Everywhere you look in Marrakesh’s main square (pronounced 'jema' – the 'd' is silent), you’ll discover drama in progress. The hoopla and halqa (street theatre) have been non-stop here since the 11th century. Until a few decades ago, it hosted a daily food market for mountain traders. Now the whine of snake-charmer pungi flutes hits full throttle by mid-morning, and the show doesn't really kick off until sunset when restaurants fire up their grills, cueing musicians to tune up their instruments.
Locals delight in telling tourists that its name means ‘assembly of the dead’, which could derive from the fact that public executions were likely held here in the past. Unesco declared Djemaa El Fna a 'Masterpiece of World Heritage' in 2001 for bringing urban legends and oral history to life nightly, and although the storytellers who once performed here have since given way to communal games, musical performers, and slapstick comedy acts, Djemaa's nightly carnival continues to dazzle. Amazigh musicians strike up the music and gnaoua troupes sing while henna tattoo artists beckon to passersby, and water-sellers in fringed hats clang brass cups together, hoping to drive people to drink. This is a show you don't want to miss, and it's a bargain too: applause and a few dirhams ensure an encore.
The square's many eclectic exhibitions are not without a darker side, though; you are likely to see monkeys dressed up and led around on chains for entertainment, and some of the practices of the plaza's snake charmers are ethically questionable to say the least.
While wandering around Djemaa at any time of day, stay alert to cars, motorbikes and horse-drawn-carriage traffic, which whizz around the perimeter of the plaza (cars are banned after 2pm). Also be on guard against pickpockets and rogue gropers who are known to work the crowds, particularly after sunset. To nab prime seats on makeshift stools around musician circles (women and elders get preference), arrive early in the evening.