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Morocco

5:30 a.m., the Jma 'l fna, Marrakesh's Town Square. The sun has not yet crested the Atlas Mountains, but in café Toubkal men huddle over cups of coffee, staring at the apron of tarmac or talking in subdued voices while scrufulous cats weave through their legs. Nearby, the orange juice stalls are opening and a pair of back packers pause for a drink and then move on, giving berth to a team of mules which has erupted into the square, intent on delivering its cargo of stupefied chickens to the bazaar. With a crackling, the plaintive call of the Muzzin issues from loudspeakers announcing fajr, the first prayers of the day and a flock of swifts, disturbed, arches across a rising sky. Men in hooded jellaba shuffle toward the mosque.

The day has begun in the Jma 'l fna, of Marrakesh's medina or old town, the ludic space or place of entertainment to which this city owes its renown. By noon this square will be transformed by the thrum of traffic, the atonal bleat of horns, and the clamor of vendors who will throng the 7 hectare square along with thousands of tourists here to participate in the lavish drama of this place or to wander through the adjacent souks, the market stalls which comprise Marrakesh's bazaar.

I often write what I call "microcosm" stories, stories which use as their foundation places or events that offer insight into salient aspects of culture. The Jma al F'na, a UNESCO World Heritage site is tailor-made for such an approach. This is a world dedicated, on the one hand, to Islam and, on the other, to all the perceived need and greed of the material world. It is a man's world, one in which a woman's potential is often forfeit and one in which the poor struggle, but seem not to overcome social and economic inequities. Finally, it is a world striving to reconcile Muslim values and customs of tremendous antiquity with those of the 21st Century.

Mirror to Culture: A Bustling Market in Marrakech, Morocco was published in The World & I in April, 2002
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