The Meaning of a Moroccan Smile

djemaa-el-fna-squre.jpg The square billowed up with smoke like a volcano, swallowing up tourists in wild frenzy. Night life in Marrakesh Square presented no other image than this. Moroccan barbecue stands lay scattered about like dice thrown from a cup. Their spicy odor rose into the night air with the steadily growing smoke. Foreign tongues filled the huge square. Standing still, with one’s eyes closed, the sound roared like water poured out to flood the streets with reverberating noise of unmatched amplitude and variety. Wading through these tidal waves of sounds and smells, our eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. Even in the darkness, the sights astonished us. People raced about on motorcycles, bicycles, and three wheeled cars, avoiding collisions by the literal breadth of a donkey’s ear. Skinny cats meandered through the streets pawing nervously at bits of food. Djemaa el Fna square sits in the heart of the Medina of Marrakesh. My brother and I followed our dad through the thick crowd. Adventure awaited us in the largest public square in all of Africa. Three American guys would soon leave the realm of gawking tourists and look through the eyes of native Moroccans.

As we stepped into the bustling market place, immediately waiters and cooks desperately haggled us. They hollered to us from their stands, and followed us down the street. With a smile they would list all of the wonderful things to eat and quickly attempt to draw us in, even as we walked away. Past the barbecue stands now, we saw some thirty crowds gathered around various street performances. Curious, my brother and I stepped into one of these circles. Twanging strings, now unmuffled by the circle of people, greatly captivated my dad’s attention. Here sat a sitar imitating banjo player, shouting out in Arabic to the crowd. We moved from circle to circle. When we found a group setting up, my brother sat down and watched them. My dad drew a harmonica from the depths of his pocket. After a quick wordless conversation, which consisted of pointing at instruments and smiling, a banjo was soon in my dad’s hands. I whacked away on a Berber drum. Filming us from across the circle, my brother focused his attention on holding the camera steady. Tourists walked by wondering what two Americans were doing gathering a crowd. We had made the transition from observers to participants. Once we did gather a crowd, our Arabic counterparts immediately took advantage of the situation and cast the first bait money on the ground. For about half an hour we went on playing.

Pollutants in the air slowly seeped on to the surface of my glassy eyes. Sticky with sweat, all of us had long ago shed a layer of clothing. We made our way through the crowds. My eyes reflected the entirety of the square in a confusing liquid sheen. When we finally made it through the people, we found ourselves standing on the corner of a street, looking into the square. As usual, we had brought juggling equipment in our backpack. In a daze, my brother and I began performing on the edge of the square. Within about three minutes we had a small crowd. One of the boys from the crowd stepped forward and indicated that he wanted to try out our Chinese yo-yo. Taking it up delicately in his large hands, his eyes flashed with concentration. He then proceeded to execute an astounding array of tricks. I smiled knowingly. Soft chuckling rippled through the group. My brother caught on. Our audience consisted of seven or eight street performers, who specialized in juggling, magic tricks, and acrobatics. This playful circus troop led us back to the center of the square where a circle of onlookers gathered. Once again, we played along.

Three multi colored juggling balls lurched through the air high above me. To my left, my brother sat waiting his turn. Darkness did not hinder these teenagers’ performance. They flung about objects blindly, only pausing for moments when the small crowd applauded. Calling my brother to the center of the crowded circle, the teenage leader of the extravaganza explained to the crowd that they had guests tonight. Justin pounced to his feet and excitedly spun the Chinese yo-yo. I filmed away as my dad shot a few pictures. One boy cleared a path through the crowd and ran about twelve paces back. He then proceeded to sprint towards us and leap into the cool night air. His bare palms crashed into the stone ground of the square. And his feet soon followed, over his head and with a final twist he executed the stunt. From juggling to acrobatics to a brief magic show, the boys kept the show moving right along. What we saw next surprised us. Suddenly, at the peak of the performance the boys sat down. They demanded money, lest the show stop. Yelling at the crowds, the leader of the troop quickly intimidated half them into paying for the show. Before we left, my brother gently held up a coin from their donations. Were we to get paid for our help? We did in fact help draw a crowd of people. With a delicate discourse the boys let us have our token. There initial smiles had merely invited us for there own profit. We made our way home with one Moroccan Dirham pocketed, a little more then ten American cents.

As we walked I thought to myself. We had tremendous fun both joining a small circus and accompanying a group of musicians, but the stark differences haunted our memory. Did we cross into the world of a Moroccan performer? No. Playing for survival differs from playing for fun. With unclouded eyes I turned and saw the square for the first time.

Post Script:
I received an F (0%) on this assignment for not following directions. The waiters spoke at least 6 languages each.

About nathan

I have a fascinating story to tell you! But I'll just be a listener for now, as I'm not the greatest of story tellers...
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