Jemaa el-Fna Square, a large plaza at the entrance to the medina of Marrakesh (Morocco), has for centuries been the site of a vibrant set of cultural performances, from snake-charming to henna-dyeing, from sleight-of-hand, comedy shows and acrobatics to music of many types – not to mention the famous storytellers. Herbalists sell incense, scents, oils and medicinal herbs from mats set out on the ground; juice-sellers sell beverages from their carts; restaurants are assembled on the square each evening, only to be removed each night when business winds down.
The square is inscribed on both the UNESCO World Heritage List and the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. For almost a century, the square has been the focus of national and international efforts to safeguard its tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Certain performers such as the snake-charmers or henna women could find new customers in the increasing numbers of international tourists. However, some of the musical forms, and storytelling in particular, depend on having audiences able to speak and understand Moroccan Arabic, as well as the three Moroccan Berber dialects. With fewer daytime passers-by to potentially be attracted to join an audience circle, such performers saw their performance opportunities reduced and their livelihoods threatened; tourist-derived revenues could not compensate for the loss of Moroccan spectators.
The 2001 Proclamation of the ‘Cultural space of Jemaa el-Fna Square’ as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity had similar mixed effects as had earlier heritage protection measures. Tooth-pullers were banished from the square as inconsistent with the expectations of international tourists. Activities more likely to appeal to international tourists take place by day, and activities oriented more to a Moroccan audience concentrate in the evening and night. The international attention brought by the Proclamation (and the square’s later incorporation onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008) nevertheless contributed to a discernible improvement in the social status of the performers in the square, whose occupations had formerly been seen as questionable or even shameful.
Prepared by Frank Proschan