Mirror to a Culture: A Bustling Market In Marrakech, Morocco

Article # : 22288 
Issue Date : 4 / 2002   Print   Close
File Size : 1,256 Words Page : 204 
Author : Barbara McClatchie Andrews
Barbara McClatchie Andrews is a freelance photojournalist based in Canada.

         The sun has not yet crested the Atlas Mountains. In Cafˇ Toubkal, men huddle over their early morning coffee and croissants. A couple of scruffy cats idly weave through the forest of their legs. The men absentmindedly observe the nearby apron of tarmac and converse in subdued voices. Nearby, the orange juice stalls are opening. Several backpackers pause for a drink and move on, skirting a team of mules that drives into the square, intent on delivering its cargo of stupefied chickens to the bazaar.
          With a crackling, the plaintive call of the muezzin issues from unseen loudspeakers. The call announces fajr, the first prayers of the day. Men in hooded djellabas shuffle toward the mosque, startling a flock of swifts arching across the sky. The day has begun in the Jma'l Fna, the market square of Marrakech's medina, or old town. By noon the square will be transformed by the thrum of traffic, the atonal bleat of horns, and the clamor of vendors. The hustle will be joined by hundreds of tourists drawn by the lavish drama of this World Heritage site.
          Labyrinthine alleyways link each part of Marrakech's bazaar to another. They are so narrow that the daily congestion of pedestrian and four-legged traffic provokes one impasse after another. The market square, itself, is a restless space: religious, commercial, and entertaining; constant and inconstant. Jma'l Fna offers numerous insights into Moroccan culture. It is a world dedicated, on the one hand, to Islam and, on the other, to all the perceived needs (and greed) of the material world. Morocco has always been a nation of small merchants, and, as the world has "shrunk," the traders have come to terms with our inconstant modern material culture. In the souks, merchants turn Tuareg turbans into women's scarves, and interior designers commission craftwork--often more exotic than authentic--for export to a Western market.
          The bazaar satisfies the daily material needs of Marakshis. Indeed, the market has supported Arab and Berber families for more than a millennium. But this is also a man's world, a chauvinistic place where a woman's potential is often forfeit. In fact, the status of all women in Morocco, excepting an elite handful, remains marginal. This is clearly reflected in the jma. A "respectable" woman does not go out alone in the medina, and she is careful not to loiter there. In Morocco, a woman's world has walls.
          Those women who work in the square--the bread sellers, the tarot card readers, and the nqashats, who paint designs in henna on tourists--are here at the cost of their reputation. Indeed, the jma is the last resort for these people, nearly all of whom are widowed or divorced and generally illiterate. For most, not even an education could buy a ticket out of their predicament. Indeed, the bazaar typifies the dilemma confronting Morocco and many other countries: It is a place where the poor struggle but seem fated never to overcome social and economic inequities.
          Finally, the jma embodies a world striving to reconcile Muslim values--and customs of tremendous antiquity--with those of the twenty-first century. I am struck by the words of an old man, caught in a seemingly intractable encounter between donkey carts in one of the narrow lanes. The delay is surely threatening to compromise his undoubtedly meager income. "There is neither might nor power except with Allah," he calls out in resignation. His thin words hang in the air above the fray.
          Both superficially and at a deeper level, God permeates each day here. For those who work in the jma, the great stone menara (minaret) of the fifteenth-century Koutubia mosque that dominates the square serves as a constant reminder of His presence.
          Morocco is--nominally at least--98 percent Muslim, and the mosque often fills to capacity for prayers. Strict Muslims, who consider singing and dancing sinful, would argue that the jma, with its snake charmers and storytellers, dancers and drummers, is a place dedicated to Satan, or Iblis. In the square you will find evidence of crimes that stain Morocco's rich cultural fabric: prostitutes and pedophiles work here, as do dealers of hashish and heroin. As their number has increased, so has a police force whom merchants and entertainers must pay for protection.
          There are also government spies in the jma. They know who attends the mosque and who displays a picture of the king on his shop wall. Although nominally democratic, the royal family maintains a firm grip on its people, and Morocco's rigidly hierarchical social structure fosters a small, pro-Western socioeconomic elite. The organization of the souks reflects this hierarchy. The elegant shops of those who deal in rugs and antiquities, or whose clothing and jewelry boutiques cater to European taste, are centrally located. These establishments contrast strikingly with the shabby and cramped space of the ironmongers and blacksmiths, tanners and tentmakers who work--literally and figuratively--on the periphery. These are men whose ancestors provisioned the caravans of North Africa's ancient trade routes but who are lucky to realize 100 dirhams ($10) a day for their labor. Although privileged Moroccans are discreet about their wealth, one can see that the rich and poor inhabit distinct worlds.
          There is hope that the current ruler, King Hassan V, the self-styled "King of the Poor," may effect change, but education, tradition, and conservative values mediate against economic reform in Morocco, as they do against social change. In the Jma'l Fna, the herbalists do a brisk business. They dispense knowledge along with nostrums, for in Morocco only 58 percent of men and 31 percent of women are literate. Though Marakshis may be flexible about what they produce, they hold to traditional business practices; foreign investors have learned that the drinking of tea is not a superficial habit, and they know that the price always depends on the quality of the relationships they cultivate.
          Merchants in the bazaar are quick to adapt to the demands of popular culture, and young, middle-class Moroccans are difficult to distinguish from their European counterparts. Nevertheless, Moroccans cleave to their deep-rooted culture. Several years ago, when the jma was closed for a face-lift, an artist who had been sitting all evening at Cafˇ Toubkal drinking tea and contemplating the darkened square suddenly surged to his feet, crying out: "Mother, your children have need of you." Such passion suggests why night after intoxicating night the show goes on, why musicians and dancers spin themselves into a trance, fire-eaters light up the sky, and the storytellers draw in a willing, slack-jawed crowd.
          Moroccans express their conservatism in their sacred as well as secular lives. Five times a day the muezzin repeats the athan, the call to prayers, in the cool arched spaces of the Koutubia mosque. "Hurry to prayer," he cries, and then, expressing a notion that may seem curious in this context to those who separate the sacred from the secular world, "hurry to success." Cultural anthropologists, who see fundamentalism as a growing global phenomenon, will tell you that Moroccans are increasingly heeding that call.