Underneath Moroccan mayhem

You never forget your first whirl around Marrakech's Djemma El Fna. Particularly if your idle wander leads to you being part of a human pyramid.

The Djemma's legendary among travellers. From hippie-trail heartbeat to the subject of a million iphone photos, it's Morocco at its most exhibitionist and flauntingly exotic. Bubbling tagine stalls look on to snake-charmers and medicine men, bartering henna tattooists and old-time gamblers, while cocksure kids sell knock-offs and family-packed mopeds wheel around the chaos. It's a cauldron, a heaving mass of people, a nightly carnival. The whole world is here and everything's for sale.

So like every first-timer, I swam among the sea of people with a dumb smile all over my face, shaking my head in disbelief, taking my snaps and trying to figure out whether my 'Tangiers tummy' was sufficiently recovered to wolf down whatever smelled so good.

After a while, I'm standing next to some Berbers crashing out a tune on cymbals and drums while alongside an impromptu boxing match springs up, bets hustled nearby. Last time I looked, I didn't see this kind of thing in Trafalgar or Federation Squares.

Just when I think it can't get any weirder, I'm yanked by the hand and told I'm a building block.

Things start happening fast. Smiling, worryingly enthusiastic strangers make me stand between two sturdy looking chaps. I'm too confused and intrigued to protest. Others line up alongside, including another equally flummoxed traveller, like me unsure whether we're in a police round-up or are forming a queue to participate in the next boxing bout.

Then we link arms at the shoulders. I begin to worry that a German folk dance is about to break out. Arms tense, then people start climbing on us. A small - thank God - guy approaches, smiles, then in an agile movement hoists himself up, using me as a ladder, so he stands precariously on the shoulders of me and my fellow foundation stones.

We wobble, we wave. I feel weak. It's been days since I ate solids and now here I am expending energy I don't have on keeping others aloft.  But I'm also exhilarated. Better than just an observer, I'm part of the square's spectacles.

A crowd gathers. More people climb up, and more. There can't be many up there, but when you're underneath, even a handful feels like a million. The bottom row is now bending, sagging under the weight, all wearing rictus grimace-grins. I can tell the locals know what they're doing and are taking most of the strain, but my legs still want to buckle. Onlookers giggle and point at the wavering bottom line. I catch the eye of my neighbour and he bursts into laughter. And me too. This is Morocco distilled into one ridiculous moment: friendly and chaotic, unexpected and loveable.

Eventually the generous applause tells me the pyramid is complete, the show all but over. People start barrelling down from overhead, blood begins to return to the shoulders. I'm dizzy; my fellow building-blocks and I smile and congratulate each other, slap each other's back and puff out our cheeks.

And then it's over, as quickly as it began. People filter away, on to the Djemma's next pocket of madness. Morocco loves to celebrate. Quite what's its celebrating half the time I've not yet figured out; all I know is I want to join in and am welcomed, travellers and locals happily conspiring to be part of the country's irrepressible spirit.
 

 

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