It seems strange as I write about it that I am here in Morocco at the urging of a guy I barely know. We met on a train in France and spoke for no more than thirty minutes (see Next Stop: Basel). Now I am staying with his family and hanging out with him in a foreign land. As weird as the facts make it appear, it all feels completely, unusually natural, as if Faical and I have known each other for years. I feel surprisingly at home.
On the way to the famous Marrakesh square, Faical explained to me what I was about to see. It’s huge, he said to me in the taxi. Even bigger than Times Square, he claimed. I was skeptical, and I told him as much. Not even London’s Picadilly Circus compares to Times Square in my opinion. We got out of the taxi at our stop and made our way through a crowd of people. Then I saw in the distance a strange sight.
Dark figures packed the square, bustling and jostling about. Above them glowed a layer of orange light cast by a sea of bare bulbs, and above the light billowed great white plumes of smoke. It looked as if the entire square before us were on fire. I could hear an eerie, rhythmic beating of drums coming from somewhere. As we shuffled closer, the haunting rhythm grew louder. I was transfixed.
If we were to compare the number of people concentrated in this area with those in Times Square, I am convinced that Faical would be right: Jama Al-Fna is bigger. The sheer number of people is overwhelming. Interspersed amongst the crowd and around the square are numerous, traditional musicians, games, women offering to draw hennah patterns on you, and much more. It’s like a carnival with its multitude of acts and activities. I spotted a gentleman even selling the opportunity to lift a barbell to people. It wasn’t a competition or anything. You simply showed the gathered circle of people how many times you could lift the barbell and paid the gentleman for giving you the opportunity. In one area a crowd stood with long fishing poles in their hands around a sea of 2-Liter soda bottles. The object of this game was to land the small rubber ring attached to the end of the fishing pole around the neck of a bottle. The prize? The bottle you “catch,” of course.
Faical and I waited for two of his friends to join us. Their names are Khalid (whom we established would be Khalid II because I’m a few months older) and Mohsin. They’re all friends from school. The two of them also speak English quite well, though Mohsin appears to have a better grasp of the language than Khalid II. The four of us weaved aimlessly through the packed square for a bit, and I mentioned to Faical that I wanted to eat something. I had not eaten anything substantial since I left Madrid. We made our way to the outdoor eateries that line one side of the square. These stands, I noticed, are the cause of all the smoke. The chefs have large vats of meat, vegetables, and various other foods from which they take out an item and cook right there. Several boys tried to stop us to eat at their employers’ stands, but Faical said he knew one of the guys where he ate regularly. So we settled on one of the long wooden benches that surrounded the stand and ordered bread and various local dishes. The food was quite delicious. It consisted of small pieces of lamb meat, which was cooked in a curry.
I found Mohsin and Khalid II very affable. As we were eating, the two of them suddenly burst into song. It took me a few seconds to grasp that they were singing a Hindi song, one from the famous movie, Dilwale Dulhanya Lay Jayengay a.k.a DDLJ. The song, Tujhe Dekha To Ye Jaana Sanam, is one of the best known songs of the movie, which is almost a decade old. How do you know this song? I asked in surprise. They explained that Bollywood movies are very popular in Morocco, and they listed the names of several Indian actors and actresses. They asked me if I knew the song they were singing and whether I could sing it. There was a time when I watched Bollywood movies almost religiously. I’ve seen DDLJ, of course, and I decided to oblige them. I sang the first four lines that I know:
Tujhe dekha to ye jaana sanam
Piyar hota hai deewana sanam
Ab yahan say kahan jaye hum
Teri bahon mein mar jaye hum
My lack of inhibition surprised even me, and I sang those lines with all the virtuosity I could muster. The guys appreciated my effort and started beating rhythmically on the table. We hung out a while longer in Jama Al-Fna before heading home.