Marrakech's joyous spirit reinvigorated as Eid Al-Fitr nears

Marrakesh market
5 min read
28 April, 2022
After chaotic governmental policies stalled Morocco's return to pre-pandemic normality, Marrakech has finally revived its joyous spirit. As Ramadan comes to an end with Eid on the horizon, the colourful city is back to its bustling, beautiful best.

After a two-year lockdown, it would seem that Marrakech, the Moroccan city of joy, has revived its spirit. Situated in western Morocco, Marrakech is known as the city of Albahja. It is home to mesmerising mosques, intimate gardens, and density squares, most notably the Jamaa El Fna Square. 

“They call it the Jamaa El Fna Square, we call it the mother, because it brings us all together,” Abdul Rahim Al Azalia, a notorious local storyteller, who performs each weekend at the square, told The New Arab. Jamaa El Fna is the cultural representation of Marrakchis' art de vivre.

"After the Taraweeh prayer, the square becomes a myriad of local artists representing different colours of Moroccan folklore"

Called “Bahjawa'' (the joyful), Marrakech’s locals' unmatched humour and authentic artistic skills have made the square a hot spot for tourists for decades. The square is surrounded by a maze of alleys that host hundreds of pottery, leather, and copper artisans' shops.

However, when the Covid pandemic plagued the world, Bahjawa’s laughter faded and their art abandoned.

During the pandemic, Marrakech, which used to host up to three million tourists yearly, was hit hard as the tourism industry, including the El Fna square, was forced to shut down due to the lack of visitors.

Morocco's tourism industry has seen a surge in recent months, following a desolate period of custom throughout the pandemic [Basma El Atti]
Marrakech's tourism sector has seen a surge in recent months, following a desolate period of custom throughout the pandemic [Basma El Atti]

“During the past two years, it was hard for us, financially and mentally, but Praise is to Allah it ended now,” Tijani, a chef and food stall owner at the square.

Dozens of local artists were left jobless due to the country's strict travel policy and enforced curfews during the past two years.

“We are artists. We need an audience to perform to, to cook to, to tell stories to, and to sing to. And now that they are allowed back, the square feels like home again,” Abdellah, a musical performer at the square, told The New Arab.

Perspectives

This Ramadan, Marrakech is retrieving gradually its vibrant nights and joyful ambience, as the Moroccan government has finally decided it is safe to lift the night curfew during the holy month.

As the Maghrib prayer echoed in the city, calling for Muslims to break their fasting, Tijani, a Moroccan chef, started preparing the white covered tables in front of his food stall at the square.

“I am one of the oldest food stalls here. I offer a diverse menu of Moroccan food, from grilled lamb to Moroccan Tangia. But at this time we usually serve Moroccan traditional Iftar.” Tijani told The New Arab, as he excused himself to go take care of his customers.

"The vibrating ambience of Ramadan nights in the city continues till after midnight when crowds usually head back to the food stalls to taste the famous Tanjiya"

Moroccan Iftar features a wide range of dishes that it may be difficult to include them all without turning this story into a food essay.

Nevertheless, it is agreed that Al Harira, Morocco's famous lentil and tomato soup, is the queen of the Moroccan table during the Holy Month.

Although it is eaten year-round, it's especially popular in Ramadan, when many families serve it daily to break the fast. It includes chickpeas, sometimes meat, as well as flavourful spices like cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric.

Market stalls preparing for a surge of custom as Eid Al-Fitr nears [Basma El Atti]
Market stalls preparing for a surge of custom as Eid Al-Fitr nears [Basma El Atti]

Sweet flower-shaped Chebakia, is the loyal companion of Al-Harira. Known for enjoying balancing sweet and salty ingredients on one plate, Moroccans like to dip the honey-covered fried cookie in the tomato soup. But, for those who prefer a salty option, fluffy Batbout or Msemen bread can be good alternatives.

Dates, various juices, and diverse options of stuffed patisseries are also a must in Moroccan traditional Iftar.

Tijani’s stall is one of the dozens of food and juice stalls surrounding the square. Each chef stands in front of their food shop, explaining, in Arabic, Spanish, English and French, the menu to the walking crowds of local and international tourists. A smell of a pot of spiced lamb, or a taste of a vegan patisserie is usually enough to convince more customers to join the stalls’ tables.

After the Taraweeh prayer, the square becomes a myriad of local artists representing different colours from Moroccan folklore.

Circles, or what locals call Lhelqa, soon start shaping around the renowned performers, with spectators recompensing them after every impressive dance move or a thrilling plot twist that a storyteller holds back until the audience show enough interest to hear more about it. 

The vibrating ambience of Ramadan nights in the city continues till after midnight when crowds usually head back to the food stalls to taste the famous Tanjiya.

Analysis
Live Story

Tanjiya is prepared with lamb shank, candied lemons, spices, garlic, and water. All are mixed in an amphora covered and placed in the embers.

However, Tanjia is more than a dish for Marrakchis. It is an opportunity to show off the Marrakchi talent of celebrating every small pleasure in life.

As the chef starts pouring the Tanjiya’s content onto the customer's plate, local people start performing “Dekka El Marrakchia.” It takes just one person to clap, yelling “Ah,” for other locals to join the folkloric symphony in a harmonised rhythm,  relying only on claps, vocal tunes, and the Marrakchi “art de vivre.”

“Marrakech is an exhausting city. In a good way though. It never stops living, not for a minute. It yearns for joy and life,” David, a 60-year-old Spanish tourist, who was enjoying a delicious Tanjiya plate at the square, told The New Arab.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma