Travel writer Jon Horn ventures to Northern Africa in this new excerpt from his memoir Opus Dopus. (Previously we brought you his introduction.) Here the air is “scented with cannabis” because “it’s all open and above-board since they’ve quit cracking down on the growers.” Paradise? You can decide.
By Jon Horn
It was a relatively innocent time, not so very long ago, when a youngish Gringo with some few (perhaps ill-gotten) bucks could still be a carefree tripper, following the sun along the old hash trail to such funky hubs as Tangier and Marrakesh, Istanbul and Baalbek and Alexandria, Oaxaca, or wherever—a game adventurer not too proud to beg, borrow, smuggle or steal, and not ashamed or afraid to be an American abroad. “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end,” as the classic pop ditty has it. But they did end, and just in time for this erstwhile wanderer. My quitting the road (and dope) spared me from dying young or doing hard time in some dirty lowdown lockup. The map was different then, and the vibe was better, at least in memory…
I remember the first time I hit Tangier, coming across from Spain on the Ibn Batutta ferry. It was a beautiful day, where the Atlantic meets the Med, and the ferry’s prow calmly cut spumes of sea which glittered under the big sun in a cloudless sky. I stood at the fore rail watching the whitewashed cubes of the city enlarging on the horizon, and a big Brit backpacker next to me, whom I hadn’t really noticed, said, “Looks quite magical from a distance, dunnit?” He had a shaved head, one earring, and an ironic grin. I said I’d never been to Tangier before, and he spat out half a laugh.
“Well, watch yourself, that’s all I can say. I’ve been here too many times. The white city rising up the hillside there looks to be a storybook citadel, but if you stay too long you’ll swear it’s the bloody bunghole of the world!”
“Then why do you keep coming back?”
“Ah, I can’t get enough of that kif from the Rif, the hills where the fresh air is scented with cannabis and it’s all open and above-board since they’ve quit cracking down on the growers, the new laissez-faire policy, long may it last!”
Colin was his name, and he was about ten years older than me. He liked to swap travelers’ tales and detail the merits and downsides of various ports of call along the doper route he’d been trekking for a long time.
“Been to Greece, have you? My mate got nabbed with arf a pound of opiated Turkish hash and did five focking years in a stinking prison in Saloniki where if you don’t have anyone bringing you food you just about starve. Fock me!”
Colin ably deflected the local hustlers who surrounded us as we came down off the ferry’s gangplank onto the bustling Tangier dockside. “Sod off, sahabi!” he growled thru a twisted grin, shooing them away, and the crookedly smiling touts hissing “You want hash? Cheap hotel? Girl? Boy?” moved on to other prey. Colin knew a really cheap hotel, up the winding streets of steps near the Casbah, and he encouraged me to tag along, as he liked to have a “mate” the bullshit with. A mate of his had recently been “detained” in Malaga, for what he didn’t say.
It was Colin who took me on the bus to Ketama, the thriving underside of northern Morocco, in the Berber hills high above the Barbary Coast, where the best kif was grown and hashish made. We only spent a couple of days in Tangier, and Colin showed me around, from the cafes of the Zoko Chico to the Zoko Grande up the hill, and the Boulevard in the new town outside the old medina.
Morocco, or at least Tangier, was in transition, i could plainly see. Older women wore the headdress, veil, and long caftan, and older men looked biblical in their hooded robes and beards; but younger women wore short skirts or jeans and tight tops, and young guys looked like southern Euro types in sport shirts over jeans or slacks. One thing everybody—young or old, trad or modern—knew about was floos: money. It was one of the first words I learned.
Some raggedy beggar boys battened on us when we caught the bus in the Zoko Grande. “Floos! Floos!” they whined and weedled, till Colin drew himself up, clapped his hands together, and shouted something at them that sounded like “Sheef halek, din-ya-muk!”
“I told them ‘Go away, fuck your mother!'” Colin grinned as the kids scattered and we pushed our way onto the already crowded bus, where places were made for us, the only foreigners. I sat next to a veiled old woman with a baby goat on her robed lap, and Colin squeezed in across the aisle packed with stolid standees, next to two giggling boys in sweats and their father, a stern-looking dude in a djellaba (hooded robe), a basket of trussed chickens under his seat.
Hours later we arrived in Chaouen, a small hill town, and Colin took me straight to a funky back-street hole-in-the-wall cafe where djellaba‘d men were smoking pungent kif in sebsis (long-stemmed pipes) and drinking mint tea. These men gave us blank if not hostile looks until the kawaji (cafe man) came out from the kitchen, flashed his gold teeth in a big smile, and shook Colin’s hand vigorously, asking “L’bess? L’bess?” This was a key phrase of the ritual greeting I’d hear often enough to understand. It meant something like “No bad?”
And when when you responded, “La, l’bess” (“No, no bad”), the dude who’d asked you “L’bess” would promptly pipe up some variation on “Hamd’llah!” (“Thanks to God!”)
The kawaji sat us at a small, rickety table in the rear, gave us steaming glasses of too-sweet tea stuffed with mint leaves, and handed Colin a sebsi and a small packet of “kif numero wah’d” —first-class herb. He was related to the family Colin knew (“They make the best hash!”) from previous forays. A call was made, and an athletic young guy in jeans and shades showed up minutes later, going thru the whole l’bess routine with Colin, embracing and patting him on the back, and warmly shaking my hand too. This was Hassan, who drove us in his battered Jeep at breakneck speed on a switchback dirt road to his dad’s acres of preemo herb.
Mellow cannabis was always my fave everyday high. Opium was heavy, and if you used to too much it would get you down. Coke and meth and other “hard” drugs had big downers in store. Not so pot. And here before us was a whole hillside thick with tall, full, green-turning-golden hemp stalks bursting with buds, leaves waving gently in the breeze. All I could say was “Wow!”
Jon Horn’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Travel Section, Gallery, Redbook, Crawdaddy, and the New Olympia Reader. Bondage Trash, Horn’s early work—a “cult classic, sans cult” (in his words) was published by Olympia Press. Michael Perkins (in The Secret Record, Morrow) described it as “a masterpiece…abstract as a poem, a work of lurid beauty fashioned from unlikely materials.”