A Short Walk in the Moroccan Rif: Shades of Blue and a Dab of Green

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March 12th 2019
Published: March 12th 2019
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Chefchaouen, Rif Mountains


February 2019

“Blues is a tonic for whatever ails you. I could play the blues and then not be blue anymore.”

B. B. King

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

Sylvia Earle

“The birds they sang at the break of day,

Start again I heard them say.

Don't dwell on what has passed away.

Or what is yet to be.”

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Chefchaouen (35.1695 -5.2685) was founded in 1471 as a small kasbah fortress to fight off the invading Portuguese. It is 113 km south-east of Tangier and is nestled at the base of the Rif Mountains (best known as for the production of Moroccan hashish). After the 1492 Spanish expulsion, many Jews settled in Chefchaouen. It was also part of Spanish Morocco from 1920 until the independence in 1956. The town has a population of around 45,000.

I stayed just 2 nights here when I first came to Morocco in December and made a plan in my mind's eye to come back and stay some weeks in a tranquil little neighbourhood I spied then called Bab Suk just outside the western medina gate of the old town. On my return I found a comfortable old hotel right on the suk (market area).

The old medina is awash with shades of blue paint. The local residents have made this an art form and have cleverly realised the attraction to tourists. In fact, I am told that the use of this blue is not traditional at all but was 'invented' some 30 or 40 years ago by local women who figured they could make Chefchaouen stand out for tourism with this distinctive touch. Whatever the true story, it works, together with what is obviously a 'building code' within the medina to preserve the traditional character of the town. Chefchaouen is a mecca for tourists which (together with the production of hashish in the mountains above) now provides the main source of income to the town. In particular the place is inundated with Chinese tourists and I noticed that since my earlier visit 2 months ago, there are now three new Chinese Restaurants in the medina.

However, old Morocco thrives in the small alleyways of this delightful place, and between the tourist adapted restaurants and hotels there still exist traditional tea houses and small eating rooms. To lose this would actually diminish the tourist attraction significantly.

I quickly get into my stride: easy slow mornings; walks into the medina; the making of local acquaintances (Amin and Mohammed in particular) at one of the Bab Suk tea/coffee houses; frequenting particular discoveries made for good local food; and excursions into the Rif and surrounding areas. Days blend into each other with ease.

I start to meet foreigners who live here: an English guy who was passing through on his pushbike and stayed 2 years (so far); an Italian woman who runs a hostel; and a Chilean woman who has been in my hotel for 3 months writing her PhD thesis on South American Literature. I also meet locals who are or have been married to foreigners and are running businesses together. I begin to speculate on the potential of spending much more time in Morocco in general, and here in particular, sometime in the future. I realise my very good fortune to have these options at this time of my life, albeit I am currently excluded from beloved India (see blog on Tafraout for explanation). However, such speculation misses the 'now'. Here now, it's just a lovely place to dwell in.

I catch up with some dutch travelers met in Tafraout a month before. I plan to go for a walk up into the Rif and Peter elects to come with me. We spend 6 hours trekking up and back through now fallow marijuana fields which will soon be again planted for the 2019 crop. We get comfortably lost up in the forest but find our way back easily.

Hashish has been illegal in Morocco since 1956 independence but is tolerated as a centuries old tradition, not to mention Morocco being the world's top supplier. Many local farmers here are very dependent on this cash crop. No doubt there are 'external to the area' mafia involved in the control of price and supply for export to Europe and beyond. In Chefchaouen, smoking by locals of all ages is common. Kif (a mulch of moistened marijuana) is more common, and is smoked in traditional long wooden ornate pipes.

Amin is a 60-something-year-old retired French teacher with whom I spend late afternoons drinking Moroccan mint tea and chatting about life and living (his English is good). He is a bachelor (having been married once for just a very short time... it didn't suit him). He is Muslim of course, but not religious. Mohammed also frequents this same tea/coffee house and lives next to my hotel. He worked 30 years in Amsterdam in building maintenance and is now retired on a Dutch pension (making him financially very comfortable in Morocco). His English is also good but we have fun with my less than good dutch (me being the son of Dutch immigrants to Australia). These meetings are nice, as transitory and relatively shallow as they are. I don't pretend them to be deep relationships but recognise that I enjoy forays into a 'construction' of intimacy.

At Amin's suggestion, I take a local bus to the nearby town of Ouazzane (population 65,000) and spend a few hours walking around. It is the centre of Sufism in Morocco and also now a pilgrimage place for many Jews outside Morocco to venerate the tombs of several marabouts (Moroccan saints) from the days when Jews lived in the town. I am bemused by the change from 'blue' to 'green' in this medina. I meet Nourdine who is a security guard here, having spent 10 years working in France. In 2 years time he will be eligible for a French pension. He shows me around and we have coffee. Ouazzane is famous for the production of the pipes used for smoking kif in Morocco. Unlike Chefchaouen, I see absolutely no other foreigners here.

Back in Chefchaouen, it is farmers' market day at Bab Suk (it happens twice a week) and I so love arriving amidst the colour and frenzy of it all. Back in my hotel room I get the pleasant whiff of freshly baked bread drifting up from the bakery just below my window.

The next day is Friday, Muslim special worship day. I visit my local patisserie where I buy my harsha (semolina flat bread) only to find the owner and his wife and son huddled at the back of the shop eating cous cous (traditional Friday fare). They invite me in to eat and we all share the plate, washing it down with leben (butter milk). It is common in Morocco to invite relative strangers to eat Friday cous cous.

After nearly 2 weeks I must move on to Tangier. I have mixed feelings about leaving Chefchaouen but also a sense of 'place' knowing that I have found yet another location in Morocco where I can and think I will return in the future, perhaps for a much longer stay.

In sha Allah.

Ohm gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svah

(Gone gone, beyond; completely exposed; awake. So be it)

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13th March 2019

The Universe is Guiding You
Evidentially, you need a new experience so the universe kicked you out of India so you could finally embrace all the beauty that is Morocco. We never tired of the mint tea. I'm sad you have to leave this area but feel like you will make it back.
13th March 2019

Cafe au lait
...not to mention the great Moroccan coffee as well :)

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