The morning train brought me to Marrakesh. I was eager to finally arrive, mainly due to the word-of-mouth I heard that the person who has fully experienced the city is given the honorary Marrakeshi title of bahja, joyous one. Which led me to wondering: what does joy look like? what does a truly joyous person resemble? what does that even really feel like? I have been reading both the Lotus Sutra and the Yoga Sutra and feel that I have at least a theoretical appreciation for their differentiation between relative and absolute happiness, between pleasure and joy, but I feel a still petulant demanding of wanting to see the real thing. And so I was pointed in the direction of the square Djemaa el Fna, the heart of Marrakesh, in the center of the medina, the old town.
I was told that the best way to arrive at the square was through the Street of the Olive (derb al zitoun, derb meaning alley). The name of the square means Assembly of the Dead in Arabic and it is an area which is used equally by Marrakeshis and tourists. It has been listed as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage. Local activists concerned about the preservation of their traditions achieved this international recognition in 2001 in order to preserve their cultural space. The idea of an intangible space being, first, recognized and even protected, is a powerful thing. UNESCO's Proclamation acknowledges the mysterious alchemy that is born from such intangibles as space and music and dance. In the dedication speech, Juan Goytisolo tried to concretize the invisible: "The spectacle of Djemaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes – voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster – that we can call intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition."
To date, a total of 90 Masterpieces from 70 countries have been named, none of which are, interestingly, in the United States. But Italy has Sardinian Pastoral Songs and Sicilian Puppet Theatre. Costa Rica has oxherding and oxcart traditions. Both Uruguay and Argentina share the tango. India has the tradition of Vedic chanting and Croatia has two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale.
For me, one of the most fascinating things about the square Djemaa el Fna is another intangible – its name: Assembly of the Dead. Walking amidst the stalls, in my head, a two-part chant began to create a steady rhythm; with a profound understanding of what death is, an answer of how joy feels can surely be found – everything changes, nothing remains the same, but the beauty is always there to be shared.