Though the name is sometimes translated as “assembly of the dead,” Marrakech’s main square, the Jemaa el Fna, is, in fact, teeming with life. Before us passes a glass case cart with great wheel-like flatbreads, while a bearded blind beggar led by a small boy chants his appeals for alms, and a bit of a crowd gathers around a man on whose mat are displayed an egg, some herbs, and a desiccated lizard. The water-man with his leather bag and gala costume seems lost and bewildered. Two ladies’ black veils make them look like mischievous conspirators as they exchange confidences.
Even now, early in the morning, the sound of drummers pulses under a wailing pipe. From the direction of the souks comes Arab pop music playing a more festive and soaring soundtrack, but one no less melancholy in its disarming moist blues vulnerability. A madman passes laughing as his eyes look inward.
The crowd has swollen around the man with the mat.
Someone slips a snake about my neck – the specter of greed!
We meet Hassan in a café on the margin of the square and order mint tea. A grizzled old man passes before our table moving smoothly, seemingly just above the ground. Hassan hails him, tells us that he and his brothers had performed with this man in the deep south where the elder had at the time been considered a great singer. He had looked after the Hakmoun boys like a father, arranging for their rooms and seeing that they ate well. The man looks back blankly. His eyes are glazed. He remembers nothing. He holds a used pair of high Italian-style shoes he had meant to sell in the street. His chin is frosted with whiskers, his mind far off somewhere. He wears two grey-striped djellabas in the afternoon sun under a thick brown one. Finally, he seems to remember just a bit. Suddenly Hassan offers him 150 dirham for his ring. Hassan tells us it is very powerful, although the stone is lost. Having known this ring during his childhood, he has no doubt. It will bring strength of will, success, it is a treasure to acquire if only to pass it on to his son Jamel. “Such a ring,” says Hassan, “is all but unobtainable in these days.”