One of Morocco’s most memorable journeys is the 210-kilometre mountain road from Chefchaouen to Al Hoceima which weaves along high on the crests of the Rif mountains. Snow may occasionally block the road in winter but snowploughs soon restore the flow of traffic. The views for most of the year, however, are spectacular. Paul Bowles describes the route well in “The Rif, to Music” chapter of Their Heads Are Green – “mountains covered with olive trees, with oak trees, with bushes, and finally with giant cedars”.
The road from Chefchaouen sweeps steadily upwards through attractive countryside with olive farms, cork oaks and flowery hedgerows to reach the village of Bab Taza, where, suddenly, the feeling of being at altitude kicks in. Beyond Khamis Medik, the road runs through woods of various oak species with the richest cultivation in the Rif on the impressively deep slopes below, dotted with farms and the expensive and isolated villas that are testimony to the wealth generated by the cannabis trade. The road reaches its highest level at Bab Besen (1600m) where the landscape is covered in magnificent cedar forests.Read More
Abd el Krim and the Republic of the Rif
Abd el Krim and the Republic of the Rif
Until the establishment of the Spanish Protectorate in 1912, the tribes of the Rif existed outside government control. They were subdued temporarily by harkas, the burning raids with which sultans asserted their authority, and for a longer period under Moulay Ismail; but for the most part, bore out their own name of Imazighen, or “Free Ones”.
Closed to outside influence, the tribes developed an isolated and self-contained way of life. The Riffian soil, stony and infertile, produced constant problems with food supplies, and it was only through a complex system of alliances (liffs) that outright wars were avoided. Unique in Morocco, the Riffian villages are scattered communities, their houses hedged and set apart, and where each family maintained a pillbox tower to spy on and fight off enemies. They were different, too, in their religion: the salat, the prayers said five times daily – one of the central tenets of Islam – was not observed. Djinns, supernatural fire spirits, were widely accredited, and great reliance was placed on the intercession of local marabouts.
It was an unlikely ground for significant and organized rebellion, yet for over five years (1921–27) the tribes forced the Spanish to withdraw from the mountains. Several times they defeated whole Spanish armies; first and most memorably at Annoual in 1921. It was only through the intervention of France, and the joint commitment of nearly half a million troops, that the Europeans won eventual victory.
In the intervening years, Abd el Krim el Khattabi, the leader of the revolt, was able to declare a Republic of the Rif and to establish much of the apparatus of a modern state. Well educated, and confident of the Rif’s mineral reserves, he and his brother, Mohammed, manipulated the liff system to forge an extraordinary unity among the tribes. Impressively, the brothers managed to impose a series of social reforms – including the destruction of family pillboxes and the banning of kif – which allowed the operation of a fairly broad administrative system. It was the first nationalist movement in colonial North Africa, and although the Spanish were ready to quit the zone in 1925, it was politically impossible for the French to allow that. Defeat for the Riffians – and the capture of Abd el Krim at Targuist – brought a virtual halt to social progress and reform. The Spanish took over the administration en bloc but there was no road-building programme nor any of the other “civilizing benefits” introduced in the French zone. Many of the Riffian warriors were recruited into Spain’s own armies, allowing General Franco to build up a power base in Morocco. It was with Riffian troops that he invaded Andalusia in 1936, and it was probably their contribution that ensured the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War.
When, in April 1957, the Spanish finally surrendered their protectorate, the Berbers of the former Spanish zone found themselves largely excluded from government. Administrators were imposed on them from Fez and Casablanca, and in October 1958, the Rif’s most important tribe, the Beni Urriaguel, rose in open rebellion. The mutiny was soon put down, but necessitated the landing at Al Hoceima of then Crown Prince Hassan and some two-thirds of the Moroccan army.
The Rif is still perhaps the most unstable part of Morocco, remaining conscious of its under-representation in government and its historical underdevelopment. However, King Mohammed VI seems sympathetic to this situation and over the past decade the region has witnessed substantial school-building programmes, improved road, air and ferry accessibility, large agricultural projects in the plains south of Nador and Al Hoceima, and continues to see an increase in tourism development along its coast.
Kif in Morocco
Kif in Morocco
Although many of the Riffian tribes in the mountains had always smoked kif, it was the Spanish who really encouraged its cultivation – probably as an effort to keep the peace. This situation was apparently accepted when Mohammed V came to power, though the reasons for his acceptance of the status quo aren‘t obvious. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that when he visited Ketama in 1957, he accepted a bouquet of cannabis as a symbolic gift.
In the early 1970s the Rif became the centre of a significant drug industry, exporting to Europe and America. This sudden growth was accounted for by the introduction, by an American dealer, of techniques for producing hash resin. Overnight, the Riffians had access to a compact and easily exportable product, as well as a burgeoning world market for dope. Inevitably, big business was quick to follow and to this day Morocco is reckoned to be the world’s leading producer of cannabis, supplying the vast majority of Europe’s demand, and with well over a million people said to depend on the crop for their existence, providing the economic base for much of the country‘s north. The government, with help from EU and US grants, has tried to reduce cultivation – a project near Rafsaï has replaced cannabis with 600,000 olive trees, for example – and the authorities claim that cultivation has decreased by almost thirty percent over the past decade. However, these figures are estimations gleaned from satellite photographs and are reckoned by European experts to be highly dubious. While the government’s stated aim to eradicate cannabis cultivation by 2008 clearly failed, there has recently been a steady increase in the number of police-supervised clearing of crops, many of them well publicized to no doubt please Morocco’s European neighbours. The bare fact remains, however, that farmers earn immeasurably more from cannabis than they would from growing legal crops.
Some (non-government) experts are saying that the eradication cause is a lost one, and believe it’s better to encourage farmers to rotate cannabis with other crops to avoid ruining their land with overuse of chemical fertilizers – whatever European hippies might like to think, cannabis grown in the Rif is anything but “organic” – rather than waste resources on trying to stop the industry altogether.
It’s worth noting here that Moroccan law forbids the sale, purchase and possession of cannabis. These laws are enforced on occasion with some vigour, so don’t be seduced by the locals: police roadblocks are frequent, informers common. Cannabis in the Rif is obviously big business and potentially dangerous for casual visitors to get mixed up in.