The dictionary defines theater as a stage for a show. Another authority, Charles Chaplin, said that life is a play that does not allow rehearsals. In either case, we all end up playing a role that varies depending on the scenario.
Town squares or plazas are a case in point: empty, open spaces that are filled with the plotlines of a hundred passersby and the theatrical magic of life.
The Jemaa el-Fnaa square manages, without much fanfare, to be both a show and the flagship of Moroccan culture, as we will see below.
The origin of this plaza and the reason for its name are uncertain, with several interpretations in which both concepts go hand in hand. This inaccuracy is due to the fact that the Arabic language is difficult to translate and that, as usually happens in Morocco, its history is intertwined with its legend, making it difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins.
Jemaa el-Fnaa is divided into two words: jamaa, which can be translated as “congregation” or “mosque”, and Fna, which can mean “open space” or a whole variety of words related to ending something or interrupting its development, giving rise to translations as varied as “death”, “destruction” or “incomplete”.
A possible interpretation would be “the assembly of death”, which would connect with the idea that public executions took place in this place in the 11th century.
Another translation is based on the plans to build a mosque in the middle of the square in the 17th century. This second theory would give rise to some wordplay and an elegant example of popular irony, since at the beginning of its construction it would have been known as “jamaa al-hna” (the mosque of tranquility) and when it was interrupted and abandoned, it was renamed “Jamaa al-Fana” (unfinished or destroyed mosque).
Although its origin is a mystery, usually the bigger mystery for the traveler is how to pronounce the name. Salah, a Moroccan friend who is always happy to help when we need a voice actor, will answer the question:
A Unique Square
There is a truth about Morocco that must be repeated as many times as necessary: this country is not defined by the melding of traditional craftsmanship and modernity of the Great Hassan II Mosque, nor by the synergy between education, social harmony and spirituality of madrasahs like that of Bou Inania, and not even by the ordered chaos of medinas like the one in Fez. The true essence of Morocco is its citizens and their unique attitude on life.
The Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is nothing like an architectural gem. It is just a concrete expanse, surrounded by worthless buildings; If we could separate ourselves from the hustle and bustle that occurs here, we would confuse it with a vacant lot, hoping that some developer would come along and take pity on it.
Its greatness lies in a simple idea that gives enormous clues about the nature of the North African people. If you offer a Moroccan an empty space, they will fill it with life and find in it several different ways to earn a living. Other monuments are built from brick, concrete and metal. The building blocks of this place are the actors, the spectators and the relationship that exists between them.
An Ever-Changing Square
A building is, by definition, something unchangeable. Of course, the sun will affect in different ways depending on the time and day, and it may be that mobile elements such as partitions or furniture can help transform the rooms that compose it, but in essence it will remain the same.
On the contrary, Jemaa el-Fnaa is a blank stage that changes its backdrop over and over again throughout the day: the actors in act one are the juice stalls, water stalls and snake charmers, as the day marches on it grows and new actors enter: dancers, dentists, acrobats, musicians, storytellers, boxers… Until night falls, when the number of onlookers increases exponentially and food stalls appear, using the lights and smoke from their coal kitchens as their main form of advertisement.
The ever-changing play that shows here daily is a multifaceted work of art and a feast for the senses.
A Square for Everyone
Jemaa el-Fnaa has been described on many occasions as a place focused on getting the most out of the tourist. And, although the commercial opportunity it presents is still true (after all, we are talking about the nerve center of the city that attracts the most tourists from all over Morocco), that opinion is overly simplistic.
Frankly speaking, the first time we visit the square a certain feeling of disappointment invades us. It is common for travelers to feel that there is nothing here that they have not seen before and that all eyes are on them.
But if given a second chance, as almost always happens in Morocco, we understand that to enjoy this place we need enough time to relax and learn the rules of the game.
Although our ability to say “no” politely but bluntly will be tested many times, we can also find treasures designed for those who are looking for something different (proof of this is the large number of curious Moroccans who also spend the evening here).
As if it were a microcosm, while in other cities you have to hunt for hidden architectural gems, the treasure of this plaza, in essence, is a stark piece of ground, a Moroccan person working hard to make ends meet, and the people surrounding them.
Despite the fact that we will be bombarded by the same women that we see in other parts of Morocco doing henna tattoos who start painting our hands if we give them the slightest chance, we will also be treated to the tales of the traditional storytellers perpetuating an ancient oral tradition. If this square did not exist, this artform—which is one of the reasons that led UNESCO to catalog El-Fnaa as an intangible heritage of humanity—would be doomed to extinction.
Because the square is both chaos and order. It is both reinvention and tradition. It is both an assault and an embrace. It is both slapstick and high culture. It is both contradictory and consistent.
Because, in short, the Jemaa el-Fnaa Plaza is the essence of Morocco itself.
What to Do in the Square: a Visual Explanation
In addition to tasting the cuisine offered here, there is nothing else to do in the square other than observing what goes on here, which can be infinitely simple or complex depending on the perspective of the person doing it. An image is worth a thousand words, so check out some pictures of the different scenes and actors that gather here.
One last warning: although they are much more open here when it comes to being photographed than in other parts of Morocco, they will do so only if they get an economic benefit, since it is practically their only livelihood, and it is advisable to agree on how much before taking the picture (no more than 15 dirhams).
Click on each image to enlarge it and find out who the photographer is (all images in the gallery published under a CC 2.0 license).
Coordinates: 31°37′ N 59°21′ W (see location)
Size: 250,000 ft2 (20,000 m2) approx.
Construction date: 12th Century
Hours: From 9:00 AM to 1:00 AM (Mon-Sun)
Entrance fee: Free
Where to eat: In the square itself there are many food stalls: snails, meat skewers and a wide variety of juices. The surrounding area offers standard Moroccan fare and international food. The price is medium-high and the typical dish of Marrakech is the tanjia: pieces of meat with spices baked in their own juice baked in a special ceramic pot, although in order to find it you have to look beyond the square.
If you want to know more about the city, check out our Marrakesh tourism guide.