Across the Dividing Sea
A sailor cruising in the Mediterranean leaves the European comfort zone to make a voyage to Morocco. A feature from our August 2008 issue
Inevitably, I was led to a rug dealer, who gave me hot mint tea and unrolled 35 beautiful rugs, made, he said, by mountain women. He was a virtuoso, and almost based solely on his performance, I bought one and had it shipped home. At the last moment, he recommended "insurance" of 400 dirhams (US$45), which disappeared into his robe.
I was glad to get back on the water and head southeast along a coast as handsome as I've ever seen. It's a mix of mountains, seaside cliffs, beaches, steep meadows, and the occasional village tucked into a cleft through which impressive peaks, some capped with snow, can be seen in the distance.
And I had it to myself. One likely reason is that visiting yachts aren't welcome to explore and drop anchor just anywhere. Before I left, the police took down my itinerary. Ostensibly, they're trying to stop drug traffic to Europe. They seize 500 tons of hashish a year, according to Marvine Howe's book, Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges. It must be a drop in the bucket, though. Morocco is the world leader in marijuana production; it's grown on 335,000 acres, a quarter of the farmland in the Er Rif, the crescent of mountains along the coast. Enormous swaths of kif fields were visible from Ranger.
Pot is a symptom of a national equivocation that allows cultivation and open use, embraces the infusion of cash into a subsistence economy, and accepts an arms-length control of what Howe calls "the indomitable Rif." Protected by their terrain, Berber tribesmen have, in turn, fought off the French, the Spanish, and Moroccan central authority.
When not gawking, I kept busy reefing and shaking out sails, trimming, and watching for blasts of sirocco-like winds that gushed down the gaps in the mountains. Gibraltar Radio and my new Navtex English-text forecasts both assured me of light westerlies in the Alboran. At times they were right, but I ended up motorsailing into a brisk easterly as I nosed into the fishing harbor of El Jabha.
The first thing I noticed was a soldier standing on the hillside beside one of the characteristic little peaked guard shacks and watching me through binoculars. The second was a clutch of wooden sardine trawlers rafted along a concrete quay, their battered sides protected by old tires. There was no place for a sailboat.
A couple of young men motioned me to come alongside their trawler, which was rafted third out. Within a few minutes a gendarme and several villagers had crawled across to begin "formalities."
It took five languages (French, Spanish, Arabic, Berber, and English), a lot of hand waving, and the reading of a rarely used form-all in good humor-to complete my clearance. At some point, a young uniformed man, realizing he had nothing more to suspect, stuck out his hand and said, "Welcome."
Later, the haunting cry of the call to prayer came from a minaret high above the central mosque. A few people, and some of the fishermen, rolled out prayer mats where they were and bowed to the east, but most went about their business.
Morocco, on the western frontier of Islam-the Maghreb region-was born a bridge between East and West and has managed a political stance that includes both western culture and Islamist fundamentalism. Moroccan citizens have been terrorists, in Casablanca, Madrid, and Iraq-one Tétouan neighborhood, in fact, produced 13 jihadists-but Morocco was also the only Arab country to publicly mourn America's loss on September 11, 2001. More recently, Morocco and the United States signed a free-trade pact.
According to Howe, Morocco's king, who has absolute power, has kept radical Islam in check by basically throwing suspects in prison while executing others. Internal pressure to democratize, ironically, has allowed Islamists the freedom to prevent women from gaining true equality.
In El Jabha, I was treated as an honored guest-and a curiosity. Nagib Ahannach, master of the rafted trawler, greeted me with his hand over his heart and a trilingual soliloquy that included the words "Live, die, guerre," meaning, I think, that we all live and die and that war is bad for everyone.
In a harbor café where sardines simmered with onions, potatoes, and cumin in the national dish called tajine, village boys crowded around, whispering, "A-mad-i-can." Who, I wondered, was discovering whom? As I roamed the streets and looked into shops, several villagers mentioned Iraq, dismissed it with a wince and a wave, but never showed the least animosity toward me. At the central mosque, when I stuck my head in a classroom, children lined up to kiss my hand.
To fishermen, I was a fellow mariner who'd paid a rare visit. Morning and night, they tied and untied and prodded their trawlers into the harbor while passing Ranger quay-ward, smiling and shouting to me, "Tranquilo!" The whole town greeted the fleet's return, children wiggling to the front, each clutching a plastic bag to fill with sardines for supper.