The last strands of smoke hang in the air. The air itself is hot and still, out movements lethargic as the man next to me slowly exhales. He leans back, a distant smile playing across his face, before abruptly knocking the gray embers from his pipe and onto the floor. They aren’t much for ashtrays, these Moroccans.
It’s 2:11am in the dusty outpost of Beni Ahmed. The last game of bingo draws close to completion, and Mohammad curses under his breath: Hemar! It’s been a long evening spent in the dusky confines of the cafe, and luck has been elusive for my young host.
He stands with an exasperated grunt, tipping the stone bingo markers to the floor. “Come, we go now,” he says. The red lights on the ATM clock outside still read 32C -- almost 90F -- and we wander down the empty street, unsteady from boredom and kief.
I had arrived two days earlier in a shared taxi. The daytime temp was over 110F, and the old Mercedes struggled to keep up under the hellish heat. We stopped at a roadside well, and the other passengers drenched their faces, rinsing their mouths before carefully spitting it out -- for Muslims, even water is forbidden during the fasting of Ramadan. While the driver attempted to placate the engine’s steaming rattle, one of my fellow passengers gestured to the plots of green marking the landscape below. “Mirar, amigo. Cannabis, sí?”
Sí indeed, for we were deep in the Rif Mountains, an hour or so from Chefchaouen and surrounded by arid terrain primed to produce the fields of marijuana we could see in the distance. It is this same marijuana that will later find its way across the Strait of Gibraltar and up into Europe, condensed and smuggled as hash, destined for sale on Parisian street corners and in Dutch coffeeshops. I nodded back at our self-nominated tour guide; it’s always nice to meet a local keen to share his appreciation for the region’s top export.
We pulled back out onto the road, and I steadied myself for another round of real-life chicken, metal carrion competing for the single lane of asphalt. Our eventual arrival, miraculous as it seemed to me, was all in a day’s work -- just another instance of avoided breakdowns and blowouts -- and we were unceremoniously ejected from the car and, soon thereafter, into the hands of our couch-surfing host, a polite young man named Mohammad.
It was a short walk to his house, where we dropped our bags and, using Mohammad as an interpreter, tried to explain to his mother that we would like to wait until Iftar to break the day’s fast with them as a family. Our good intentions were well received and promptly ignored, as that renowned Moroccan hospitality was rolled out in the form of delicious tomato and onion relish, fresh orange juice and bread with a cardamom-and-cumin-spiced sauce. But Mohammad was hungry and removed himself while we ate, explaining that although he’s a good Muslim, it is much easier to resist temptation when it remains unseen.
After lunch, Mohammad told us a little bit about life in the village. Given the area’s reputation, it wasn’t overly surprising when he revealed that he grows weed. Like his father and his father’s father before him, his living comes from tending the crops that are barely hidden from the main road and its prying eyes.
Following this revelation, Mohammad took us down to the local outpost of the Gendarme Royale (the national police) for “registration.” I was naturally suspicious and, unsure what we were there for, gave fake names for my parents, then tried not laugh as the cop stutteringly misspelled them. This bizarre bit of admin out of the way, we were free to go: Mohammad explained that it was just a precaution that allowed the police to cover their ample backsides should something happen to us. I couldn’t resist the obvious next question and asked if they knew about the weed. Mohammad laughed: “They asked if you were here to smoke when we showed up.”
This seemed to me an all-too-familiar case of corruption, the cops just one more group of officials contentedly growing fat on milk from the cash cow of illegality. That evening, sipping mint tea in a small café, Mohammad laid out the drug’s ubiquity in the country. His grandfather sat behind us with some of the local bigwigs, and Mohammad discreetly pointed out the boss of the local area’s operation -- a large, balding heavy-set man with sunken eyes that conveyed an absence of amusement. With the cops’ self-protective registration process still looming large in my memory, I was only brave enough to sneak a glance at him.
Mohammad, it turned out, was very proud of his grandfather, whose service fighting the Algerians in the northern deserts had earned him some sort of immunity from searches and checkpoints. The details were vague, but we learned that this gave him the liberty to be a cash mule and exceed the status of mere farmer. Mohammad waxed lyrical about the extravagances to be found at the top of the weed chain here: imported Hummers with no papers, flashy watches,and the extraordinary tale of how the local boss paid to sleep with an unnamed Moroccan pop star.
Whatever the degree of truth to his tales, it was clear that the bosses were powerful men, and that the myths of wealth have lost none of their allure. That came as no surprise, since Beni Ahmed is a simple town: The roads are made of dirt, and the shops are few and far between. There are no extravagances to be found among the olive trees, concrete block houses and rundown cars. It would seem that whatever wealth weed brings into the area is slow to trickle down.
Marijuana is illegal in Morocco, and occasional government crackdowns can have dire consequences for a community so dependent on its cultivation. Mohammad told us about the government-sanctioned strikes in 2010, when Air Force helicopters selectively ruined crops with pesticides.
“This was a bad year, man, very bad year,” Mohammad said, then shrugged in explanation: “No money.”
Despite this ever-looming threat, the community persists in growing, and as a result, weed -- all of fairly average quality -- is everywhere. Mohammad told us that it’s the only way to make money in these parts, and the large plastic bag behind the door in his house seemed to confirm his claims of multiple plantations. But when I finally got to see one, the crop was disappointing. While respectable in size, the plants were more bush than bud, with scores of males happily releasing their pollen among the females. The final product is your typical bush weed, nearly all stems and sticks. I hadn’t the heart (or the nerve) to tell Mohammad how much better his crop would be if he adopted more modern farming methods.
In the end, though, it doesn’t seem to matter much: Most of these plants will be turned into the infamous hard brown hash you find in Europe. The rest are cut up -- seeds, stems and all -- into the locals’ narcotic of choice, the unbelievably harsh kief. It is this kief, smoked through a long, thin pipe with a clay cone, that kept me occupied the last three nights while Mohammad threw good dirham after bad in the crowded coffeehouse.
There are no women present, and in their absence the men display a surprisingly homoerotic level of affection, hanging off each other’s shoulders and strategizing about the nonexistent nuances of bingo. I sit, removed from the proceedings in more ways than one, left to play mental bingo over what they might actually be saying.
The first night at the tables had been generally positive. I made a stuttering attempt to learn numbers in Arabic and made friends over the nonverbal ritual of kief. The practiced hands laughed as I coughed; they also smiled at my waxed mustache, gesturing like they were racing a motorbike. I shook hands with countless strangers keen to meet the newest attraction in the village and drank mint tea till my teeth were saturated with the sugar.
By the third night, though, my novelty had well and truly worn off. I was now just part of the background, forced to cultivate patience amidst the din of shouted Arabic and clattering cups. In a situation like this, especially when your host turns out to be hopelessly addicted to gambling, you are more hostage than guest: There is little you can do but wait until his time or his money runs out.
We arrive back at Mohammad’s modest family home just in time for Suhoor, the final meal before daylight and its associated fasting. As we lie on the rooftop terrace preparing to sleep, I ask Mohammad if he can imagine a life without weed. After all, he is the only English speaker in town -- a fact he’s very proud of -- and doesn’t seem to smoke kief himself. Would there not be other opportunities for him?
Again, Mohammad laughs. In Beni Ahmed, a life without weed is inconceivable.
Keif in the Rif is from the current issue of HIGH TIMES, on sale now!