Squares are extraordinary public spaces that can enchant, entertain and envelop us, says Ganesh Ramachandran
It was the summer of 2008. Barely past noon, I was already on my sixth glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed by the pushcart vendor. I was standing in the middle of Djemaa El-Fna – the historic public square at the heart of Marrakesh in Morrocco.
The tiled plaza didn’t help with the comfort, as it radiated the blazing North African sun. It was mostly empty except for a handful of hawkers and henna ladies hidden under oversized umbrellas. Life during the day was mostly contained within the cooler labyrinthine souqs of the medina. As I made my way across the plaza cutting through the barrier of orange juice vendors, they would flash me their charming smiles and shout out loud in quick bursts “India?!” “Shah Rukh Khan?!” followed by “Orange juice?”
As the afternoon progressed, the square began to take a life of its own. More vendors started to set up shops. Municipal workers in their green vests began moving large trash bins across the plaza; Young men unloaded foldable tables and chairs from open trucks.
While the sun slid behind the red walls of the Medina, the tourists started to trickle in by the hundreds. So did the Berber musicians, palm readers, jugglers, snake charmers, spice sellers, storytellers and more orange juice vendors. They would all play their part orchestrating their own version of the Orient to feed the western appetite for the exotic.
As the white-coated cooks started to work feverishly, a complex mix of sweet aromas enveloped the entire plaza. I barely managed to find a spot in a terrace café sharing my table with a local. Omar grew up in Marrakesh and now works in Casa Blanca. To my surprise Omar tells me that the square is a major attraction for the locals as well. He clearly loved his square. For him Marrakesh would always be the best place in the world, with Djemaa the center of his universe. It also helped that his girlfriend was still living in Marrakesh and they spent a lot of time in the anonymity of the plaza.
Omar moved on. I still lingered, nursing my dinner to retain my seat in the overcrowded café, transfixed by the maddening sea of humanity below. As the night progressed, the plaza showed no signs of going to sleep and the hypnotic sound of the drum circle only grew louder. Long past my bedtime, I slowly made my way to the hotel, completely dazed by the mesmerising magic of this extraordinary public space. The square will eventually settle down past midnight, only to wake up the following afternoon.
Despite the seemingly chaotic mix of activities, Djemaa remains a carefully regulated and well-managed public space. It is out of bounds for motor vehicles. The food carts are licensed and assigned to specific spots. Municipal workers work round the clock to keep the space clean. And plainclothes police personnel maintain a discreet presence to guarantee the safety of visitors.
It was no coincidence that there were no neon signs or explicit billboards. To make sure the space is not sacrificed to commercial pressures, the residents and conservationists called for action in the late nineties. Their efforts led UNESCO to raise awareness about “intangible cultural heritage,” and Djemaa el-Fna became the first among the globally recognised spaces that are listed as “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
On 28 April 2011, a blast from a bomb in a café in Djemma would leave 17 people dead and more than 20 injured. The government blamed Al Qaeda, which promptly denied responsibility.
In a strictly controlled monarchy like Morocco, we may never know the truth. But the blast never stopped the square from springing back to life.
In December 2012, an unusually high number of local people thronged the square. Thanks to Marrakesh Film Festival, megastar Shah Rukh Khan had graced the packed square, and was whipping the local crowd to a frenzy, and had it dancing to his tunes. A huge screen flashed previews of his latest Hindi movie Jab Tak Hain Jaan. Djemaa was awake and alive, yet again, for the show must go on.
The writer is a Senior Urban Designer at Goody Clancy Associates in Boston.