El-Fna is better now," says Said Boutgourin, one of the famed Saharan Tuaregs, or "Blue Men." "Before, it was so dirty, and anyone could sell here."

Mr. Boutgourin proudly displays his stamped herbalist license, which sanctions him to sell amber, spices, and egg shells for medicinal purposes. Around him lie antelope and gazelle skulls, skunk pelts, dried amphibians, mason jars of ostrich marrow, camel bones, and a teak cage containing nervous iguanas. "Their blood is a cure for asthma," he says as he produces nearby plastic bowls of rosebud potpourri. "This is for rheumatism."

The square also reflects central aspects of Moroccan culture: togetherness and a reverence for tradition.

"These are people who love to congregate," says Ms. Wright of UNESCO. "Men sit outside in cafes, and women and girls link arms as they walk down the street and gather often for cakes and teas in the privacy of their homes. They are less lonely than we are. So the togetherness they feel in the square is an extension of that sense of community."

The snake charmer, who's been working here since he was 10, looks back at his four buddies reclining against a pile of crates, laughing over their syrupy glasses of spearmint tea.

"This is great," he beams. "Sure, we're working, but we have time to hang out and talk with each other. Plus people really respect us because they know how brave we are."

It's now 6 p.m. Churlish women aggressively tail tourists, trying to convince them to pick their trademark henna designs over the dozens of others, flipping through a plastic photo pack full of options.

Gnaouwi musicians, descendants of Guinea Bissau slaves, snap tin hand rattles and bang compact ceramic drums as they work themselves into trances.

Berber acrobats, glass walkers, and scorpion handlers appear. Self-taught dentists hack away at tartar and plaque, using the same tongue depressor for each patient, alongside super-size trays of molars - testament to the decades of satisfied (if sore) customers.

Preserving a fading culture

Over the past few decades, demand for some of the services at Djemaa El-Fna has waned with the advent of television, CDs, and the increased access to Western healthcare services.

Mr. Salih hopes to document this carnival for future generations. With the UNESCO status, he hopes to create enough enthusiasm internationally to generate funds for a library dedicated to the square's history.

He aims to revive interest in these traditional trades, giving performers much-deserved clout. He also wants to bring back the old booksellers, who used to set up shop around the foot of the nearby Koutoubiya Mosque during the Middle Ages.

Salih hopes to sensitize schoolchildren - the next generation of Djemaa El-Fna enthusiasts - and the elite, who are traditionally skeptical of the value of the square and its legacy. And he wants to establish a social security program for the aging halaqi.

"This square is a school," says Boutgourin, the Tuareg healer. "You can learn a lot from people - music, stories, magic. People even come here to learn how to blow fire. Young people come to learn trades - like acrobatics."

By 8 p.m., most of the storytellers have gone, giving way to the transvestite bellydancers, who have been performing for centuries (it was long taboo for women to perform here), and food vendors.

Whiffs of goathead soup drift from mammoth steel pots. People carry bowls of braised snails, needling them from their shells with safety pins while swigging bottles of apple soda pop.

Soumia Hassoune has lived in Marrakech her whole life.

"People throughout Morocco call us bahja - 'the happy ones' - and Djemaa El-Fna is the most consummate reflection of this city's joie de vivre."

She hopes it is revived to its heyday. "There used to be so much more theater and pantomiming - it was overwhelming for a kid.... We didn't have TV back then - no Walkmans either - so the square was more important to us as Marrakechis."

Mr. Laarouss, the numerologist, doesn't think the square will disappear. "Regardless, we never know when our time is up - only Allah does. I guess the same goes for Djemaa El-Fna. All I know is I can't envision myself anywhere else."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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