Established around a thousand years ago, the medina (walled city) of Marrakesh is one of Morocco’s eight Unesco World Heritage Sites. The focal point of the medina, the Djeema El Fna is acknowledged to be one of the biggest squares in the world, and if I may add, is also one of the biggest pasar malams in the world (or at least northern Africa). It has been featured in popular culture on a number of occasions, including in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man who Knew Too Much” and more recently in America’s Next Top Model Cycle 6.
If you ignore the electric lights, tourists, cameras and motorcycles, an evening at the Djeema is to go back a thousand years in time. Fortune tellers, salesmen, acrobats, musicians, belly dancers, snake charmers, Jawas, hawkers, Barbary apes, story tellers and travellers congregate here each night, as they have done every night for the past thousand years.
But the Djemaa El Fna is more than just a pasar malam, it is a theater, a circus, the gathering place for the people of the medina and beyond. This why the square itself was declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity . The push for the listing came from the medina’s residents concerned about the threats faced by the Djemaa El Fna from development pressure. In fighting for protection of their cultural traditions, the residents called for action on an international level, to recognize the need for the protection the Djemaa as a “cultural space”.
Couldn’t help imagining similar parallels with the (much younger) pasar Taman Tun Dr Ismail that DBKL has been trying to tear down to make way for apartment blocks. Heritage and culture takes time to nurture – what sort of heritage will we be left with if our local governments keep demolishing significant public spaces every so often in the name of development? On a more sobering note, 1-Utama has 950 years to go before it can be submitted for World Heritage Listing 😛