“How about a smoke?” asks Aziz. “Do you want to come back to my house and smoke?”

I check my watch. It is 8:30 in the morning. There were periods in my life where I did smoke now and then – and just so we get this story off on the right track, let’s be clear we’re not talking tobacco – but never as a habit, and certainly not at 8:30 in the morning. Then again, I am in the Rif Valley, which by a perfect coincidence of rhyme, is the primary cultivation area of kif, the Moroccan word forts nnabis. According to most estimates (and with something like cannabis, it only ever can be an estimate), the small corner of north-eastern Morocco that forms the Rif is responsible for over 40% of the world’s entire crop, employing close to a million people, which makes it Morocco’s primary source of foreign currency. No wonder the locals smoke it for breakfast.

Aziz has politely accosted me on my walk back into Chefchaouen – nicknamed the “blue pearl” for its preponderance of brightly painted buildings – from an early morning reconnaissance run on the local mountain trails near the town campground. That I am a tourist is evident not merely by the color of my skin but by my running shorts – I’ve rarely felt so conspicuous for exposing my legs as on this first occasion in Morocco – and perhaps by the fact that Aziz has found me outside the Atlas Chaouen, the only hotel in town to serve alcohol and, with that, the only one to host a Saturday night disco, a prospect that, I admit, has me tempted. I am not actually staying at the Atlas, rather at one of the many inexpensive “Dars” within Chefchaouen’s medina walls, but Aziz doesn’t yet know that.

Aziz is in his 40s, I figure, and there is nothing untoward about his everyman appearance – moustache, trim build, informal suit – to suggest I be wary of him. With a solid grasp of English and a pleasant though inherently assertive manner, he is just another underemployed man in a country full of them, looking to sell himself as a guide. For my part, this being only my second morning in Morocco – in Africa, ever – I am willing to hear him out. Why travel the world if not to engage with locals?

Chefchaouen, the “Blue Pearl,” with Jebel el-Kelaa looming above it.

To his inquisition, I tell Aziz that I am researching the route up Jebel el-Kalaa, the 1616m peak at the western edge of the ragged and sharp Rif mountains into which Chefchaouen is nestled; so precipitously does this particular mountain drop off that its summit can only be accessed from the north or the east, i.e. the long way around. Hiking mountains is a large part of the weekend routine back home at the Catskills, and given the views we imagine from its summit, we – that is myself, my wife Posie and our 11-year old son Noel, who is joining us for this year-long backpacking trip – have determined to tackle it the following day. It will be the first proper summit of our sabbatical.

Naturally, Aziz proposes a better idea. He has a car, and can take us to what he assures me is the more impressive Jebel Azra instead, and to the locally renowned God’s Bridge, or further afield to other National Parks if we would like, where the mountains and woods are that much more majestic, and we can have a picnic of fresh lamb – oh, but it’s fine that I don’t eat meat, he will make a wonderful tagine from his wife’s fresh vegetables, and… I have to admit, he puts on a good pitch. As tends to go with the Moroccan territory, it’s a little too good, because he wants to take us out today, and if not today, then we will meet here at the same time tomorrow, and he wants my phone number, so that he can confirm our plans later. All of this, of course, is done without mentioning price.

I suggest I jot down his number instead, and when I am similarly unforthcoming as to which Dar we are staying at, he extracts a promise that I’ll call him. The part of me that knows of the great beauty around here is quite intrigued by the prospect of letting Aziz drive us further afield, but fact is, we are on a tight schedule through Morocco: we must return to our base in Malaga, Spain, within the week, so as to fly back to Africa. (Such are the perils of booking one’s air travel far in advance.) We are only just acquainting ourselves with the delights of Chefchaouen, a comparatively relaxed, relatively bohemian town two hours south of Tangiers, and I know Posie well enough to know she would sooner spend her Saturday on foot, rather than be chaperoned in a vehicle. Besides, I have had my eyes on ascending el-Kalaa since first reading about the region. Some things just call to you like that.

Aziz, sensing my hesitation, backpedals the business proposition and extends the hand of friendship instead. “Would you like coffee?” he says. “Come to my house, I make you very good coffee. My wife and I, we make you breakfast. You are very welcome.”

“It’s okay,” I say. “I have breakfast waiting for me back at the Dar. Along with my family,” I add hopefully.

He does not take the hint, for it’s at this point that he throws in the offer of a smoke. With what I hope is good grace, I decline. I assure Aziz I’ll call him later in the day, and to be fair, I keep his number close at hand. But I never dial it.

Chefchaouen, “the Blue Pearl,” as seen from the medina walls.

We spend our Friday further checking out the old part of Chefchaouen within the medina, and for all that it is a delightful maze of blue-tinted galleries and artisanal stores, cafes, mosques, and cats, cats, and more cats (the cats of ‘Chaouen are their own Internet meme), cannabis would nonetheless appear to be the town’s primary, um, draw. At lunch, as I seek to find entrance to a rooftop restaurant, I stick my head inside the main coffee shop in the Kasbah square. It’s a large place, seating a hundred or so men (and only men), some of them quite old, all of them wafer thin, those not transfixed by the overhead televisions affixing their gaze on nothing in particular. There’s a reason behind their lack of focus, I discover as I enter, for I am instantly transported to the reggae parties I occasionally attended in the Brixton or Ladbroke Grove of my youth: what I have assumed from outside to be a cloud of unfiltered tobacco is in fact pure cannabis, and I get a contact high just from asking directions.

And later on in the day, perturbed that I did not find the entrance to the trail in the morning, I decide on a quick evening jog out of town for a second attempt. In company with fellow tourists and young Muslim lovers, we have been on a late-afternoon walk to the deserted Spanish mosque, above the eastern side of Chefchaouen, where the amplified sound of the Friday evening call to prayers intermingled delightfully with that of noisy kids playing football on a dusty field below. From here, it makes more sense to approach the campground by which the trail supposedly commences via the medina’s exterior walls, and it is immediately assumed by those young men patrolling them that I interested in one thing only. I briefly flash back to teenage days in London when some older, wiser, hipper kid with inevitably longer hair would, in the back of a car, or the side room of a house party, or even occasionally on the football terrace, whip out a slab of hash and proclaim it to be “finest Moroccan,” and it occurs to me now that I may probably never sample finer Moroccan than right here in Chefchaouen – but I decline, again. I have seen musicians have a smoke, pick up their guitars and make some of the most inspired sounds imaginable, but give me a joint and I tend to down tools and retreat into myself.

Besides, while growing cannabis in this part of Morocco is not specifically illegal, purchasing it most certainly is against the law, and tourists are warned of buying from plants – if you’ll excuse that expression – who promptly call in a conveniently situated policeman or two, necessitating a hefty pay-off on the assumption that said tourist prefers parting with a large amount of cash than being relocated to a Moroccan jail for an unspecified duration of time.

Still, reference to the effect of cannabis upon musicians is a, um, potent one because, on the evening jog, I still don’t find the trailhead, but at the campground I do come across a group of locals who have commandeered a picnic area for their Friday night jam. Some of them are cooking up a storm with a syncopated rhythm on tam tams and ouds, just about everyone else is singing and clapping along, and none of them pay attention to me as I loom in the shadows, quietly filming them. Actually, I’m not sure they even notice me, for as my eyes become accustomed to the dim light, I can see that their eyes are reddened from what must surely be large doses of uncut Rif kif; the air is full of its aroma. Some of the younger ones, by the way, are dancing on the picnic tables, and though I can’t quite compare it to Brian Jones acquainting himself with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, it’s a joyously honest, traditional, non-touristic moment all the same.

Continue to Part 2

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3 Comment(s)

  1. 14 December, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks. I remember reading this before.

  2. 20 December, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Hey Alan, I think you were at the Shandaken Writers/Literary Event earlier in the year where I read an earlier draft. Haven’t shared it in writing until now…


  3. 5 January, 2018 at 9:55 pm

    Slam dunkin like Shaquille O’Neal, if he wrote inioamrtfve articles.

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