Ketama, Morocco – You don’t even have to get to Ketama to discover you are in kif country. Over 25 miles away, on the rudimentary road that leads from Chaouen to Ketama, a teenage boy in a djellaba stands by the side of the road waving his arms and shouting. What he is shouting is “Hashish! Hashish!”
He is holding a small red-paper packet. “You want to buy some hash?” he asks in a friendly way, and comes to the window of the car. He opens the packet, revealing the familiar green-gray fine powder. Another boy comes over from his position down the road to offer a smaller package of the same thing. He wants 30 dirhams ($6) for what he says is 120 grams, but we pass up this deal.
A good thing, too, for just 25 kilometers up the road on an uphill grade, two Royal Moroccan policemen wave us over to the side of the road. Both policemen, dapper and military in gray uniform and red-banded caps, walk over to the car. They come on very official. The older one with the mustache stands back looking stern and Arab while the young one speaks to us in French.
One by one, he asks us for our documents: passports, insurance green card, automobile registration book, international driver’s license. He studies each gravely, turning it over in his hand and then peering once more into the car at us as if to express grave doubt that either we or our papers are legitimate. Then he confers with his partner at length in Arabic.
He looks up again. “Where are you going?”
He knows, and I know he knows: “Ketama.”
“Ah,” he says. “Why?”
“Pour le tourisme,” I reply. We both smile.
“Not for the hashish?”
“Oh, no. Never.”
“Now really,” the cop insists. “You’re going to Ketama for hash. You like hash. Everybody likes hash.”
“Not me,” I repeat innocently. “For the tourism.”
“But you have heard that Ketama has hashish?” he demands.
This is too obvious to deny. “Yes. I’ve heard that.”
Aha! The cop pounces: “And that’s what you’re going for, right?”
“Ah, no. Not at all,” I insist.
Stalemate. The kif policeman gives up on me and turns to Anna. She explains right out of Fodor’s Morocco 1970: “Ketama is a beautiful place, with lots of hunting and fishing.”
“Ah, yes,” says the cop, “hunting for the hashish.”
“No, no, no,” we laugh.
“Yes,” he insists with finality. But he hands back our papers, gives us a mock salute and says, meaningfully: “I’ll see you later.”
A short while later we pull into Ketama’s main—and only—street. (We’d gotten a bit lost and stopped to ask a goatherder the way. He had some kif he was interested in selling.) The first citizen we meet is a boy of about 12 who flags our car down. Whatever can he want?
“Hey, you want hash?” he asks, pulling a flat, cellophane-wrapped wafer the size of a giant-sized Hershey out of his dark brown djellaba and shoving it in through the window of the car. “Premier qualitee,” he adds.
We hand the six ounces or so of hash around, admiring it. “Maybe later,” we say. “We’ll be at the hotel.”
This is pretty obvious. The 75 room Hotel Tidighine, a posh hotel for tourists, hunters and fishermen, looms over the squatness of downtown Ketama like a giant matchbox. We park in front of the hotel, and magically, another boy appears at the side of the car. Of all things, he wants to sell us some nice hash. Perhaps, we smile, but later, and we start toward the Tidighine with our bags.
As we leave, the boy gives us a meaningful look and warns: “Nix confiance aux hotel,” meaning: Don’t trust anybody at the hotel or they’ll do you.
Right you are.
Except for staff, the lobby is deserted. The desk clerk looks pleased when we say we’ll take a 40 dirham ($8) room, and a white-coated bellboy grabs our bags. As we follow him through the lobby the few customers in the bar watching television and drinking beer seem to follow us with their eyes.
After the bellboy puts down the bags, opens the terrace door, turns on the lights and flushes the toilet, he stands with one hand on the door, apparently about to go. But he closes the door, puts his back to it and says in a nervous half-whisper:
“I’m not just a bellboy. I do business, too. I can get you stuff. We go in my car to my house. Just ten kilometers. No trouble with the police.”
Later that night I go out for a walk. Except for the brightly lit hotel with its three phallic gasoline pumps out front, Ketama is seemingly dark and quiet. Not a soul except me is at large on the street. I walk coolly and casually down the block-long row of small white-washed shops.
At the end of the block is a small cafe with a light showing through the partially open door. At least I can buy some mint tea there. But who is in the cafe but my old buddy, the kid in the brown djellaba who offered us the hash that afternoon. He greets me eagerly, and shows me to a table. No sooner does my tea arrive, than a young Moroccan with curly hair appears at my table, and I offer him a seat.
We exchange a few inconsequential words, and he invites me down the way to see his store. Once there, he ducks behind the counter and quickly puts a brick of hash on the brass scale. It weighed just over 500 grams. Straight from his hash factory, said the Moroccan, who introduces himself as Omar. “Premier qualitee.” The other two lads we’d met that afternoon were his brothers and partners. A family business.
Two hundred dirhams ($40) for the half kilo, Omar says in a businesslike manner.
Very nice, I say, trying to sound like a man to whom 500 grams of hash is no big thing. But, I tell him, I’m interested in seeing where this hash came from. Can he take me to his factory?
Omar realizes that he’s obviously talking to a connoisseur, and he agrees to take me to his factory the next morning. It’s only seven kilometers outside of Ketama, he says.
Next morning we meet Omar in front of his store. With him is the boy who urged us to have no confidence in the dope dealers at the hotel. This, he says, is Yahya, his other brother. Yahya would drive to the factory with us. Omar will ride his bicycle.
We set off, and the first six kilometers of paved road are easy. But then we turn on to a piste (dirt road) running between some eucalyptus trees. And soon the piste turns into poor track, then bad track, then no track. The Morris bounces and rattles and squeaks, trying to stay on the barely perceptible path. Yahya nonchalantly points out features to miss and paths to take, including a gravel track which leads through two slow moving streams about a foot deep. The Morris plunges, hesitates and then somehow gathers speed and rolls back onto dry, if not firm, land.
The “seven kilometers” more turns into nearly 15, and the Morris nearly founders again and again, even in first gear. Yahya keeps assuring us that it is only a little way now. Finally, we turn a sharp, soft-dirt corner and are faced with tractor ruts over two feet deep knifing through a muddy uphill patch 50 feet across. We take to our feet for “just a little walk.” This turns into a 15-minute climb up a sharp, rocky path, during which we are joined by Omar, who has had to abandon the bicycle.
Finally, we begin to see scattered tin-roofed concrete houses, and Omar says that this is Azila, his village. His house is just a bit further on. At last we come to it, a rectangular stone building with a wooden door leading to a central dirt courtyard. We are led to a long, dark room on one side of the courtyard and invited to sit on long, low cushions which run along three sides of the room. A shutter is thrown open to give a little light.
Omar disappears—to get the goods, I think—but then returns with a tea tray. First a little mint tea, then business. But to keep us interested, Yahya appears with about a kilo of hash in various sized cellophane packages which he puts on the tea tray next to the pot. The tea is hot and sweet; the conversation is polite and innocuous.
After the tea, Omar brings in a sheaf of kif branches, rubs a branch between his hands and displays a palmful of seeds.
“How much kif do you have here?” I ask.
“Thirteen hundred kilos,” he says as if talking about so much grain. In storage rooms, Omar says, on the second floor of the house.
When I inquire about the method used to make hash in Azila, Omar quickly produces a small device like a machine-shop vice from beneath a cabinet in the corner. Yahya demonstrates how the ground kif powder is placed in the vice for long periods of compression under heat in order to release the resin which makes hash what it is.
Omar says the hash-pressing machines can be purchased in Rabat, Tangiers and other large cities, and several of his neighbors have such machines. But for the most part, Omar says, he buys up the kif harvest of his neighbors, as his father and grandfather did before him. The plants are then kept in Omar’s storage rooms until the time comes to make kif or hash from them.
Then comes perhaps the most important, complex and crucial part of the whole process. The sale of kif and hash. This goes on all year long. Many of the sales, Omar says, are made by long-distance telephone calls to Tangiers, Rabat and the other big cities. And then, most often, the buyers, mostly big dealers, come to Ketama to collect their merchandise. Some even come to the house in Azila in Land Rovers.
Among his best customers, Omar says, are two Germans, an American and an English girl who comes to Azila by helicopter to pick up hash.
Their base is a large yacht anchored in the Mediterranean off of the coast of Morocco. Omar is proud of his long friendships with some of his best customers. One Irishman named Jack, he says, is an especially good friend who comes down from Tangiers quite often. According to Omar, these transactions can be made safely in Ketama and the surrounding villages because the area has a royal patent from King Hassan to grow kif and produce hash.
Omar claims that he’s never had a customer arrested anywhere near Ketama. Sometimes, to insure the immunity of especially nervous buyers, Omar will ride part way to their destination with them. He says the kif police are no problem to him. They’re only there to cut down on the number of foreigners coming to Ketama to buy hash for resale.
This is not to say that transporters of Ketama hash are immune from arrest. In late April, a dealer transporting 500 kilos from Ketama to Essaouira was stopped by the Royal police. The hash was confiscated, and he was fined $200. This is the vagary of law enforcement against drugs in Morocco. An Englishman living on the Atlantic coast says he was coming out of Ketama with four kilos of hash when the kif police busted him. But all they did was take 250 grams of his hash and insist that he join them in helping to smoke up part of three-fourths of a ton of confiscated kif which was scheduled to be burnt the next day.
Omar says that the hash trade really began to pick up about 1953, when he was just a boy, and his father ran the family business. At that time, he says, hash was sold almost entirely to Moroccans, and the price was just $40 a kilo. Since that time, as more and more foreigners have come to Ketama for hash, the price has slowly increased until today it has doubled, at least for small quantity (a few kilos at a time) buyers.
After the tea is finished, out comes the hash pipe, and Omar shaves a bowlful off of the end of the smallest wafer of hash. The pipe passes around. It’s good, all right. Omar is reluctant to boast, but he says some buyers from the East (Pakistan, Lebanon, Afghanistan) prefer Ketama hash to their own.
Lunch is served (three fried eggs floating in a bowl of dark olive oil, and rough corn bread) and then comes a tour of the farm. One by one, the upstairs kif storerooms are unlocked revealing shoulder high banks of dried kif plants. In one storeroom, across from the kif plants, stands a row of hundred-weight sacks of potatoes, grain, flour, corn—and kif. On top of one big bag is a smaller sack containing about eight kilos of powdered kif ready to be pressed into hash. Omar hefts the bag as if it were so much chicken feed.
Omar insists that $80 a kilo is the best price for first-quality hash. You can get cheaper, he says—even the $10 to $30 hash talked about in Chaouen—but it is either very low-grade hash or mixed with a heavy proportion of henna. We take his word because faced by the likelihood of meeting our friends the kif police again on the road to Fez—we decide not to make a buy. This takes a bit of diplomacy, after all of Omar’s hospitality, but we succeed in convincing him that we feel that this particular visit is not the time for a big buy of hash. But Omar is no less friendly on the ride back to Ketama, even getting out of the car several times to push when the Morris showed signs of lying down and dying on the ragged, rocky, steep inclines.
Now, all we’ve got to do is run the gauntlet of the kif police to get on the road to Fez. First comes a thorough search of the car to see that no stray kif or hash has slipped down between the seats. Then, with the Morris smoking and rattling, we drive once more the length of Ketama’s only street. All eyes are upon us—including those of three young policemen—as we parade past. They know we’re loaded to the armrests with the finest hash and kif.
But thanks either to Omar’s juice or the legendary caprice of the Moroccan police, the kilometers tick off and nobody stops us. We don’t even see a policeman. As we pass the 20-kilometer-from-Ketama sign, I begin to wish that we did have four or five kilos of Omar’s best tucked away here and there in the Morris.