• Tomás S. Ó Ceallaigh

Atay Maghrebi: Out of the Dark and into Jemaa El-Fnaa


The setting of the sun can be the start of everything in Marrakech.

The night time offers a wealth of opportunity and intrigue in almost any country, but when I'm somewhere where my understanding of the language extends to just a handful of phrases and disconnected words, I find it all the more enthralling. Marrakech genuinely quickens the pulse and widens the eyes by night, with the famous Jemaa El-Fnaa as its wildly arrhythmic beating heart.



After a day of perfectly idle wandering and preparing for my journey to Essaouira, I sat up on the roof terrace, ordered atay, read the ending of Alex Garland’s The Beach and waited for sunset.


During this time, a Dutch woman and a Belgian man sat near to me and started to talk about a range of subjects. Most of their discussion was centred around the regular banalities of two travellers who don’t know each other well and clearly don’t have a great deal in common.


Shortly before sunset, the Belgian man caught my attention as he started to regale his newfound friend with quotes from the Quran taken both out of their religious and historical context, and all of which seemed to centre around the killing of polytheists.


I was initially a little shocked, but less so by the chosen topic, but because just moments before the man had been explaining how he’d been learning Arabic and had taken the time to read the Quran. The saddest irony was that his diatribe continued, to my annoyance, through the adhan for the maghrib prayers. He may have not have been either an Islamophobe or xenophobe, but he did his best to present himself as one.


I had to use a fair amount of willpower to resist joining in as what is arguably one of the most beautiful moments in the medina was disturbed by his ramblings. I remembered that I was on holiday and arguing with ignorant tourists mightn’t be the best idea.


Furthermore, his telling of these stories about the Quran seemed to be some strange flirting ritual, in the same way that boys tells stories to scare the girls they like at Primary School.


After about twenty minutes, the Dutch woman, who had been pretty silent save for the occasional moments of noncommittal back channelling, could be seen visibly tiring of the topic.


“Sorry, I am boring you?” the man asked.


“Not at all,” the woman said through a stifled yawn.


Continuing to ignore the cues, he carried on for another 10 minutes before they both retired from the rooftop, finally leaving me in peace to enjoy the warm darkness of the medina air.



Returning to the dorm, a new arrival was lying on one of the top bunks.


Marissa, was a Canadian devised theatre teacher and, despite her fatigue, soon became animated when recounting her travels from Italy to Morocco.


After chatting for a little while about education, I headed out to find food. Very quickly I replayed a bit of the conversation that we’d just had.


“The souks are magical by night as everything is so brightly illuminated,” I had said.


“I’m not ready for walking around for walking the souks alone at night,” she had replied.


I returned to the dorm, told her where I was going and she decided to come along for a brief walk, through the medina alleyways and souks, to the Jemaa El-Fnaa for food and street entertainment.


Once we were amongst the golden glow of the nighttime lamp shops, dress shops, piles of multicoloured spices and hanging rugs, Marissa became even more animated, although her tiredness had started to affect her ability to speak.


We wandered around the square for a while, taking in: Adil the One Man Band, who seemed to have an instrument attached to every conceivable part of him; a number of Gnawa musicians, both young and old, with their hypnotic strains and revolving lineup of musicians as the endless songs continued; and something not too dissimilar to “Hook a Duck”, where punters had to get a ring over the neck of a 2 litre bottle of Fanta, using a wooden rod and a length of string.


All across the haze of smoke from the multitudinous grills, small huddles of people could be seen around snake charmers, monkeys, storytellers and henna artists. Barely a square foot of space was visible beneath the gentle ebb and flow of promenading feet.


A couple of tajines later at the Toubkal, a favourite café from a previous visit, and a slow amble back through the now rapidly-closing souks, we were back the hostel for a night of listening to other people snoring and trying to be quiet whilst walking in and out of the rooms.


Lessons Learned

  • I should have given the entertainment on Jemaa El-Fnaa a chance sooner.

  • Gnawa music by night is perhaps one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways to fall into a hypnotic trance.

#AtayMaghrebi #Marrakech #Morocco #Africa #travel

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