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Imperial Cities

I arrive at dawn. The Jemaa el Fna is almost deserted, the paved central square empty, surrounding shops and cafes shuttered. Within minutes food vendors begin to appear, parking their carts at the square's perimeter. I stroll over and purchase fresh orange juice and nuts for a quick breakfast. Other vendors are hawking household goods to the few jellaba clad locals and sunburned tourists who have braved the early morning. The square is springing to life, shop doors are flung open and a varied array of products placed outside. Recorded music begins to blare, cafe tables are set out. I quickly occupy one catching a quick glass of hot mint tea then wander around photographing the activity in the square.

By noon, with temperatures at their peak, I again walk through the square after spending time exploring the covered souk. I see an ever-changing assortment of performers and vendors, primarily interested in attracting tourist dollars from people like me. I am so mesmerized by a snake charmer playing his flute for four cobras, lying uncaged on the ground, that I momentarily forget my camera hanging around my neck and watch in disbelief. A few feet away, an older, toothless, bearded man gestures wildly to a group of seated young boys, telling stories from Morocco's mystical past. Artists, acrobats, clowns, and dancers perform, each to his own music and audience. Even dentists set up shop to perform quick extractions.

By dusk, most tourists have returned to their hotels, but I stay to photograph the Berber farmers who come in from the countryside for entertainment and supplies. Portable food vendors offer salads, grilled lamb, and vats of goat head soup. The air pulsates with the odors of smoke, cooking meats, perfumes, spices, and sounds of voices and music reverberating from drums, makeshift violins, and local guitars. Fortune tellers predict the future, kids chase each other through the crowds stopping to ask strangers for change and candy.

As the evening wears on, I retreat to a second-story cafe and sit at a table overlooking the square, content to watch life resonate in the Jemaa el Fna. Jemaa el Fna is translated as "Place of the Dead", but I find it to be the most lively spot in all of Morocco. This market square located in the center of exotic Marrakesh has been the center of local life since the 11th century. It is an exciting place whose character changes as the day progresses. It is one of the "Imperial cities" of Morocco, an oasis of life surrounded by the endless, silent Sahara Desert.

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