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The Most Exotic Outdoor Café in the World: Marrakech's Jemaa el Fna

Text and photo by Lauryn Axelrod

"Lamb couscous, 40 dirham at stall number 5!" cries the turbaned barker.

"Tagine for 30 at stall 12!" yells another.

"Beautiful lady, come sit with me and taste the freshest fish in all of Africa," a well-trained boy coos as he leads me toward one of the 100 or so portable outdoor food stalls crowded around the Jemaa el Fna in the heart of Marrakech's medina. How can I possibly resist? Why would I want to?

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Each evening at dusk, Marrakech's famous carnivalesque square is seamlessly transformed into the biggest, most entertaining outdoor café in the world.

Snake charmers, storytellers, herbalists, hustlers and acrobats share the open space with row after row of numbered open-air kitchen booths.

Beneath the flickering light of kerosene lamps, fires are built in charcoal grills, and fresh meats and vegetables are laid out for inspection. When the red African sun sets behind the snow-capped Atlas mountains, throngs of locals and travelers converge for a feast and a festival worthy of a sheik.

Succulent grilled lamb and chicken, couscous, tagines, fried fish, tiny beef sausages, vegetables, salads, soups, unlimited mint tea and honey-soaked desserts beckon from the stalls. Before you know it, you find yourself seated on a bench with a freshly prepared plate of food before you.

Move on to another stall for a second course, and a third, and a fourth. Or, stay put and marvel as plate after plate is brought to you on command.A steaming bowl of spicy harira, the traditional North African Ramadan soup of beans, vegetables and vermicelli, costs 30 cents. A heaping plate of lamb couscous with salad and bread is $4. A full meal--five courses finished off with Berber tea and spice cake--will set you back a whopping $8!

Between courses, join the locals to watch the musicians, acrobats and storytellers performing on the perimeter of the square. Visit an herbal doctor, have your hands hennaed by a tattooed woman or your fortune told with cards or tea. For a longer break, hire a horse-drawn caleche for a cool night ride around the ramparts or wander into the still-bustling souk for a little evening shopping.

Frankly, there's no excuse to eat anywhere else in Marrakech. Sure, you can find fancier--and more expensive--food in an indoor tourist restaurant, but the Jemaa's menu selection can't be beat and the entertainment far outstrips any tourist's belly dancer.

Admittedly, there are pickpockets and hustlers to beware of, and an occasional beggar may plead to be treated to a bowl of soup, but it's a small price to pay to dine in the center of a North African fantasy.

Spend a few days in Marrakech and you'll soon stake out your favorite stalls. A good technique is to look for the most crowded ones. On the other hand, my favorite harira stall isn't the busiest, but the toothless, old soup maker has a generous smile and always gives me an extra large side dish of olives.

I can sit there undisturbed for an hour or more, lost in the intoxicating Moroccan medley of sights, sounds and smells. By midnight, the cooking fires die out, sated diners wander off, and the chefs are packing up their portable kitchens.

Return to the square the next morning and it's as if the whole scene had been a Scheherazade-like dream. The lantern-lit stalls have been replaced in the wee hours by new ones selling fresh-squeezed orange juice, fruits, nuts and trinkets, and the square resembles nothing more than a bustling parking lot in the middle of a modern city.

But when the sun sets, the timeless fantasia comes alive again: performers take their places, the pungent cooking smoke rises into the bright moonlight and the world's largest, most exotic outdoor cafe is open for business.

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