An adventure into the infamous Rif Mountains of Morocco seeking some of the best hashish in the world.
Since the early '70s, I've had a love affair with Moroccan hashish. Back then the marijuana available on the east coast was either cheap lousy Mexican or more expensive and fairly decent Colombian. But then I happened upon a large quantity of golden Moroccan hashish. This turned out to be quite fine and many, many people got to smoke this very pure, very tasty treat.
It wasn't until the 1997 Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam that I was reintroduced to the pleasures of the best Moroccan hashish. I tasted all the hashish I could at the Cup, and found the King Hassan Supreme, a Greenhouse Coffeeshop entry, to be easily my favorite. It brought back wonderful memories from my college daze.
Of course the King Hassan Supreme won the Cannabis Cup for the best imported hash, and I was elated to know that my taste budz were as sensitive as ever. The fact that this hash was still being made provided the inspiration for me to journey to Morocco. I had to find the source of this legendary hashish.
So together with my travelin' buddy Red Bud, we planned a trip south from cold, wet Amsterdam to Spain and across the Mediterranean to the land of Kif and golden hashish.
The flight from Malaga, Spain to Melilla, (Spanish Morocco) was a rather uneventful way to enter Africa. The small twin engine propjet seemed a little dubious, but having endured similar flights in the Caribbean we were unfazed. How were we to know that a couple of months later the same plane would crash into the Moroccan coast killing all its passengers.
We took a taxi from Melilla to the Moroccan border. Melilla is a small Spanish enclave on the African coast . The taxi left us at the Spanish line and we had to walk among the throngs of Moroccans, many wearing hooded jallabas, carrying battered used furniture, scraps of metal and other refuse from Spanish Melilla. These castoffs have some value in Morocco. But the profitable trade is smuggling those things prohibited by Islam, like alcohol and tobacco.
At the border the friendly guards checked our passports and entered our information into a computer. An ancient filing cabinet stood nearby and they had to check that one to see if we were persona non grata. There was no check of our luggage. Morocco saves that touristic pleasure for your departure.
Once past the border we sought out a taxi and immediately a tout got between us and our ride. Thus we were unable to negotiate a decent price and paid too much. It was the first of many arguments we were to have with guides in Morocco. It's not like you seek out help, it sort of attaches itself to you like some kind of irritating parasite. At least we were taken to a friendly inexpensive hotel. Unfortunately, we were given a noisy room overlooking the bus station, and immediately above the café which had a TV blasting French and Arabic until about 10pm. Once we settled into the room we went out to explore the town. Nador is a small market town. It is a transit point for goods smuggled in from Melilla to Al Hoceima and places further inland. Things like cigarettes, alcohol and electronics are relatively expensive in Morocco due to extremely high import duties. On all the highways in the region police stop and search cars and trucks looking for contraband. The irony is that the contraband is all foreign. In this area hashish is not the forbidden fruit.
Hashish or Kif was on our minds as we walked around Nador, but alas the town is not really a tourist stop, and we could find nothing. No guides, no touts, no dealers. We were hungry and dying to try some of the famed Moroccan couscous. We asked in every restaurant in Nador, to no avail. We were told in this town couscous is served at home only on special occasions. So we had to settle for a nice seafood dinner and sip some of the Spanish brandy we brought with us.
Afterwards we decided to check out the stores in town to see what kind of goods they sell in Nador. I scored a great leather jacket (see photo below), cheap, about a third the price in Spain! You do need to be careful with the quality of such items since workmanship is usually below western standards.
The next day we hired a grand taxi - a Mercedes Benz, to take us to Al Hoceima (see map). This journey of 125 Km through dry countryside and mountains was very picturesque. We were now in the Rif mountains, home to the fiercely independent Berber people. The land of Kif. Hashish heaven.
We were stopped at least six times by police searching for the aforementioned contraband. At one long stop, not only were our passports required, but every bit of information was entered onto cards. Then the policeman for some unknown reason opened up a huge dossier that contained photos and descriptions in Arabic of people whose unidentified bodies had been found. Some of the photos were truly gruesome. Several victims' faces were almost completely smashed. I don't know whether this was a warning, or whether they were hoping we could identify these people or whether they were just checking against the photos on our passports to make sure they weren't stolen from the victims, but the sobering effect of the grisly photos was duly noted. Just as we finished the cop's photo album, a Mercedes came speeding by and hit the line of road spikes, puncturing all four of his tires. At this point the police had a more interesting suspect than stupid Americans, so we left quickly.
Arriving in Al Hoceima back on the Mediterranean we chose a somewhat quieter hotel after deciding the fanciest one in town had way too much attitude, even with the panoramic view. They wouldn't negotiate on the price of a room. The hotel we chose had a very friendly man at the desk who spoke some English.
Al Hoceima has a fabulous setting on a cliff above a huge bay. The views from the tops of the cliffs are spectacular. Sort of like Big Sur on the Med. A lively port plays host to dozens of fishing vessels. A few restaurants in the port serve up the freshest seafood in Morocco. On a cliff above the port we watched as the fishing boats went out for a night run. We saw a huge barge drop boulders to extend a seawall. A loud blast indicated the place on a nearby hill where the boulders came from.
We practiced our French and Spanish on the locals and I started to get the hang of it. We went back into town wondering whether we could find something to lift our spirits. It was getting dark as we wandered though the souk (market). We were just passing a taxi stand when I heard voice call to us a greeting in several languages, one of which was Spanish. We stopped and turned to look at a guy across the street who immediately came over. In a fusillade of Español this fellow proceeded to list all the things he could provide. We didn't need a guide to show us a hotel or restaurant, and some of the other things we weren't interested in, but I caught the word "tranquilo" which translates into relaxing which in Spain is a euphemism for smoke. So I said "que significa tranquilo" just to be sure we were on the same wavelength. He said "hashish". At last! We followed him behind a candy stand on a dark street. This guy Ahmed introduced us to his friend Mohammed, a cool dude who reminded me of an old friend . Ahmed took me aside and flashed some little white packets. I asked what it was and he said "heroina". I said no way. Just hashish thank you. It unnerved me a little as I had no desire to deal with a junkie.
He suggested a little walking tour and then some tea and hashish. We agreed and he told us to follow him down "his street". This being our first deal in Morocco, my New York paranoia was in high gear as we walked though some dark quiet streets lined with new construction. It seems Al Hoceima is booming. My mind was elsewhere. Will these guys try to rip us off? Will they sell us something and then turn us in to the police for a reward? We arrived at another cliff overlooking the port. As we walked some more, we got more friendly with our guides. Ahmed left us briefly to go get what we wanted. We walked on to a café with a view over the bay. Ahmed said it was "tranquilo", meaning we could smoke there.
Unfortunately we didn't have a pipe, and since neither of us smoke tobacco, we were stuck.
"No problema" says Ahmed, "I know a store where we can get you a pipe".
We walked a few blocks to the Ali Baba store, a small two room affair with a couple of real friendly Berbers. I looked at a few wooden pipes and a hookah before I settled on a nice long metal pipe or "sipsi". I looked around at some of the other interesting items and decided to return the following day for some shopping.
We returned to the café to find wonderfully sweet Moroccan mint tea waiting for us. Ahmed loaded up the pipe and we took a few tokes. Ahhhhh. This is what we came for. That exotic flowery flavor. A smell like fine incense. And it packs a wallop too. All evening long, Ahmed kept repeating his favorite refrain, “the kif in the Rif is the Rif in the kif…”
By this time our new friend, Ahmed, is making all sorts of plans for us. I realize he wants to be our guide, and I would have said no right away, but he had an offer we couldn't refuse. A guided tour into the Rif Mountains, to Ketama, the hashish capital, with a place to stay at his friends house up in the mountains. He said we could see the whole process of hashish being made. He recommended two or three days to do it right.
I didn't want to commit as I have read about such scams and I've heard Ketama can be a dangerous place. Can we trust this guy we just met who sells heroin? We needed to make a decision, so we invited Ahmed to eat with us down in the port. He took us to a fine fish restaurant, with a rooftop patio overlooking the port. We were presented with a platter of nine or ten types of fresh fish to choose from. We selected three types which looked the least icky. Then we proceeded to devour plate after plate of salad, excellent fish, and imported beer. The bill came as a shock however. As we never did see a menu, I had no idea what the price would be. Food is cheap in Morocco, and I didn't expect it to be $50 for three people. Well, it was probably the 10 beers we bought (including one for a Frenchman who showed up at our table to talk).
Ahmed took the taxi back with us to the hotel and we agreed to meet him the following morning. I was still a little dubious about entrusting our safety to a virtual stranger, who besides being a dope dealer, might also be using some heavy drugs. On the other hand, who but a dope dealer could get us into the very heart of Ketama's Kif fields? Trying to envision possible scenarios, I found many that would put us in danger. Would we be betrayed and handed over to the police for a few thousand dirham? Were we to become some new pages in some gendarme's dossier of death. Or would we just get ripped off? I had trouble seeing a low risk, happy holiday in Ketama.
The next morning, as we ate omelets in a café across the street from our hotel, Ahmed showed up a few minutes early as if expecting we might try to escape. To tell the truth, my inner alarms were going off, and I was hoping to find a way to back out of the situation gracefully. We discussed what to expect and we were told his friend's house was new with a TV and VCR. Well that sounded good. After all that had to mean he had 220V power so I might even be able to download my digital photos (the camera was almost full already) to my PC. We could stay two or three or more nights. Ahmed was pushing for more nights. I said that two would be plenty. I asked if he had phoned ahead to his friend. He said no, he couldn't since they didn't have a phone up there.
Great! How does he know his friend will welcome us there? Just how good a friend is he anyway? Or is the fact that this morning I'm stoned out of my gourd adding to my paranoid fantasies? Finding no good reason to decline the invitation to Ketama, we go back to our hotel to get our bags, while Ahmed finds us a taxi. It wasn't until much later that we realized that we had fallen for the Moroccan guide's con game.
After three hours of cruising through the mountains at speeds up to 160 k.p.h., with much squealing of brakes on the curves we arrived safely in the dusty, dingy town of Ketama. The few people I had eye contact with as we traversed the main street, seemed unfriendly if not hostile. Was this my paranoia again?
Fortunately we were just passing through - to a smaller town up at the foot of Mt. Tidiquin – the village of Azila (or Imazzouzane as the Berbers call it). We get there by a pretty decent dirt road branching out from Ketama. Ahmed has the taxi take a side road and promptly gets us lost! He can't find his friend's house? How many times has he been here and how good a friend is this, I wonder? Ahmed has the taxi return to the main road which then disintegrates into a goat track, ending at a bridge over a rushing stream. As we get out of the taxi we are quickly surrounded by smiling children and chickens.
Feeling a bit like we're in an episode of ABFAB, where Patsy & Edina end up sleeping with the chickens, we let Ahmed know that this isn't what we expected. He explains that this is his friend's father's place, that he will try to locate his friend and arrange things for us. After a short while, a wizened little old man, the father serves us a nice meal of eggs, bread and tea. The time whiles away nicely while we smoke hash, and get tranquilo, while rocking out to tunes on Redbud's battery-powered Grundig radio, which is playing some serious music – Oyo Como Va updated and salsified with a dance/trance mix. Eventually, Ahmed’s friend, Scarface, showed up with an ancient Volvo, ready to take us further up the hill to his “new” house, where we were to stay the weekend.
The trip up the hill started out optimistically, and everyone had a brave face as we went round bend after bend on the way up the hill. The clutch started slipping, the engine raced and we came lurching to a halt on the goat track they call a road. A couple of people got out, and we lurched up another hundred feet, whereupon everyone else got out and pushed the car up the hill! Eventually the car made it up to the house. For this short trip of about a quarter mile we had to pay $7.00 US! Soon all the women from the neighborhood have gathered around, and start screaming at each other, in Berber. It seems the taxi while turning around ruptured the water hose to the whole area! The women are making such a scene, Scarface is embarrassed and tells them to go back home, the water line will be fixed.
Scarface is so named because he has a huge, deep scar from his eye across his cheek down to his chin. Other than the scar he is a handsome and gentle Berber. When I asked him how he got his scar he said it was an accident. I have my own theory about these scars. I noticed many Berbers with similar if not as prominent scars. I believe scarring is a way to warn people upon first sight. There would be no way to hide or deny the meaning of a scar. Was Scarface's scar the result of a jealous husband, an irate business associate or revenge for some violent deed? I'll never know.
Could Scarface be related to the famous Akmed, Hole in the Head (another man with a big scar), the legendary creator of the finest hashish in Morocco? The man with the golden sipsi who supposedly blew Timothy Leary's mind with his incredible white hashish? Well we were certainly in the right place, the base of Mt. Tidiquin is the highest part of the Rif where Akmed grew his kif. Again, Scarface was mum about the subject, but at least we were close to the source of the best hash in Morocco.
Scarface introduced us to his wife, who wears a veil, and is quite definitely in charge. Their house is simple, but generous by Moroccan standards with a concrete floor, doors and windows that work, as well as a 12 volt solar power system with batteries, and a bathroom (no toilet – just a ceramic hole and a bucket of water). The living room had sofas, blankets and pillows, and there was a wood stove made from an old metal barrel, which also provided their hot water. Apparently, there is a kitchen and a couple of bedrooms as well, but the doors are always kept closed to the other rooms. The wife only appeared to serve food and get the children. Scarface speaks Spanish and some English, so we conversed quite well. In fact we talked for hours, and I got all the information about the growing of kif, the making of hash, and the marketing of the product to the hordes of Dutch coffeeshop owners and other dealers who flock to Ketama!
Dinner was served – Kefta (lamb meat balls in sauce), but I abstained since I don't eat red meat. Redbud said it was OK. Afterwards we all got to bed pretty early – especially after toking some more hash for dessert. Sleep came easily at 8,500 feet up in the mountains at the foot of Mt. Tidiquin, and it sure was hard to get out of bed the next morning in the coldness of the dawn!
After breakfast of tea, cookies, almonds, bread and jam, Scarface dragged out a large soup pot filled with dark goo, HASH OIL! He let it warm to room temperature by the fire before dipping out a blob for us to play with. We worked a bit into some kif and rolled a joint, which promptly incapacitated us! Both Scarface and Ahmed were laughing at us as we sat there giggling, whilst listening to Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits on the stereo.
Our intrepidly lazy guide Ahmed, scrawled some interestingly twisted drawings into Redbud's diary, all the while mumbling “Le bon Roi de Rif et de Kif et de Kif Kif!” Which he translated as meaning that the Rif and the Kif are one and the same.
Redbud and I set out for a stroll up the mountain side to look at the fields and see the views of the mountains. We passed through a grove of Ponderosa Pines and emerged onto the Alpine tundra which was filled with wildflowers.
The view of the valley around the town of Azilah is gorgeous, the valley sides being terraced as far as the eye can see with kif fields. We were there in the early Spring, and the terraces were bright green with the fuzz of baby plants by the millions. Echoing across the valley was the sound of hundreds of villagers closeted away in hash factories, pounding dried hemp plants with wooden truncheons to release the resin that makes hash. In fact, just about every building we passed had the thump, thump, thump of hash-making coming from inside…
I left Red sitting on a rock enjoying the superb view above Azilah, while I went a bit further up the trail. When I returned I found Red laying on his side totally passed out. He had gotten so high, he had one of those wonderful out-of-body experiences when you start flying around above yourself, looking and swooping down on all that is below. After awhile, you get snapped back and realize that you've just been passed out on a rock by the roadside for a half hour, with your companions thinking you are dead! He had one too many sipsis of that Black Gold.
Stumbling back down the mountain was easier than going up, and we returned to the safe haven of our hosts just as dinner was served – our first Couscous, It was delicious! Never again in Morocco did we get it as good as it was that night in Azilah! The chicken was fresh, we picked it out earlier running around in the yard… the semolina soft and delightful, the vegetables sweet and tender, all in a tasty gravy…with more mint tea, and cinnamon/sugar powder for the buttered bread.
Red took a nap while Scarface and I went out to see the process of making hashish firsthand. I was led down the hill to a neighbor's place. An old thin man let us in and showed us to a small room where three young men were working, whacking tubs of kif with wooden sticks. The rhythm of their pounding was like a deep tribal music. I looked at their faces and their eyes were red from the resin that formed a yellow cloud in the room. I wondered how high they got from inhaling the resin powder. There was so much resin in the room it was piling up in drifts against the walls. We had to close the door to keep it from floating out.
I sat in the salon across from the old man who sat cross-legged on the floor with a wooden block. I watched as he proceeded to work a bit of kif into some tobacco and then loaded a sipsi. From his smooth moves I could tell he'd done this thousands of times before. We discussed the making of hashish, the various screens used to separate the higher quality resins from the plant matter. Morocco's hash is usually pure and unadulterated. There are basically two qualities with some variation. There is the inexpensive commercial and then the good stuff, which the locals call Oro Negro, or Black Gold. The quality hash from this region goes by many names including Ketama, Sputnik, Zero Zero, and of course King Hassan.
Later that evening we discussed getting a taxi the following day to take us onward to Chefchaouen. Scarface said we had to go into town to arrange it. I assumed we would be going to the taxi stand in Azila where there was often a lone taxi sitting. We walked down the hillside to the taxi that was waiting there. But instead of talking about Chefchaouen, Scarface told me to get inside the taxi and we took off. This taxi was different from the others I'd been it. The interior was real grungy, missing all sorts of conveniences like window cranks and door handles! Then I noticed the taxi was driving at night without lights! You could barely see the road! And the driver was driving like a madman possessed by the spirit of Evil Kneivel! He was taking this bumpy dirt road way too fast. I became painfully aware of both the condition of the shock absorbers (were there any?) and what was left of the seat cushion.
I began to wonder what was happening, where we were going. I asked Scarface and he told me that we had to go to Ketama to make arrangements with a taxi. He said that this was a black taxi, meaning it was not legal, and couldn't take us to Chefchaouen tomorrow. Hey, I had no problem with that! The sooner I could get out of this taxi the better. But Ketama at night? It was scary enough in the daytime! Plus I'd left Red back there at the house to keep his eyes on our stuff. We still didn't trust our guide Ahmed. I told him we'd be back shortly and Scarface's wife was preparing dinner.
We arrived in Ketama, and Scarface led me to a cafe where everyone was inside watching some event on TV. I decided to take a seat outside, where the people and flies were fewer. I ordered a mint tea while Scarface took off to find a taxi driver. He returned fifteen minutes later with a driver and we negotiated a price. Just as we were getting ready to go, Scarface sees someone he knows and tells me to wait for him. He's standing about 25 feet away talking to this guy. Every so often they both turn around and look at me intensely. I have no idea what's happening now. Suddenly Scarface waves at me to come to them. Before I reach them, they start walking off down the main street of Ketama. I can't catch up with them, as they turn down a dark dirt street. The street is full of rocks and holes and I have to be careful in the dark. They continue to outpace me and finally i call to them and ask, "Where are we going?" My voice must have betrayed my fear and they turned around for a moment and laughed, then proceeded faster down this road.
Now I'm really getting worried. We've already be gone over an hour. It's after 11pm, I'm in a dark and possibly dangerous section of the dangerous town of Ketama. I have visions of images from a police dossier appearing before me. Red was left alone with a possibly dangerous junkie/guide. Was this the plan, separate us and then??? What is Scarface planning? Where are we going? I notice fewer and fewer buildings along the road. Soon we'll be out of town, then what?
Finally, they both stop at one of the last houses on the road. As I catch up, they're not going in, and seem to be waiting. Then I notice something I haven't seen since my arrival in Morocco. On the front of the building next to the wall is a bank of buzzers. I realize we're at a brand new apartment house and they're waiting to be let in! A disembodied voice comes through the intercom and there is a discussion. Then there is a buzz and we are let in. I follow Scarface and his friend up a beautiful marbled tiled staircase to a very classy apartment.
I am introduced to Scarface's friend who then proceeds to show me classic Islamic hospitality. A boy comes out with a huge pitcher of hot water and we do the hand washing ceremony. Mint tea is brought out next. Then a huge platter of delicious fried fish follows! All this time I am treated as an honored guest, why?
Once the last bit of food has been devoured, and the plates are all taken away, I find out. My host issues some command in Arabic and a teenage boy runs out of the apartment. In a few minutes he returns and places an enormous cellophane bag of yellow powder on the table, Black Gold. It covers most of the tabletop. My host and Scarface both look at me and Scarface asks "How much do you want?" He then proceeds to tell me the prices per gram.... for hundreds and thousands of kilos! Uh, I uh, really, I just need a few grams... Uh, ten grams, please.... They both look at me, look at each other, and shake their heads. I get that feeling I'm in a little over my head. My host reaches into the bag and with three fingers pinches out what could be exactly 10 grams, presses it gently and hands it to me. At only $2 a gram it's a steal!
I thank him graciously, and tell him that I will let every coffeeshop owner in Holland know about him. This makes him happy and he writes down his cellular phone number for me! Scarface and I make a graceful exit and head back to Azila where Red informs me that Scarface's wife had dinner ready hours ago and is now in bed. No one has eaten except Scarface and I!
The next morning as we waited for our taxi to arrive, Ahmed continued his ceaseless whining about money. He nearly ruined the trip with his pleading for money, and regalos (gifts). We didn't bring more cash than we had arranged to pay in advance. So we gave what few things we could spare to Ahmed, Scarface and his wife. Since we had just began our Moroccan journey we only carried our most essential items. Ahmed kept hounding Red for his Swiss Army knife and me for my walkman. Yeah, right!
Unfortunately we waited and waited for that taxi.
The taxi finally showed up but couldn't figure out how to get up the hill!
We watched, and we screamed and we waved our arms, but the taxi turned
around and headed back to Ketama. Scarface cursed the driver!
Eventually Scarface found a taxi to take us to Ketama, and we transferred
there to another taxi. We said good-bye to Ahmed and felt very relieved
to be free of him at last. We did it! We survived Ketama to
tell the tale. But we still hadn't found the source of King Hassan.
But we were getting close! Next stop, Chefchaouen.
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