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Into the Sandstorm

The Stronghold in the Rif

MOROCCO | Wednesday, 15 February 2017 | Views [577]

I was woken at dawn, by the eerie sound of discordant muezzins calling to prayer.

When I left it was pouring with rain. The alleys of Tangier were rivers, waterfalls. I managed to find my way out of the labyrinthine Medina to the 'ville nouvelle', and get to the city's bus station, but by the time I arrived I was thoroughly soaked. Inside it was as grimy and damp as a subway station on a wet day. A portrait of Morocco's king looked swarthily down on the dirt and the shouting men. I bought a ticket to Chefchaouen, a city in the Rif mountains that I had read about. After drinking a coffee in the dank and smoky bar and embarassingly smashing the glass with my suitcase, I boarded a bus that was half full, mostly of other foreigners, and sat down, still damp. We rolled down to the port and idled by the water, beneath the sodden Medina which piled up the hillside. A Moroccan man, who spoke no English or French, got on and gave me to understand, in Spanish which we could both barely speak, that I was in his seat. I got up and moved to the back seat of the bus, next to a plump German girl.

Thus we left Tangier, and entered a region of green hills. I had no idea Morocco looked like this - on a wet day like today it could have been Britain.

The windows misted up. We wound into mountains - now lush and foggy, now starker, redder, like the south of Spain. Sprawling at their feet was a white concrete town - Tetouan, once the capital of Spanish Morocco. From there it was another hour - past ocassional, very Spanish, clusters of white houses, mosques tiled in turqouise, dirt tracks where I glimpsed men on donkeys, murky rivers and dry river beds, and crumbling red soil - to the drizzly outskirts of Chefchaouen.

I barged past the taxi drivers at the bus station and made my way uphill, towards the old town.

"What hotel you are looking for? I show you! Chefchaouen verygoodmyfren!" Heart sinking I found myself following a tout, and his friend who attached himself to us, into the steep and narrow defiles of another Medina, all painted blue - to repel mosquitos, they told me. We reached the hostel. "My fren, now you give me money and no problem. Just 300 dirhams. Then we go smoke hashish..."

But I had worked out how to deal with these people. I shoved 20 dirhams into his hand and strode inside. "Hey! You want make problem??" they shouted after me, and I slammed the door in their faces.

It seemed that the place I had booked was full, so I was shown to another a few alleys away, the Mauritania. A kindly man showed me in - another opulent Moorish place with central courtyard, all tiled in blue like the streets. I left my suitcase (into which, I found to my dismay, the rain had soaked), and walked up to the town's central square. There stood a mosque and a stark, ancient fortress. Chefchaouen sits among mountains, but today these were lost in fog. I went to a restaurant and ate a large, steaming bowl of couscous, and then walked through the souk, far calmer than Tangier's.

A century ago, before the Spanish conquest, only three Westerners had ever visited Chefchaouen, and only two had made it out to tell the tale. It was 'a city in which it was considered an utter impossibilty for a European to enter', wrote the remarkable Times journalist Walter Harris, who was one of those two. Not so today, alas. Even at this time of year tourists abound. "I might buy just a little bit of opium", I heard an American voice say.

That night I went out again, into the blue streets - some all blue, some only to the height of a man, and white or gold from there up - near empty, and brightly lit, at far intervals, with white lanterns. Sometimes through an archway you glimpsed into a mosque where men were praying, or into a cafe where they smoked shisha pipes. Pinpricks of light climbed halfway up the mountains, just about visible in the gloom, though fog still shrouded their peaks. A crescent moon hung overhead, mirroring the minarets. The song of the Qu'ran rose and fell softly in the alleys.

Back at the blue-tiled hostel it was freezing, and the rain that had got inside my suitcase had dampened by pyjamas. I passed a very cold night.  

Tags: chaouen, chefhaouen, maghreb, morocco, rif, walter harris

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