A stranger's tour of hashish's dark heartland

Sightseers are not welcome, writes Elizabeth Nash, in the second part of her series on marijuana in Morocco
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The Independent Online
Ketama - I just want to look around, I said innocently, but Mustafa was doubtful from the start about my plan to drive with him to Ketama, the heart of Morocco's hashish territory. It was 50 miles (80km) east along the Rif from the ancient Berber town of Chefchauen, but locals warned it would take three hours.

The mountain road started winding circuitously just beyond the Gendarmerie checkpoint on the outskirts of Chefchauen, keeping our speed below 20mph. Emboldened by our slowness, young men squatting by off-white Mercedes darted into the road brandishing bulging plastic bags.

Clocking a Rabat-registered hired vehicle driven by a European female, they whistled and hissed, made huge smoking gestures with their hands and shouted "Hashiiiiiiish!" as we drove by. Others held out white clubs like those used by jugglers. What are they for, I asked Mustafa.

"They're to defend yourself against attackers if your car should break down at night on the road." I digested this quietly for a while, taking in the warm sweet gusts of kif, the cannabis plant, buffeting through the window. Perhaps it was my imagination that the bitter metallic stench of "bazuko" - crack - occasionally spiked my nostrils too.

The road became steeper, passing amid pines and majestic cedars. A tacit agreement exists between the authorities and the kif producers that they should not plant along the main roads, but from time to time we glimpsed dark green kif fields, one not far from the gendarmerie headquarters outside Ketama.

Nearby was the town's only hotel, where we pulled up. Clusters of tall, severe young men enveloped in long hooded robes strolled or hung about. Their dark eyes swivelled and bored into the two interlopers with hostility and suspicion.

In the hotel, a request for lunch was greeted with amazement. The shutters to all the rooms were drawn, the swimming pool was without water, the taps were without water. Mustafa went to buy some food in the street, forbidding me to accompany him. He returned with a flat round loaf, grilled lamb kebabs and a sheep's head which he picked clean with relish.

After downing five beers within minutes, he refused to let me drive back the way we had come. A wind was up and a storm was brewing. "If we have to stop, these traffickers will bother you. Or the police will think you're buying, and search the car, search your body, question you for hours." He proposed a quieter route, the coast road that was more beautiful.

We headed north along a foul potholed track. For hours we crept along amid thunder, lightening and torrential rain or mist that appeared to boil off the road. Despite the frightful conditions in this godforsaken mountain top, there was constant activity. Cars loomed up, and as we stopped to let them ease past, their occupants urged us to buy.

Groups of men loitered by the roadside, mule-drawn traps trotted by, a solitary figure in flowing cream robes, his vast lampshade-like hat trimmed with bobbing pompoms and covered with a cowl, strode like a ghostly monk. Not a gendarme was to be seen in territory that tribesmen have controlled for centuries.

This was the heartland of the legendary leader Abdelkrim, whose Berber warriors declared an independent Rif republic in the Twenties. They defeated and humiliated Spain's occupying forces - using the same guerrilla tactics the Spanish invented to resist Napoleon a century before - and Rifans have since risen up periodically against Rabat.

Eventually the mountain fell like a rampart into the sea and we reached the little port of El-Jebha, thought to be an important departure point for hashish smuggled to Europe. It seemed even more sinister than Ketama and after driving by a couple of dark bars, a proposal to stop for tea died on my lips.

The coast road is dotted with little white watchtowers, guarded by helmeted auxiliary forces who saluted as we passed. Morocco spends $80m (pounds 50m) a year on 5,000 extra security forces for the northern region to stop drug trafficking and illegal emigration. But the coast is hundreds of miles long, and traffickers - helped sometimes by the Italian Mafia or Britons from the Spanish costa - slip rubber inflatable dinghies into the gentle sea and load 30kg bails on to yachts or fishing boats bound for Spain.

Night fell. The landscape softened and the weather improved, the scent of mint and rosemary now floated on the air. Mustafa was indignant at our slow pace, caused by fatigue and my shameful inability to see in the dark. Finally, we crawled home and he reproached me gently.

"In this part of the Rif it either rains or it's misty. The roads are bad and the people are bad. Anyone who comes here is assumed to be after one thing only. It is no place for sightseers." Quite so, I agreed.

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