A Month in Morocco: Berber Hospitality

My guide through the Rif Mountains was Habte. For four days I called him Abdi. It wasn’t until our final day together that I realized I had been blowing it. As I watched him write his email in my journal, I said, “Your name is Habte? Not Abdi?” He replied, “Yes, it’s Habte. Tourists have trouble hearing the difference so it’s no big deal.” I was mortified. This is like someone calling me Schlomo or Thor. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, I couldn’t believe how stupid I was.

Habte was one of the most generous people I met in Morocco. As we left Chafchaouen and entered Talassemtane National Park, he stopped regularly to pick wild herbs and plants. Sage, lavender, oregano, rosemary, carob. He explained their traditional use, then tell me the Berber name. After the long climb, Chefchaouen looked like a Swiss ski village nestled in alpenglow.

We skirted the southern slopes of Jebel el-Kelaa, then followed a stream through a hamlet. The highest pass we traversed was Sfiha Telj at 1760m. Habte told me that usually he lunches there but the snow would keep us moving for a while. After lunch we cruised the final downhill section to Gite Azilane where we home-stayed with a hilarious, hash-smoking host, Abdul.

Abdul reminded me of my maternal grandfather. His size and stature, his zest for life, his ability to tell a good yarn. Even the way he pulled his shoelaces tightly together was familiar. And just like my paternal grandfather, Abdul liked Latin women. Back in 1981 he traveled to Colombia and learned to dance.

Gite Azilane is a cannabis or kif farm. Cannabis is illegal in Morocco but overlooked since it stimulates the economy. Seems that tourists can smoke it, but locals aren’t allowed. Abdul’s land was harvested for the season. Come spring the plants would rise 3m high. This time of year he procures hashish. The process includes a regular beating of cannabis leaves to extract a fine, yellow dust. This drumming is “the music of the Rif.” Everywhere we went we heard it.

At Gite Azilane, I met a Spaniard whose name was tattooed on his left knuckles, P-A-C-O. We followed two farm dogs along what Paco called, “el camino fuerte.” Our bushwhacking adventure left me covered in mud. Twice I nearly fell down sheer, limestone cliffs because it was muddy and my boots had poor traction. Our motivation – monkeys. The dogs were treeing macaques and we wanted to see the action. Upon our return, Abdul couldn’t stop making cracks about our desire to see the monos. He suggested that Paco take one as his wife.

Habte took me to Akchour where we stayed in another guesthouse. The proprietor was a round man who asked me why I was alone. Where was my wife? Do I have kids? Why not? He told me there’s no good excuse not to have children. Allah will provide. He said, “all (you) need is one child to call you papa. This will make (you) a rich person.” Got me thinking.

In Akchour we ate tagine in a dirty cafe while watching fútbol. A Bayern Munich match. When a dozen teenagers came in amazed we weren’t watching the Real Madrid game, the channel was promptly changed. Before long, the place was filled with young boys hollering at Ronaldo.

I appreciated Habte’s honesty, local knowledge, and his friendship. I wish he could do what he really wants to do – practice law. Fact is, Habte’s a certified lawyer. But there are no jobs for him in Morocco and it’s nearly impossible to get a work visa elsewhere. I got the sense that he’s frustrated by this, but it didn’t seem to mar his attitude. He was nothing but gracious.

Back at the medina, Habte gave me a gift — two bottles of hand-pressed, organic olive oil. He wouldn’t accept money for them. As we parted ways, he stopped and handed an old man a handful of dirhams. The man looked at Habte how everyone looks at Habte. With a look of hope that, insha’Allah (God-willing), his enormous generosity comes back to him, ten-fold.

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