THE RIF MOUNTAINS
He who does not travel will not know the value of men
Moorish proverb (1)
Wednesday, 30 March 1988
Chefchaouen, western Rif Mountains, Morocco
Four wheezy old men in wrinkled grey and brown jellabas sit silently around the café table beside me, sipping coffee and smoking kif marijuana from carved cherry-wood pipes. Big hollow saucer eyes, drooping brown and narcotic, glance briefly over at me as wisps of olive-grey smoke escape into golden shafts of early morning sunlight. One of the men coughs raspingly, sneezes, and then lets loose a glob of phlegm to join the others on the cobbles. Another clasps a hand to his chin and winces loudly, rolling his eyes in pain.
All around Chefchaouen, and rolling eastwards across much of northern Morocco, rise the craggy limestone peaks of the Rif, jagged shards of orange and black that pierce a bright blue sky. Wrapped in their lee, like a thick shawl worn against the springtime chill, are thick mantles of sweetly scented sanobar firs, cedar forests, and olive groves. Further down, the slopes bristle with small terraces of barley, cannabis and peppermint. Everywhere, donkey paths criss-cross the hills - lonely trails leading to distant farmhouses perched way up in the mountains, over which pairs of golden eagles and kites are often seen soaring. Everywhere, too, there is the comforting freedom of open space and vivid sunlight, despite the towering mountains and deep, cavernous valleys. To the traveller freshly arrived from another continent, there is a feeling of having crossed over some great but unspoken divide. Something romantic, perhaps, the romance of the new and the unknown. Or else the comforting impression of somehow returning to a land dreamt of long ago... Whatever, for the first few days it sufficed simply to inhale the sweet new air for me to feel almost childishly happy, full of a facile joy and even the hackneyed but wondrous bewilderment of innocence - I was only eighteen.
The Rif is a rugged land, unspoilt, a land of dreamy interlocking valleys, gorse-filled gullies, and rippling streams delineated by pink ribbons of blossoming oleander, or else whispering reed veils. Wherever one looks, the land is flecked with the vibrant yellow of madder bloom and marigolds. There are fig trees, prickly-pear cacti and darker looming shadows. In the ravines the mountains have tumbled in perilous cascades of ochre and clay, almost bloody in parts. It is a land reminiscent of the Taurus Mountains, or of southern Spain, only seventy miles away across the Straits of Gibraltar.
To most first-time travellers from Christian lands, like myself, the first comparison to be drawn is invariably one with Biblical times. The Berbers, who form the majority in the Rif, still travel on foot or by mule or donkey trap, at a gently lolloping pace of life that only adds to this initial impression. Picturesque lime-washed hamlets of maybe half-a-dozen squat houses lie half-hidden behind secretive woods of aspen and fir. And in places, low forested hills caress surreal lakes painted an opaque turquoise blue, beside which a handful of copper coloured shepherd's tents might be pitched. In the stone-walled fields and orchards, small bands of farm labourers - male and female together - can be seen tilling and sowing, clearing the land with scythes. Elsewhere, peasants too poor to afford cattle drag their ploughs through the unyielding soil.
The Berbers are an intensely proud people, distinct both culturally and racially from the city-dwelling Arabs. In the main, they are a short but hardy, with richly bronzed faces, many deeply lined seemingly through years of laughter. Their features are a strange and unique blend of European and Arab, and with their shining wide-open eyes and high cheekbones, there is at times even a hint of the Oriental. Their origins, however, are very much obscure, and continue to elude the classifying grasps of even the most learned anthropologists. What is certain is that the Berbers are Africa's only white-skinned indigènes, an enigma in a continent full of riddles. The women, especially, have handsome, almost chiselled features which, if not elegant, are most certainly dignified. Most of them still wear the traditional and highly coloured garb, consisting of towel-like foutas, aprons, shawls and head cloths, topped with wide-brimmed Mexican style sombreros adorned with ribbons and pompons. Their delight in colour extends even to their socks. Currently favoured is bright green or scarlet, often one of each worn on the same pair of feet. The men, in contrast, dress mainly in earthy shades of grey and brown. Their jellabas - thickly-woven ankle-length cloaks - differ from their cousins, the Turkish kaftan and Egyptian jallabiya, in sporting unusually long and pointed hoods, sometimes a full two feet in length, that are often used as impromptu shopping bags! In cold weather, when the hood is worn folded right up over the eyes, tapering to a point at the top, their wearers resemble the Dark Age sorcerers and wizards of European legend.
The atmosphere is one of change, from the cold isolation of the harsh mountain winter to the warmth and bustle of an African summer. The spring breeze is crisp and fresh as it whispers gently through the leafy branches of the tree-lined square.
Opposite the Café Djibli, at which I am sitting, is the old orange Kasbah, an imposing sandstone citadel built by Portuguese captives following their army's annihilation at Ksar el-Kebir in 1578. The unfortunate prisoners were also obliged to construct the dungeons in which they were then incarcerated until their deaths. The story that still brings smirks to many a face. Propped up at the Kasbah's wooden gate, an old man sleeps bolt upright. He seems unconcerned by the clatter of chairs and tables being dragged outside from the cafés. A narrow cobbled alleyway winds between the Kasbah and the Grand Mosque, a beautiful building lime-washed all over save for its peculiar octagonal minaret, decorated in blood-red brick and stuccoed orange plaster. The rest of the Place Uta el-Hammam consists of several more cafés, dingy eathouses, a handful of stores, and the police station, outside which a couple of fat officers sit for most of the day, cigarettes or fat oily joints hanging limply from their fat oily lips.
The first pigeons and turtledoves have arrived, and swoop restlessly between the Kasbah's ramparts and the silken boughs of a mulberry tree. The first small-time merchants and traders arrive, some pushing homemade barrows and carts, others barely able to walk under the burden of their wares. A trio of peddlers unveil great strings of household implements shipped in from China, everything that the modern Moroccan housewife might wish for. Others simply upturn plastic buckets, upon which they then place their hopes. In time, both the square's fountain and the entire length of the Kasbah's eastern battlements become cluttered with a myriad items for sale. There are cracked wooden doors leaning against stained mattresses, these in turn draped with brightly coloured feminine kaftans. Odd shoes lie scattered beside a rusty Spanish typewriter, and a couple of sparrows sit squabbling on absolutely the most repulsive sofa I have ever seen - purple-brown nylon liberally adorned with a sprinkling of yellow, shocking pink and fluorescent green flowers.
A few other traders - tough old Berber ladies from the mountains - sell sprigs of fresh mint, onions and garlic. Some carry their grandchildren in the style of American Indian papoose, swaddled and strapped onto the women's chests or backs. Almost all the ladies are small, but quick and expressive in their movements, deceptively strong, wiry, and often arrive in town bent at right-angles under the weight of their bales. Their palms and soles are decorated like tattoos with the amber-brown dye of henna, a herb much prized among Berbers for its property of toughening the skin and so preventing blisters, sores or stings. On Mondays and Thursdays - souk days - entire families descend from all over the Rif to sell cheese, butter, fruit, vegetables, straw, herbs and other natural produce, and return wearily home in the evening with their sturdy mules laden with gas canisters, oil-filled Jerry-cans and dead weight sacks of flour.
Behind the café is the medina (literally 'old city', from the Prophet Muhammad's Arabian refuge). Rising over six hundred feet within half a mile, the medina is Chefchaouen's oldest quarter, and occupies the uppermost reaches of the Djibála range of the Rif Mountains, beyond which the slopes become too acute and prone to landslides to be habitable.
The town was founded in the year 1471 by Moulay Ali ben Rachid, a descendant of the illustrious Moulay Idriss, eighth-century founder and father of Muslim Morocco. As an outpost from which to repel the Portuguese, and later Spanish, incursions, Ben Rachid could not have chosen better. To the east, the town is protected by the impenetrable mountains, whilst to the west, the site commands a broad sweep over the valley of the River Laou, which meant that potential assailants would have been obliged to climb for over two miles in full view of the tenacious defenders. The twin crescentic peaks that both defend and tower over the town have lent their name to Chefchaouen. In Djibla dialect, it means the View of the Horns.
Almost completely encircled by its sixteenth-century battlements, Chefchaouen really does give the impression that time has stood still. Secluded, and for centuries inaccessible even to the sultans of Fès (200km to the south), it is as though the town has felt no need at all to progress into the twentieth century. It is as though its walls have guarded for so many years not only against the aggressions of men and their armies, but against Time itself. Everywhere, one is reminded of the past. Backing on to the Café Djibli is an old fondouq: a large courtyard where the spice- and slave-carrying caravans of old found accommodation, and where blacksmiths and the town's last Jewish saddlesmith practised their trade, the latter eventually to emigrate after the Six-Day War. Although the camels have long since gone, there are still mules and asses aplenty, slipping and sliding on the steep burnished cobbles of the medina.
The atmosphere of the place, needless to say, is overwhelmingly medieval. Its labyrinthine maze of narrow cobbled streets, blind alleyways and hidden squares remain as vibrant and animated as, I imagine, they always have been. Crooked steps wind steeply between two- and three-storey dwellings, rising and falling, twisting and turning as in strange, unsettling dreams. Heavy, bolt-studded doors seem to spin secretive whispers - as is common throughout Morocco, houses tend to look inwards onto private tiled courtyards and gardens, rather than out onto the streets where children scramble and play in stagnant trickles of water and sewage. In places, it is well advised to walk only in the centre of these streets, to minimise the risk of airborne garbage, bath water, and much worse besides, as I once found out to the cost of a shirt...
Whilst the atmosphere is medieval, the architecture is Andalusian, a legacy of seventeen Muslim and Jewish families who arrived here in the sixteenth century having fled the systematic persecution of Muslims during the Catholic Reconquista of Iberia. On almost every street corner, invariably festooned with ivy or grape vines, ceramic-tiled fountains gush forth the cold waters of the mountain springs. Above, beyond the blue and white limewash of the walls, are brown tiled eaves and ornamental archways, iron-grilled balconies, carefully carved wooden blinds and astonishingly intricate trellis-work. Simple but imposing lintels and gables of red terra cotta crown small dark doorways secured with wrought-iron latches and handles, doorways so low that even I had to stoop to enter. Bronze door knockers form lions or the downward-pointing Hand of Fatima. The latter, named after the daughter of the Prophet, is a charm found throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It is a symbol commonly believed, like henna, to ward off Evil Eye, a curse that has been around since the Carthaginians, and perhaps earlier still.
From afar, the town looks like a great wasps' nest, its dwellings constructed one on top of the other to form an amorphous mass of mortar, wood and paint. Chefchaouen is an admittedly beautiful blot on an otherwise unblemished landscape, and comparisons with other towns spring readily to mind. So very much like images of the steep cobbled inclines of Quito, or one of the Pueblos Blancos of the Sierra de Cadiz, or the abandoned Basilicatan cave-town of old Matera in which Pasolini filmed The Gospel according to St Matthew. The resemblance to the latter is all the keener at night, when the sickly-sweet aroma of mint tea finally drifts away, and the rising facades light up like fireflies with eerie glows of yellow and green. It is at night, too, that the town takes on all the disquieting charm of Baghdad's Arabian Nights - for it is then that one is plunged into a twilit world of clawing shadows and mysterious, shrouded figures that scurry by noiselessly to unknown destinations. At night, it is all too easy to imagine the town swarming with gangs of Moorish cut-throats and blood thirsty brigands, and it is hard to walk about without feeling one's heart pounding squarely in one's mouth. And it was not just me who felt both excited and scared - many Chefchaouenis themselves go to astonishing lengths to avoid having to venture out alone after sunset. Night-time is the preserve of ghosts and ghouls alone.
But in daylight, the medina is without doubt one of North Africa's prettiest. Certainly, its inhabitants think so, for they have painted their town in the celestial colours of white and sky-blue, with the result that even under the dreariest of skies, the medina retains a light-hearted gaiety, a place where it is almost impossible to feel under the weather. In some quarters, even the pavement is whitewashed, and it was only with a certain deference that I dared tread along them, lest I defile their virginal beauty with ugly scuff marks.
In the early mornings, before the sun has had time to heave itself above the encircling mountains, traders set up makeshift stalls to sell fresh goats' milk, roundels of tangy goat cheese, and necklaces of sticky ring doughnuts that resemble bagels - a reminder of Morocco's once numerous Jewry. Then, when the first of the sun's rays begins to sweep through the sleepy streets, tiny box-like shops hidden down darker alleyways open to business, selling freshly-ground coffee, jasmine bouquets, and great pyramids of round, unleavened bread displayed alongside fat French baguettes. Later, on flat terraced roofs festooned with washing and Berber rugs out for an airing, women can be seen scrubbing clothes, or chattering and laughing as they shell peas and peel vegetables in preparation for lunch time's tajines and couscous.
Skinny flea-bitten cats, scabrous and dirty, limp across the square from the Kasbah, only to be chased away by impish gangs of stone-toting children. Later, an equally scabrous beggar is chased away by the waiter, who then for a moment grins at me as though to elicit some kind of approval. The day's first hustlers have appeared, ready to pounce on busloads of day-tripping Spaniards from Tangier. Preying upon the least-confident members of the group, the faux-guide offers through double-talk, breathtakingly audacious guile, and finely honed double-think, various introductions to touristic bazaars, invariably the ones that pay hefty commissions on sales to the gullible. In Chefchaouen, clouds of tennis-shoed, short-clad, knuckle-kneed tourists pile out of air-conditioned coaches every day, 'doing' Morocco via four-star hotels and the automatic camera. But because they bring money, it is too easy to forget the irony that many parts of Morocco - especially the imperial cities of Fès, Meknès and Marrakesh - are rapidly losing that very same 'authentic' feel that the tourists adore so much.
In the Place el-Makhzen, around the corner from the café and near the chain-run Parador Hotel, is a small but predictable collection of bazaars. They are predictable in that they will feed the unwary visitor (including myself, on one occasion) all sorts of lies and tall stories to get them to buy something they don't really want and in any case can buy more cheaply elsewhere. If one were only to take the time to find the right places, the quality doubles and the prices halve again. The specialities include handcrafted silver teapots and trays, a bewildering array of unfired clay pottery, terra-cotta braziers, sibsi pipes for smoking kif, and leather ware. It is said that when Spanish soldiers first set foot in the town in 1920, they were as astounded to hear ringing but anxious praise for their fifteenth-century Queen Isabel of the Catholics, as they were to see Berber craftsmen tanning leather in the manner of twelfth-century Córdoba, an art that had long been lost to the Iberian peninsula.
The other craft for which the Berbers are justifiably renowned is weaving. Woollen rugs and carpets are still painstakingly woven on rickety wooden looms, producing abstract patterns uncannily similar to ancient Aztec designs. Indeed, there are many (as yet unexplained) similarities between the Berbers of Northwest Africa and the original inhabitants of Mexico and South America. Not only the designs of their textiles, but their traditional dress (the wide-brimmed hats, especially, are identical in every respect to those worn by the Huichol peyote Indians of Mexico's Zacatecas plateau), the drug culture, the at-times shamanic mysticism (of which more later), and even physical similarities, point to a link that rises above mere coincidence (or Spanish influence). Both peoples, of course, have the Atlantic in common. Is it possible that the ancestors of the Aztecs are the very same as that of the Berbers, and that thousands of years before Columbus, some of them had ventured across the ocean to reach the New World?
To return to the bazaars of Chefchaouen: the rapid growth in tourism is having the unfortunate side-effect of reducing quality and corrupting designs to make them more pleasing to the Western eye. Another recent loss was the departure of Chefchaouen's last Jewish family, which deprived the town of its traditionally high-standard silver jewellery (Arab Jews were famed for their decorative damascene inlaying, perhaps because Muslims feared Evil Eye lest they dared mix metals). Another loss is the wonderfully chaotic souk enclosure, which has been earmarked to give way to a coach park. Still, tourism has given the town a new lease of life, for better or worse, and not least for its children. On countless occasions I received shouted demands for dirhams and pens, and much more besides. I once saw a French couple surrounded by a group of screaming children, one of whom brandished a tiny terrapin, its carapace cracked, under the man's nose. 'Five dirham, or I kill it!' taunted the little monster, and so the man paid up. A few minutes later, the children returned, only this time with a frightened chick, and again the foreigners succumbed to the demands of the aspiring extortionists!
As morning gathers momentum, so the square becomes busier. There is a constant stream of people, rushing, dawdling, bored, animated, anxious, tired... It is a pleasure for me, having spent an exhausting month cycling to here from England, to do nothing more strenuous than sip coffee and watch the world roll on without me. A man walks about peddling wire bird cages. Another winds his way around the café tables selling sweet pastries from a tray - honey and fig rolls, coconut buns scented with almonds, and vanilla or cumin shortbreads. A youth rushes by on a motorbike, another on a squeaky bicycle without a saddle. All the time, children too young or lazy to go to school, dash about madly, shouting and screaming. Play fights are common, although many end in tears and howls of retribution, or else a volley of stones. At one point, the old men beside me grew tired of all the fracas, and themselves resorted to throwing gravel at the children.
A tipper-lorry arrives from the valley to deposit a load of firewood beside the café, and soon, members of the local porters' guild lumber up to carry the wood into the medina's 400-year-old Moorish baths, the hammam. It is a task that can take all of two days. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit infidels were forbidden to enter the hammam since, like the mosques, it is a place of purification that cannot be despoiled by dirt of the impure.
Presently, a grubby kid brandishing a stick screams past the café in hot pursuit of a hoop, as an old Arab woman, dark eyes flashing, hobbles the other way. She is veiled from head to toe in a white silk haik. Elsewhere, a gaggle of Berber grandmothers, perhaps great-grandmothers, lean over each other's shoulders, whispering secrets and giggling like little girls. A wheelbarrow rushes past, the young boy inside it squealing and screaming as his brother careers out of control towards a knot of policemen. The kids are hounded away, and the scabrous beggar reappears, this time hopping and skipping in barefoot circles around the square.
A group of elderly shopkeepers, usually either greatly respected or envied, huddle in the shade of a nearby olive tree. Beside them stand two men wearing burgundy-red fezzes (tarboush), the brimless felten hats said to have originated in the erstwhile capital of Morocco. The hats became all the rage a few decades ago, as a symbol of nationalist pride both during and after the Franco-Spanish protectorate, but are now an increasingly rare sight in a country where woolly hats and Western clothes have found greater favour. Among the young, especially, it is 'cool' to be seen to be Western. Schoolchildren with outsize notebooks and folders saunter by in a colourful display of brand names: Levi's, Reebok, Blue Mag, Patrol, Zico... One guy, with assiduously trimmed designer stubble and brilliantined hair, struts about aimlessly in cowboy boots and Spanish jeans, expecting, I suppose, the young Spanish señoritas to fall for his rather dubious charms.
The European influence also makes for some comical sights. I once saw an elderly and rather portly Berber woman stride purposefully past the café, her breasts heaving like an ocean swell. She wore a baby boy tied to her back, and a T-shirt with fluorescent green and orange lettering that blared: 'Big Rock Candy Mountain'!
* * *
The smell of harira and baisa drifts temptingly across from the restaurant next door. Harira is a cheap and simple soup made from chick peas, noodles, tomatoes and almost anything else at hand. Countless variations of it exist throughout Morocco, and there is much disagreement over which recipe is best. Baisa, on the other hand, is widely considered a Chefchaoueni speciality, and is popular among Berbers as the day's first repast. It is a thick, pea green soup made from dried ful (fava or lima beans), garlic and pepper, garnished with olive oil and sun-dried red chillies, and served with a generous hunk of bread. I order one to go with my coffee, very sweet and milky. As elsewhere in the world, coffee is drunk only in the morning. Thereafter, it's interminable glasses of ubiquitous mint tea, served in tumblers full of fresh spearmint and seasonal orange blossom. Later, towards midday, comes the lingering aroma of wood smoke and of the day's first tajines: a thousand different ways of combining vegetables with meat or fish in an earthenware pot of the same name. A particularly exquisite local variant contains red mullet, onions, garlic, butter, lashings of olive oil, ful, raisins, saffron and lavender, roasted for an hour in a baker's pinewood oven.
By mid morning, both the pulse and the heat have increased considerably, and so I move inside. The interior of the Café Djibli (the 'Mountain Man') is a charmingly decrepit kind of place, seemingly always only one step away from anarchy. Yet, somehow, it manages to exude a remarkable atmosphere of calm and cordiality, despite the often evil stench from the toilet. At the top of a steep flight of stairs, I find myself in the passageway between the bar on the right and the saloon on the left. Its rickety chairs and tables are bent and shattered from past debacles, and have a painful tendancy to collapse when used.
From the ceiling hang spinning columns of flies, to which no one except myself ever paid the slightest attention. The straw-coloured paint was flaking off the walls, in parts revealing cooler shades of turquoise and blue, and at the far end of the room, under the obligatory (if crooked) portrait of King Hassan II (mid-1970s version in military uniform, severe sideburns and square-rimmed shades) was the television. It was covered, like a parrot cage, with an orange tea towel the football was not until tomorrow. The bar itself was cluttered with empty glasses and trays. There were three bottles of fruit syrup, two large tins of Nescafé, and one of Lipton Yellow Label tea, as well as the usual bottles of fizz. No alcohol, of course: 'an abomination of Satan's handiwork', although this didn't seem to bother the large number of Berbers I met who were more or less constantly pissed on cheap wine and duty-free whisky cadged from tourists. Perhaps this seemingly irreligious behaviour owes something to the Qur'an's delightful descriptions of the gardens of Paradise, where the thirst of Allah's true servants 'shall be slaked with Pure Wine sealed [with] musk' that will neither dull the senses nor befuddle them. It seems as though many of Chefchaouen's inhabitants simply cannot wait patiently enough for death and the promised Elysium!
The mottled-orange tiled balcony betrays better than anything else the not-so-secret vices of the café and its regulars: rotting tarot cards, shattered bottles of vodka and whisky, dozens of crumpled cigarette cartons, and torn pieces of blue and yellow cellophane in which kif and hashish is kept.
About two dozen men are sitting around, variously engrossed in games of dominoes, cards, and a complicated version of pachisi. Above their heads, and mingled with the flies, hangs a blue cloud of kif smoke. The café is popular, and by midday it's packed to the rafters. Constant animation - voices overlapping like syrup, laughing, shouting, gesticulating. 'Hey!' exclaimed the young cook from the eat house downstairs. 'De hiss hiss de happee hippee house, yess?'
I greeted my new acquaintances - Abdsalam, Saïd, Abdul Latiff and Mohamed - and joined them in a game of cards. The cheating was incredible, and we enjoyed ourselves like children ('Please, it is not cheating,' explained Abdsalam, 'but a show of great skill!') Abdsalam was 38. He was a disarmingly polite and gentlemanly hashish dealer with six teeth and a penchant for Aristotle and Shakespeare. He wanted his remaining teeth pulled out because presently he was unable to eat his beloved sweets for all the pain they caused. Abdsalam was tall, lanky, and wore a red and black woollen cap over his rapidly disappearing hair, which he shaved off every six months regardless. Once married to an Englishwoman named Diana, or so he said, he had spent the best part of the 1970s working as a translator for the Moroccan embassy in Somalia, and in consequence had acquired the grandiose nickname of The Professor. He now divided his time between Chefchaouen and a small Mediterranean fishing village at the mouth of the River Laou, dabbling in big-time hash smuggling and the small-time importation of blue movies.
Over often intense games of dominoes, Abdsalam liked to regale us with improbable stories. He was also an incurable snob. Said he with astonishment of a group of German tourists the year before last: 'And they did not even have the money for fifty kilos!' He quickly added, in case I doubted: 'It was good quality too, ah yes, you know me Jens.'
I never quite managed to understand Abdsalam, for, in spite of a rigid streak of rationality, he was also, like many Berbers, a bit of dreamer. This year, as every other, he was hoping for the Big One, about half a ton or thereabouts, so that he could rebuild his family's mountain cottage and retire in style. At heart, I think, Abdsalam was soft and quite unabashedly romantic. He enjoyed long, rambling walks in the flower strewn countryside; he talked fondly of love's mysterious wiles in the manner that a teenager might; and he had much fun poked at him because he fed the wiry stray cats that dwelt in the Kasbah, something for which, Abdsalam knew very well, Sufi saints were renowned.
Saïd was the oldest of the group, a small Djibli in his mid-forties, although his burnished, leathery face added at least another twenty years to his appearance. Saïd was the undisputed joker of the pack, a born clown, and never did I see him with anything other than a cheerful grin stretched wide across his face. With his jug ears, lopsided nose, bristly tufts of hair and gold-capped teeth, he made everyone smile regardless of what he did. He lived up in the mountains with his second wife and their three children, and was employed in the manufacture of septic tanks on behalf of the government. Saïd was simple in the best way - uncomplicated, unfailingly friendly, and unswervingly pious. For instance, when not working he dressed in jeans and trainers, but still attended the prescribed five daily prayers at the Grand Mosque. For me, Saïd's most endearing feature was his laugh, the most infectious I had ever heard, and one that burst out at even the very slightest provocation. Starting with a tremulous and braying eeéé-eeeéé, within seconds he was off on an unstoppable sequence of high pitched wheezes and drawn-out neighs that only ended a few minutes later with Saïd practically rolling around on the floor in fits and convulsions, his face sodden with tears.
Abdul Latiff was the chief offender as regarded starting Saïd on his roller-coaster rides. He was a heavily bearded Flemish-looking man, broad-faced and quite possibly of Spanish origin, who with his spectacles could easily have fitted the parts of either a scholarly headmaster or a wind-hardened trawlerman. In fact, he ran a French-style restaurant near the Parador Hotel, and prided himself on shark trophies that he himself caught and then sold to tourists. He was fluent in seven languages, all self-taught. The other three - Mandarin Chinese, Slovak and Czech - were, he admitted with disarming modesty, a little rusty. Like the others, he was an incessant smoker of kif.
The youngest of the four - a Djibli in his early twenties, and in a sense the protégé of the group - called himself 'Mohamed Cinque' after the widely revered 'father' of modern day Morocco (and one time enemy of the Riffian Berbers), the 23rd Alaouite Sultan, King Muhammad V. Mohamed Cinque had brown eyes that were soft and sleepless and, like Saïd, wore a lugubrious grin that seemed never to leave his face. His hair was a tangle that sprayed out wildly from his scalp, as though each and every strand were trying to find a direction unique to itself. Mohamed's habit was to walk, sometimes for days on end, in aimless agitation across and around the peaks and rivers and gullies of this rebellious land. It is perhaps no irony that, given the persecution that the Sultan inflicted on the Berbers, Mohamed Cinque was mad. He talked incessantly both to furniture and himself, in a mixture of French and Djibála dialect, and even had official documents to certify his insanity. These were in effect waivers anticipating any petty crimes he might commit in his madness, were he that way inclined (which he wasn't - he was merely mildly schizophrenic). I admired Mohamed in the way that any other nineteen-year-old admires a gentle, smiling lunatic.
During a lull in the game, the conversation momentarily paused, Abdsalam let loose a sudden volley of violent and exaggerated gestures, amounting to a convoluted insult along the lines of Saïd's family once having bred monkeys for a living. The punch line was: 'And now look at him since they planted kif!' Everyone roared with laughter. Humour is notoriously difficult to translate, but for what it's worth, the implication of the jibe was twofold. Firstly, the fact that many Djibála did indeed once breed monkeys for a living has given rise to interminable insinuations about buggery, ape-like wives, baboons of ancestors, and the like. The second implication, from the Holy Qur'an, plays on the first: 'Be ye apes,' it says of infidels, 'Despised and rejected.' The joke was old, but no matter - the Djibála, whose Arabic is cursed with a strong accent, have always been the butt of the townspeople's jokes, who consider mountain Berbers both ingenuous and stupid, rather like the English consider the proverbial Irish.
Although the humour is barbed, and certainly childish, there is ample room for revenge. After some thought, Saïd retaliated by accusing the townspeople and Abdsalam himself of not even being able to differentiate hashish from henna (a common enough ruse for the hippies), nor, for that matter, between runner beans and pea pods. Again, there was laughter, before Abdsalam interjected by recalling that the gates of Chefchaouen were until recently closed at sunset in order to keep the Berber 'apes' out of town. But the hilarity was again cut short when Saïd pointed out that Abdsalam himself was half-Djibli, and so the tables were turned. The ribaldry, no matter how offensive, was nearly always taken in good humour, because sooner or later everybody got humiliated and so the scores remained kif-kif, level.
Saïd eventually left us for the third prayer of the day, al-Asr. It was four o'clock, and a few minutes later el-Haloof arrived, a bulky German attired in an off-white jellaba and yellow leather slippers. Wolfgang Schwein first arrived in Morocco three-and-a-half years ago, learned to speak Arabic and was given the nickname halouf, meaning wild pig (schwein being German for swine). He'd moved to Chefchaouen the previous autumn after having been kicked out of the small mountain village that he'd adopted. Some problem with the local drugs mafia, or so everyone else said. He made his living by ripping-off, and occasionally threatening, German tourists in need of the odd kilo of dope. Because of his name, he suffered much the same kind of taunts as the Djibála, for in Islam, as in Judaism, swine along with apes are considered unclean: 'Those who incurred the curse of God and His wrath... He transformed into apes and swine'. Yet el-Haloof himself was indisputably bigoted, oddly enough not only against Jews but Arabs as well (and as he was rather large of frame, few cared to argue). Myself he disliked intensely on account of my Semitic nose. His racism, I guess, was his idea of fitting in with his own stereotype of Arab behaviour. It reflects well on the open-mindedness of the Riffian Berbers that el-Haloof was the only man in this region I was ever to hear publicly mouthing-off anti-Semitic sentiments.
Every so often, a young garro would make the rounds of the café with a box of duty-free Marlboro or Winston cigarettes, selling them as singles together with rolling papers at a dirham each to make joints. The extent to which the use of marijuana is an accepted feature of Riffian life was, to me at least, astounding. Until, that is, I learned that, by one theory, the Rif has lent its name to one of America's more popular terms for a joint, a reefer. Like alcohol in the West, the uses of marijuana are many and varied, and in my experience I guess that over half Chefchaouen's inhabitants use dope regularly, women included. Cannabis is a drug that cuts right across the social spectrum: cultivators, labourers and students, soldiers, policemen and even town governors. The only distinction is that of age. Older people tend to smoke kif - finely-chopped sun-dried marijuana mixed with a little black tobacco, which has a pleasantly sweet taste and an effect aptly described by its name, which derives from the Arabic for pleasure, kayf. The younger generations, on the other hand, prefer hashish, the stronger resin of cannabis (hence the Arabic term hacheichi for 'dope fiend', which gives us the word 'assassin').
Although the possession of dope is theoretically illegal, in practice it is a very different matter. Along with caffeine, marijuana is one of the few stimulants not expressly forbidden by the Qur'an. Coffee, it is argued, is anti-soporific and therefore helpful to nocturnal devotions, while the mind-expanding effects of cannabis are ideal for the mystical brand of Islamic Sufism preferred by the Berbers (especially given the interdiction on alcohol). The Riffians themselves claim the right to cultivate and use cannabis from the fourteenth-century Black Sultan and fellow hacheichi, Abu'l Hasan, and until recently a Spanish fiat of 1921 authorising the cultivation of Cannabis sativa could be seen on a roadside plaque near Ketama - a town one hundred kilometres east of Chefchaouen and notorious for its drug mafiosi.
Unfortunately, the well-documented state of paranoia that cannabis intoxication induces in some people remains, lurking just beneath the superficies of carefree hedonism. An example: one evening, whilst playing dominoes with Abdsalam, a gendarme strode briskly into the café, evidently - judging from his haste and po-faced expression - still on duty. Abdsalam, who for some reason found himself in the possession of half a kilo of prime resin, became nervously distracted and turned a noticeably pale shade of grey. I looked around, to see that a lot of other people too had whitened somewhat, and several smouldering joints were held trembling under the tables. After a few anxious moments, there was a short scuffle, and then a few shouts, before the suspected thief was bundled out into the night. The relief that followed was almost tangible, as a dozen sibsis were hurriedly filled to calm the nerves.
* * *
I was staying at the Pension Kasbah, a short stone's throw from the café, and what travel guides might refer to as 'cheap and cheerful'. Beside the de rigueur population of fleas and cockroaches, its guests were, with very few exceptions, Berber farmers or Arab merchants from afar, which made for much more entertaining encounters than in touristic establishments. As the only European resident at the Kasbah, I was subjected to the greatest curiosity, which on two occasions spawned blunt requests to see whether my penis really had been left as nature intended...
In the 1930s, the hotel was used both as an illegal gambling joint and as an artists' hang out, a place where singers, poets, musicians and other degenerates could meet to drink, smoke, and of course dance, alongside two resident whores who doubled as belly dancers. Chefchaouen has long been known for its hedonism. At wedding celebrations in the town's heyday, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not only topless belly dancers but equally lascivious male zefen dancers would entertain the guests to the joyful strains of Andalusian string orchestras, in addition to a copious supply of wine (not that much has changed in this respect). In more recent times, the town has cultivated musicians in addition to kif, most notably Fatah, a slave's son whose music reflects the pounding rhythms of West Africa, and Rouicha Mohamed, whose traditional whirling trance music, much liked by teenage girls, I was to hear along the length and breadth of the kingdom.
Hakim, the defiantly effeminate concierge, was himself a singer (falsetto) and dreamed of learning flamenco in the famous old school of Córdoba. A slight figure, with pale waxy skin and wavy hennaed hair, he appeared to be not a day over fifteen, despite sharing his age with Abdsalam. He sank an astonishing amount of whisky, or matarata ("rat killer" in Spanish) as he preferred to call it, averaging a bottle every other day. In between, presumably to blot out any gaps of horrifying sobriety, he indulged a penchant for boiled opium poppy heads. Papaver somniferum brings nausea, oblivion, and perverse nightmares, and, astonishingly, is still used by mothers to sedate their too-mischievous children...
More astounding still was that Hakim never went out in public without wearing full make-up: Clinique foundation and cherryade lipstick given him by an English guest, authentic mascara from Algeria, kohl, blusher and nail varnish. And just in case one still doubted his sexuality, he would openly flaunt it by wearing bi-coloured baboush slippers in yellow and red, since men traditionally wear the former, and women the latter. On one particularly hungover morning, Hakim confided that what he really wanted to do in Spain, apart from learning flamenco, was to have a sex change ('a critical operation' he said). When I asked why, he sighed and confessed: 'Because it hurts so much.'
I couldn't help feeling sorry for Hakim, and yet, although certainly not a braggart, when I pressed him he claimed to have bedded precisely 238 lovers (a statement that followed his reeling back in horror when I suggested that women might not be so bad after all!). It was a claim which Hakim proudly substantiated by producing an immaculately kept list, going back over twenty years, detailing names, dates, places, nationalities, and marks out of forty! Unsurprisingly, Hakim was rather well known in Chefchaouen, and called Mimi by the not-so-kind, a taunt to which he responded with suitable displays of tittering, meowing and otherwise coquettish mincing. Sometimes, he would wake me up in the middle of the night with a gentle tap-tapping on my door and then, incredibly, a verse from some Arabic serenade complete with drunken nasal whines, gob-stopping inflexions and ear-piercing yowls. 'Yensh, you shtill awek?' he would slur solicitously through the keyhole...
Unfortunately for Hakim, even were I that way inclined, I doubt that I'd consider the prospect of becoming number 239 as that much of a compliment. William S. Burroughs would have had no such qualms in the crazy International Zone of pre-independence Tangier, the 'Interzone' where 'The days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood.' The self-appointed father of the Beatnik Generation, Burroughs, too, was homosexual and hooked: 'a grey, junk-bound ghost'. To pay for his 'little chickens', as he called his Moroccan lovers, Burroughs had $200 wired to him every month from the States. In 1959, the year he completed Naked Lunch, a gay junkie spelled money, and so it seems that he was tolerated. Hakim, for his part, believed that his sexuality had to be tolerated because his late father had been town governor and Hakim, therefore, had access to all the official papers and documents relating to the more sordid secrets of Chefchaouen's outwardly respectful inhabitants.
The Pension Kasbah has two floors. The upper is a gloomy balcony opening onto a dozen cell-like rooms. Its tiles were strewn with blackened roaches and small pellets of ash from kif pipes, and rancid smoke lingered on the ceiling. I had room number eight, far enough from the toilet to avoid the worst of its stench. Measuring precisely 6.5 by 6.5 feet, there was only just enough room for the mouldy bed and the empty carcass of a three-legged imitation Louis XVI dressing table. The window - barely wider than my forearm - had fallen off its hinges and was kept under the bed for fleas and cockroaches to congregate under. The door, equipped with a doll's house padlock and two nail coat hangers, had, like the walls, been painted a shade of turquoise so shocking that I could only bear to live in the room at night.
Yet, after a few days, I was surprised to find myself actually beginning to like the room, despite the cockroaches, mosquitoes and innumerable bed bugs. It began to take on an odd kind of charm, a little, I suppose, like that which oozes from flabby old faces smeared hopefully with cheap make-up and even cheaper perfume. As a lady, the Pension Kasbah would, in her time, have been the greatest slut around. The stern-faced gentleman who had reluctantly shown me to the hotel (I had asked for somewhere cheap) had clicked his tongue and shaken his head in disapproval, and had then warned me to always be on my guard.
At times, I found it easy to picture scenes from room number eight in times gone by. Let us imagine the gloomy flickering of a shaded oil lamp placed on a low square table, over which a couple of shadowy figures crouch, fingers bristling, furtive stickleback card sharps turning eager tricks in the lingering soupy-sweet smoke of exhausted pipes and fumes. There is silence, of course, but for the cards and die striking the wooden skirt of the green baize table, on which someone has placed a half-drunk bottle of rot-gut wine... Or perhaps one should add another lamp, take away the table, and fill the room with sumptuous velvet wall hangings, cushions, pillows and rugs. There are a dozen grime besmeared bottles, some on their sides, that earlier contained ashashin, the evil black juice of which Hakim was so fond. There are perhaps six or seven people in all - including one of the belly dancers - all reclined, all in various inebriated states of undress and incoherent vapidity...
Another possibility was inadvertently suggested by Hakim, who recounted that the hotel - so unassuming from the outside - had for a long time played host to the mysterious and ill-reputed toq-toqa, a dance intended exclusively for complaisant young boys. They were often waifs, orphans, or even slaves, whose primary function was first to tease and then to accept all offers (for a fee). The Djibála, indeed, have a particular and peculiarly open tradition of homosexuality, which was once so unashamedly public as to permit the holding of weekly auctions of boys in the Place Uta el-Hammam. This seditious event survived until 1937, when it was banned by the Spanish authorities. As to why the Spanish took twelve years to do so is anyone's guess. But the thought of the toq-toqa, and therefore of what my bed must once have been used for, quickly put an end to my train of imaginings.
Glancing briefly around the hotel, it was obvious to anyone that fate had caught up with the Pension Kasbah. Downstairs, the only reminder of days gone by were the few remaining panels of Turkish wall hangings, threadbare, but beautiful all the same. Apart from these, there was a broken and dusty television, some odd pieces of furniture, and a couple of glazed pottery fish nailed to pillars. Time, too, had caught up with the proprietor, a Mr Salah M'baz, who, at somewhere between eighty and ninety years-old, suffered from blindness and an uncontrollable gangrene that disfigured much of his legs. Hakim informed me that he also had a brain tumour, and that he was slowly becoming senile as a result. To illustrate: one day, I was surprised to see Mr M'baz at the post office in the town's Spanish-built quarter, sat against a wall with his hand twisted into a cup. As far as I knew, he had no need to beg at all.
Mr M'baz slept downstairs on an old green sofa, and had taken to shouting out verses from the Qur'an in his slumber.
* * *
The moon was a fat grinning almond that shone brightly through the latticework screen of room number eight, starkly silhouetting its bronze spiral motifs against the sulphurous yellow of the bed.
I was woken just before four o'clock by a most incredible sound. A painful, almost mournful sound. A song full of heavy-hearted sorrows, yet full of deliciously unexpected turns of phrase.
The muezzin's lone call to prayer from the minaret of the Grand Mosque slices the silence with a force so controlled, so resonant, and yet with such growling insistence, that one cannot fail to be startled on hearing it. The first line of the call is followed by a fragile silence, still whispering the last echoes of the phrase. Then the silence is suspended once more, this time by the muezzin of another mosque, following on the lead of the first, repeating the phrase in a higher, more distant voice, adding a surreal depth and sense of the timeless to the atmosphere. But before he has had time to complete the sentence, the first muezzin begins his second phrase, and the voices harmonise briefly, wrapped and intermingled, before separating to continue once more along their solo paths. Thus the song progresses: first a phrase, then momentary silence, then an answer, harmony, and Siamese phrases, then silence again, and all the time the words echo just once in the mountains above. Slowly, imperceptibly, the tempo increases and the silences grow shorter as other muezzins join in the dawn chorus, and within minutes I am always captured by the singular beauty of this crepuscular song.
It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, and black prayer flags were fluttering from the minarets. Apparently, the flags are a tradition that dates back to the rowdier days of the Andalusian return, a time when people would be so drunk from the week's revelry that they needed reminding of this, their holy day. In effect, the first few phrases of the Friday morning call to prayer finish with a pleading: 'Come to prayer, come to security ... Prayer is better than sleep.' Friday is a day of piety and reflection, a boon for the beggars, and a day on which people will often visit the graves of their dead. Friday is also the occasion for wearing one's best clothes: pristine cream or white jellabas for the men, and the brightest and most joyful of kaftans for the women. Friday is the day when one can see old men with sticks and loosely tied turbans, their fluffy white beards brushed straight like cotton flax, shuffling up the steps that lead into the mosque.
Morning passed by quickly over tea and coffee with Abdsalam, who was eagerly recounting his numerous and invariably fruitless amorous escapades, as well as his equally fraught dope-running adventures. There was that starlit trek in the Rif a few years back, dogged by that idiotic Dutch hippie who'd persisted in using flashlights in range of army checkpoints, and then the supposedly reliable contact who disappeared with the whole caboodle. Then there was the story of the dinghies, one of which was at the bottom of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the other that had floated aimlessly after a drunken diversion had used up all the gas. I was also told the tale of the one-hundred-thousand-peseta bribe that a Spanish customs official had accepted on the beach at Ceuta.
Abdsalam talked candidly, if not always convincingly, of how easy and lucrative it was to smuggle cannabis into Europe, and I sensed that he was keeping half a weather eye (and ear) trained firmly on me. But I had other plans - I had decided, for a reason that I have still fully to comprehend, to try and cycle into the Sahara.
We often spent our mornings in the serene calm of the Kasbah gardens, along with a painter called Mohamed. Married, with nine children (number ten on the way), and particularly fond of gin and Cuban cigars, Mohamed kept a mistress that everyone (including his wife) knew all about. At present he was busy painting a long cloth banner for the local council. It read: 'Pay attention! Be careful when you drive!' Mohamed then spent the next ten minutes running around the gardens shouting 'Toot toot! Vroom vroom!', much to the consternation of the tourists that were being taken on a guided tour of the Kasbah.
Mohamed's latest oeuvres d'art were out to dry: rather average watercolours that were nonetheless popular with the tourists, as well as the resident one-eyed ginger tom, who always made a point of urinating on them! What Mohamed didn't realise was that the greatest work of all was his petal-dusted pallette, awash with so many colours that it looked as though a rainforest had melted over it. At this time of year, the Kasbah gardens, too, were a riot of colour: sunburst marguerites, marigolds, tea and damask roses, weeping willows, a couple of ivy-wreathed date palms, orange and cherry trees, olives and figs... There were buttercups and lilies, nettles, pansies, primroses, violets, and gaudy clusters of geraniums. There was also a large datura tree with long fluted red and yellow flowers. The Arabs call it rhaïta, from the shape of its flowers which resemble a droning oboe of the same name. If eaten, it is said that the flowers can kill a donkey or else drive a man mad. Indeed, the slipping of rhaïta flowers into the food or drink of one's 'friends' is a not uncommon practical joke, and has the effect of reducing the victim to a semi-vegetative state of temporary paralysis. Some joke.
The gardener in charge of the Kasbah, like so many others in Chefchaouen, was also slightly mad. In the gardens, he grew poppies which he jealously guarded for their opium, and sometimes, when pushed, liked to prove his machismo by munching rhaïta petals. Last year, however, his machismo was somewhat dented by an unforeseen infestation of rats in his palm trees - even in the very highest fronds - and people still reminisced with much mirth about the invasion. So, in order to pre-empt this year's strike, the gardener had borrowed his son's catapult, which he used in the meantime to bag braces of pigeons for making b'stilla - a pie with a millefeuille pastry crust (or, to be pedantic, cent-quatre-feuille).
This Friday, a small group of us spent a hilarious morning with a cheerful and completely toothless old man called Mustafa Aziat, who was seventy-one years young. He wore a magenta fez and drank litre bottles of Gin Clipper. On this occasion, he was pissed as a newt, and had just returned from an early morning visit to the hillside tomb of the saint Sidi Abdallah Habti. In the hand not carrying his bottle he held a large, battered and extremely out of tune 'ud (or 'aoud), an eleven-stringed lute, with which he proceeded to howl the more scurrilous verses of the Qur'an whilst gleefully rolling his eyes and licking his lips. Another half bottle later, Mustafa was happily defiling and blaspheming otherwise solemn funerary dirges, yelling as loudly as his voice would allow as he thumped mercilessly and equally tunelessly on his instrument.
Contrary to appearances, I do not think that Mustafa had intended any disrespect with his gin-besotted visit to the holy mausoleum of the saint, nor by the ribaldry in the Kasbah that followed. In fact, his physical and mental state was, if anything, admirably suited to the brand of Islamic Sufism that is prevalent among Maghrebi Berbers. To explain this, one must go back to the centuries immediately following the Prophet Muhammad's death, a time of great religious and military expansion. It was in the wake of the first Arab invasions of Northwest Africa, in the seventh and eighth centuries, that Islam was first brought to Morocco. The Berbers, who had populated this region possibly several millennia before the Arabs arrived, had every reason to reject the doctrine of these unwanted visitors. Nonetheless, they embraced the new religion with open arms, for they found in it many elements that were common to their own thinking (the belief in a single god, for example). But rather than adapt themselves to the new religion, the Berbers in typical fashion adapted the religion to suit their existing needs. As a result, to this day Islam among the Berbers retains a significant element of pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions, combining strands of paganism, animism, and even black magic with the more orthodox teachings of the Qur'an. There is white magic too, in the form of soothsaying witches called chouafa - remarkable old women who can be found at the gates of cemeteries, and who may, on request, mix strange brews and potions with which to exorcise demons or else embellish one's unhappy love life!
The tradition of both black and white magic is so common as to be tacitly acknowledged by the state, for the national flag depicts a pentagram, a symbol used since the very earliest times as an emblem of magic and mystical spirituality. The three things that the Sufis hold in the highest regard are ecstasy (jadhba), travel [along the Path] (soluk), and gnostic ascent ('oruj). The element that all three qualities have in common is the piety of the individual, and his or her ability to determine what is and what is not to be done. Sufism is much more of a personal creed than the rigid and sometimes alienating populism that orthodox Islam can be, and therein lies another clue as to how the Berbers were able to accept the new religion. It is one's personal belief in Allah, much more than the rituals associated with established religion, that reigns paramount for Sufis. So, for example, there are many Berbers I met who, despite professing to be deeply religious, failed even to undergo the prescribed five daily supplications. Even Abdsalam - who used to drink, who smokes pot, commits adultery, does not comply with the daily prayers, and eats pork - was able, quite sincerely, to consider himself a good Muslim.
To the foreign traveller like me, Sufism is most visible in the cult of saintly marabouts - the tombs of which (numbering hundreds, if not thousands) are found throughout the kingdom. The marabouts were mendicant preachers in times now past; religious ascetics who, like St Francis of Assisi, won the respect and veneration of the people through their uncommon piety, or a rare ability to perform miracles. Many marabouts founded religious orders or brotherhoods, and in time came to be revered as saints. Even nowadays, their tombs remain the focus for annual moussem fairs, and are places of pilgrimage where, despite grumbling disapproval from the more orthodox urban mosques, the intercession of the dead saint, or his baraka (divine blessing), may be obtained to solve personal problems.
It was odd for me, coming from a continent where magic and spirits now reside only in cinema and fairy tales, to realise that throughout Morocco, indeed Africa, the existence of otherworldly spirits is widely believed in, and even in the more sceptical of minds, disbelief is tempered by a residual baggage of wary superstition. The spirits are called djinn - normally invisible presences that can, on occasion, assume human or animal forms, or appear as voices to influence people with their supernatural powers. Djinn (hence the English words 'genie' and 'genius') are found everywhere: in rushing cascades, gloomy copses, caves, mountains, plains, deserts... If needed, they can be prayed to, or else kept at bay with talismans and charms like the Hand of Fatima.
One of the more colourful and avidly followed creeds of Sufism is jadhba - or ecstasy, involving the renunciation of the material world and the embracing of the purely spiritual. In a temporary form, this involves the extinction of the individual consciousness, and hence the ecstatic union with Allah. This exalted state of transcendence is called Fana ('annihilation'). It is not difficult to see how alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs can aid one in this quest. Other, rather less orthodox, stimulants once used to attain Fana include flagellation, hyperventilation, and even eating live scorpions or the vomit of holy men! Severe dizziness and self-hypnosis have much the same effect, the most famous example being the Mevlana of Persia - Jalal al-Din al-Rumi's order of 'whirling dervishes' who attain communion with Allah through spinning dancing. Similarly, the 'howling dervishes' attain fleeting nirvana through the pain of gashing themselves with knives. The fakirs that one sometimes sees in European cities, owe their art and their roots to these Sufi traditions. Walter Harris, a correspondent for The Times who visited Morocco around the turn of the century, mentioned seeing a snake charmer who, on having first shaken and grunted himself into a religious frenzy, proceeded to allow the serpent to sink its fangs into his tongue, so that he would then parade around with the beast suspended from his mouth, seemingly feeling no pain.
One of the most remarkable manifestations of this kind of mystical Sufism takes place in Marrakesh's celebrated Djemâa el-Fna square. It is a chaotic and much-loved stage for musicians, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, snake charmers, quack doctors, dentists, beggars, peddlers, hustlers, hash vendors, and other peripherals. In the scant shade afforded by the few palm trees that line the northern edge of the square, and in view of the ice-capped High Atlas, sits an old man who spends his days beside a Persian narghili water pipe. He is a bouhelli - a long-haired drinker or smoker. Throughout the day, from dawn to dusk, friends and customers alike come to sit with him to partake of the cool blue smoke of the pipe, and the cool blue rhythms of the ganga drums and haejuj bass lute belonging to a band of folkloric musicians installed in the café next door. The musicians are members of the Gnawa, a clan of Negro griots originally from Guinea (griots are itinerant singers; guardians of tradition, family histories, fables and genealogies). The Gnawa are a remnant of a Sufi tradition that revered saints capable of inducing trances. Claiming spiritual descent from Bilal, the Prophet Muhammad's first muezzin, they are also known as the Demon Dancers. For an hour or so, the bouhelli's visitors sit, stare, listen and dream, intoxicated by the entrancing beauty of the duet between the drums of the earth and the lutes of the sky...
This, announced Abdsalam, was the closest he'd ever got to attaining Fana.
* * *
I left Mustafa, Abdsalam and the others early in the afternoon, in order to climb up to the hilltop ruins of a nearby mosque, passing en route the rushing cascades of Ras el-Ma, the Head of Water. Standing on top of the crumbling minaret, it was easy to see how Chefchaouen had for so long withstood military attack and attempts at occupation. Indeed, it took the Spanish a full seven years to subdue the paltry forty miles between the town of Tetouan and Chefchaouen, and even then they were expelled in 1924, to the cost of over ten thousand dead and wounded. The leader of the rebels was Abd el-Krim, the 'Wolf of the Rif' and now a national hero, whose force of irregulars succeeded for over a year in keeping the might of the Spanish army at bay.
This fierce determination to remain independent was nothing new. For over four thousand years, or at least since recorded times began, the Berbers have carried from one generation to the next their ancestors' fearsome reputations for rebellion, for freedom of thought and expression, for stubbornness, and (less commendably, perhaps) xenophobia. A reflection of their staunch pride was that, until only recently, the Berbers liked to call themselves Imazighen - the noble or free ones - and the lands that they occupied in the Rif, Atlas and Sahara, were known to Moroccans and Europeans alike as the Bled es-Siba, the Lands of Dissidence. Even the Romans, whose military might crushed all resistance in Europe and elsewhere in North Africa, were unable to exert even nominal control over the Rif. Rome's only lasting legacy in these parts was the name that it gave to its unruly inhabitants: Barbarians, whence Berbers. According to some lexicographers, the Romans borrowed the word from the Arabic barbara, meaning to talk noisily and confusedly, and, quite possibly therefore, impertinently.
In Chefchaouen itself, the rude Berber pride finds expression in even the youngest of children who, when barely able to walk, will already have acquired the habit of hurling rocks and stones at the white faced Europeans, to taunts of 'N'srani! N'srani!' - Nazarene! Nazarene! The Berbers' hatred of Christians is a relic of a time, not so long ago, when we Europeans considered it our duty and mission to 'civilise' the world. In Chefchaouen, the effects of this arrogance were such that, until 1920, only three Christians had dared visit the town. The celebrated French explorer and missionary, Vicomte Charles Eugène de Foucauld, became the first in 1883, but spent only an hour in the town dressed as a rabbi (a perfect example, incidentally, of the tolerance shown by Moroccan Muslims towards their Jewish counterparts, perhaps because both groups had suffered equally at the hands of Iberian Catholic intolerance). The second Christian to set foot in Chefchaouen was Walter Harris who, in 1888, narrowly escaped discovery by entering the town disguised as a Moorish merchant, and by leaving it as a vagabond. In The Land of an African Sultan, Harris described his impulse for visiting the town thus:
I do not know whether it was merely from love of adventure, or from curiosity to see a place that, as far as is known, has been only once before looked upon by Christian eyes, that I made up my mind to attempt to reach Sheshouan, a fanatical Berber city... the very fact that there existed within thirty hours' ride of Tangier a city into which it was considered an utter impossibility for a Christian to enter.
The dangers of not going disguised were well illustrated by the third N'srani to visit the city, an unfortunate American named William Summers, who was poisoned here in 1892 and died a few years later from the lingering effects.
As I stood atop the ruined mosque, my face blistered from the wind and my eyes feasting on the sheer beauty of the panorama, it struck me that it would be reason enough to fight merely for the awesome beauty of these mountains. Although this may sound a little odd to us Europeans more used to living in towns and cities, the Berbers have little difficulty in understanding love for land itself (as opposed to land as a symbol, whether of race or religion). It seems to me that the soul of the Berber, like that of all Africans, is inextricably entwined with the soul of the soil. It is a symbiosis that we Europeans have all but lost. I think it is also fair to say that the fierce pride of the Berbers is quite simply a natural pride. So, when the Berbers, and especially the Djibála, seem to appear cowed, indifferent or ingenuous, the simple fact is that they do not care so long as the matter in hand does not impinge upon their pride. Even physical occupation by a foreign army (for instance, the Spanish) can reasonably be tolerated, so long as it does not threaten the sanctity of the individual. It is through the independence of mind of every man and every woman that the Berbers have survived, for the essence of the Berber 'race' is individuality, and is thus indestructible. So, when the Arab townsman jokes unkindly about the Djibála hillbilly, it is not without a certain wary respect, the same respect shown by one taunting a vicious but caged wild animal, a beast that may yet one day break free to wreak revenge on its former tormentors.
Indeed, whenever the Berbers have felt too much pressure coming from outside, they have invariably rebelled, and have invariably kept intact their all-important identity and pride. Even the Spanish, who succeeded for a few decades in establishing a nominal protectorate over the Rif, were faced with constant harassment. The only difference between the Spanish and the Portuguese was that the former showed themselves more tolerant of local mores and sensibilities, to the extent that they even constructed the very mosque that I was standing on; but even this has become a subject of Berber pride. According to the guides, it was ruined by a divine bolt of lightning because it had been built by infidels.
The attitude of the Berbers to their rulers, whoever they are, is succinctly captured in a stern warning engraved on one of the ornamental archways leading into Chefchaouen's medina: If you do not work well for the people, your demise shall be slow and painful.
* * *
One o'clock heralds a chorus of muezzins, calling the faithful to the second prayer of the day, ad-Dohr. From the mountains, one can hear at least six distinct voices, over which the bird song continues regardless. Compared to the twilight call of morning, the four songs that follow are much less meditative and more urgent, and the brief sensation of silence that follows is more impatiently awaited.
Except for the few hours of absolute silence between midnight and the dawn call, there is always music in Chefchaouen. It might be Fayrouz or Farid el-Atrache on a cassette player, or else the insistent yodelling of a lunatic. Whatever, it is rare indeed to hear nothing at all. A couple of youths - regulars in the café - have a green 1970s transistor radio that they spend much of their time hunched over, listening intently to discordant snatches of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix beamed over from Spain. To the foreign ear, music might also simply mean the sound of spoken Arabic itself, which is one of the world's richest and most melodic of languages. It possesses an emotional power that I have not heard equalled, power to such an extent that even a single word can reduce a naughty child to tears. Arabic has everything: coarseness, power, beauty, and the ability to imbue meaning over and above the words themselves with the most delicate (and often imperceptible) turns of inflection or fractional changes in tone. And as a written language, there is nothing to surpass its beauty.
One evening, in the café with the usual crowd, we became aware of a distant and unusual commotion. First, a series of indistinct chants accompanied by slow but unremitting clapping. Then, the nasal drone of rhaïtas and thumping drums, and finally the lighter, snaking strains of pipes and violins a wedding. As the music grew louder, the Place Uta el-Hammam began to fill with people, chattering excitedly. A sudden chorus of welcoming but ear-splittingly shrill ululations from the female retinue announced the arrival of the procession. At its head marched the musicians: three rows of three men, dressed in pale-cream jellabas and plum-red tarboushes. The drummers looked cheerfully around, signalling to friends in the crowd, but the flautists stared dead ahead, oblivious to the hordes of inquisitive onlookers that the spectacle was attracting. The faces of all the families concerned expressed great animation and joy, and there was much shaking of hands and proud smiles. Behind the musicians came the bride, carried aloft by four men in a green 'ameria, a kind of sedan chair gaily decorated with garlands and candles. Tradition dictates the bride be physically carried from her natal home to that of her new husband, symbolising a gift from one family to the other. But her expression, on this happy occasion, would remain forever a mystery, because the 'ameria is designed to shield her from the prying gaze of the crowds. The full pleasure of her supposed virginal beauty is reserved for her husband alone. Others joke bawdily that the sole purpose of the 'ameria is really to disguise the bride's hideousness. At any rate, the once vitally important public display of soiled bed sheets after the consummation is now more likely than not faked with the aid of a liberal sprinkling of chicken or goat's blood.
Later that evening - the sky studded with stars and the moon encircled with two rings of ochre - Mohamed Cinque began drumming quietly on a table. At first, few paid scant attention. Then a little faster he drummed, faster and a little louder, then faster and louder still, until soon everyone had stopped their contests of dominoes and pachisi, and instead listened intently to the drumming. It was a very lonely performance, but full of crazy ideas and rhythms, crazily shuddering rhythms, rhythms of the earth pounding louder and louder above the chatter in the square below. Faster and faster Mohamed drummed until, under the influence of kif and hash, his audience had become totally mesmerised. When, of a sudden, he stopped, one could sense the disappointment hanging thickly in the air, the expectation for more, and the electric mood that had surrounded us all. This was pure jazz, as pure as I'd ever heard. For sure, his tabletop drumming didn't exactly have the range of a saxophone, but it was on a par with Bird's flightiest notions, with the cool serenity of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster, and the sudden, unexpected improvisations of Monk's piano. Mohamed, of course, didn't know, or even less, care.
I was standing at the balcony of the café terrace, staring with Mohamed at the gemstone stars and the green slice of the moon. 'It's a beautiful night,' I said, feeling a little self-conscious. He nodded. It was a beautiful night. And from a distance came joyous shrieks, summoned by the faked evidence of a newly consummated marriage.
* * *
I woke late, feeling dreadful. My face had, for some unknown reason, swollen so much that I looked as though I'd gone through a fist fight. I also discovered that I could swallow with only the greatest difficulty. By midday my tonsils and uvula had ballooned quite visibly, as had the lymph glands under my chin. A swim would be as good a cure as any for whatever it was that I had, I decided, and certainly the walk down the mountain across flower-strewn paths and gushing rivulets was tonic. Better still were the cold waters of the River Laou, a milky blue ribbon that snakes its way through a tangle of trees and shrubs, rock screes and fields of spring wheat. But still my throat hurt, and by the time I'd walked the three miles back to Chaouen, I was feeling faint and nauseous. A visit to the hospital resulted in a double shot of penicillin and a prescription for various antibiotics. These, I swallowed with much pain.
By evening, however, my head was spinning and swimming. I bought some cheese and placated an ugly-looking guide who was frustrated almost to the brink of violence because I still hadn't sought his services. I drank a bowl of harira in a restaurant but my head felt even worse. Then I confused harira with tajine when paying, and stumbled out with a one-eyed weirdo who didn't speak anything but the local Arabic dialect. He was drugged to his eyeballs, and forced into my hand an unwanted pellet of "sputnik" hashish, repeating the word over and over again.
By now my head was too pained to think straight, let alone argue, so foolishly I followed him into the unlit attic of another café, where we ordered tea and cakes.
Much as I tried, I couldn't communicate with him at all, not even in sign language. Slowly, the attic filled up with eight other youths, none of whom I could understand. A couple of them, though, had learned bits of other languages, and although the accents were precise, the phrases were total nonsense: 'Hey sor! I have you wunderbar schön nit grit ober die stab? ... Ja ja! Arabisch betrabisch, you want ex-ski zoom zoom only carpatout, Lon Don yes? ... Aha! Mansches Unit, hey, hey, vous allés très camp, oui?'
I survived two hours of this, eventually resorting to total gibberish myself. My head was spinning more than ever. I said: 'Warum ist die Banane krumm?' (a German rhyme: why is the banana bent?), only krumb means cabbage in Arabic and so someone said 'Good banana cabbage kif-kif, ja ja!' and nobody understood anything at all.
I ordered a freshly squeezed orange juice, but suddenly felt sick again and so cancelled the order and stumbled downstairs to get to the hotel. I recall as I left being told, in perfect French, that my weirdo 'friend' was a psychopathic junkie and that I'd better watch out. Oh yes, they said, I'd better watch out... I turned round to see my 'friend' leaning so close that he was practically breathing down my neck. He said something about zero-zero and so I turned again and in a panic ran back to the hotel, my vision blurring and darkening as I climbed the stairs. The TV sounded distorted and electronic and irregular, although it was only later that I realised that it didn't even work. As I fumbled with the padlock of the bedroom door my vision blacked out completely and the last thing I remember was hearing the tinkling of the key as it fell to the floor.
I came to a few seconds or minutes later, my head throbbing and my ears ringing. I tried to stand up but fell over again, and caught a glimpse as I did so of two strange faces staring at me from another room. Once inside (after a struggle), I threw-up violently, and then found that couldn't even fall asleep for the pain I was having in swallowing my saliva. I was worried and I felt the cold sweat on my back and on my forehead. Next morning I woke to find that my ears were still ringing and my head was still throbbing. I sat up, and was even more shocked to see that the skin all over my body had puffed up and had turned blue and scarlet. It was impossible to eat, even to swallow the pills that had been prescribed. I stumbled back down to the hospital where, slumped beside old Salah M'baz of all people, I waited for the eleven o'clock shift to start.
'Ah, you're allergic to penicillin,' the Chinese doctor informed me, though I'd already guessed that. 'Please, Sir, there is no cause for worriment,' he said, as another prescription was filled to cure the effects of the first, but by this time I'd had enough of the bloody things and threw the form away.
Three days later I began to feel much better, thanks to a diet of locally pressed virgin olive oil, marjoram honey, lemons, half a dozen heads of garlic, and a few raw chillies. 'How's your throat?' people would ask. 'M'zien, alhamdulillah,' I would reply, touching my heart with my right hand: 'Better, Allah be praised.' And they would smile and say, 'Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah.'
* * *
Dawn - the time of day when even an overcast sky appears pregnant with colour and promise. It was raining. Water was trickling from the window sill onto my bed. I could not sleep.
There was a translucent green house gecko stuck on the wall as I turned towards the window. Shiny and fat, it croaked oddly, like a female cuckoo. As I moved to look closer, my flickering shadow crossed the lizard, and it disappeared.
The sky outside hung like a tapestry, a cool majestic ultramarine that contrasted strangely with the two shades of turquoise paint on the lattices. The mosques were slowly ending their serpentine calls. There was the howl of a cat. Or a baby, it was hard to tell.
There seemed to be a fight downstairs. The shattering of glass and splintering of wood invaded the twilight silence. The cocks began to crow. My candle flickered as people shouted and moved about. Someone opened a door, which squealed loudly. Then footsteps to the toilet and the click of a light switch. I thought that I heard someone shout a phrase in English, but the voice was drunk. Another crash, then silence. Then more footsteps and closing doors. The tension seemed to ease.
Just before eight o'clock the shouting took off once more. It was still raining, and the sky looked miserable now. My candle was finished. It was time to go.