Morocco's Wild West: The Ancient Rif Region

by Habeeb Salloum
Special to

Morocco - “I’m anxious to explore a part of Morocco I have never seen!” My friend Ahmed mused as we began our trip, driving northward from Rabat, Morocco’s capital. A feeling of anticipation was in the air as Ahmed, driving our small rented Fiat, talked about the Rif and its historic mountains.

I had met Ahmed, a Lebanese ophthalmologist and his wife Christine, also an eye doctor living in France, at a mutual friend’s place in Rabat and had decided to join them on a northern Moroccan journey. Now we were on our way to the region where the famous Moroccan nationalist Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi had in the 1920s with only a few men battled the Spanish and French armies to a standstill.

A Souk Stop for Lunch
At Kenitra we stopped at Souk Al Arba for lunch. The mouth-watering smell of barbecuing meat filled the air as we walked into what appeared to be the best restaurant on the main street of town. However as soon as we sat down, flies joined us by the dozens. The tough lamb meat and the annoying insects swarming us made for an unappetizing lunch (not worth the $22 for three).

On the other hand my memories of Moroccan street food have not always been disappointing. A few years earlier enroute a bus ride from Casablanca to Marrakesh, I sat beside a Moroccan who was very sociable. We became fast friends. When the bus stopped for a short breakfast break, I invited him to share a morning meal. He grabbed my hand saying, “Follow me to the back of the restaurant for some real Moroccan food!” Soon we were enjoying a lamb tajine which was allowed to cook over low heat overnight. Now around me were a dozen Moroccans relishing the succulent result. It was a meal to remember!

The sparkling jewel of Chefchaouen
The winding road traversed prosperous looking farmlands when we reached the hillside town of Ouezzane. We toured the town by auto then strolled through its old section. Beyond Ouezzane the hills began to increase in height and groves of cork and olives, many newly planted, became more numerous. We ascended the hill and behold, before us on the opposite hill stood the ancient mountain village of Chefchaouen, shining in the twilight hours.

Soon we checked-in at the Hotel Parador. We were all excited, hardly being able to wait to explore its narrow climbing streets and eye-catching blue-trimmed white structures, all of which remind travellers to the town’s connection to Andalusia.

When the Arab Muslims in Spain were defeated in 1492, it ended their 781-year presence in the Iberian Peninsula. Forced into exile many fled to North Africa. One of these groups of refugees settled in northern Morocco and established Chefchaouen, a town of which some 50,000 inhabitants today are virtually all descendants. Chefchaouen became a sacred town and for years it was off-limits to Europeans until French/Spanish forces in 1926 defeated the Rif rebellion led by Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi.

The next morning I stopped a distinguished looking merchant and asked, “Do the people here still speak the Andalusian Arabic dialect once spoken in Moorish Spain?” He hesitated for a moment and replied, “Of course!” as one of his customers interrupted. “It isn’t true! Only a few of us know the Andalusian dialect. We speak Moroccan!” I departed puzzled and wondered, “Perhaps some still live in the world of nostalgia!”

Chefchaouen’s connection to Andalusia is still vividly alive in other ways. The white-washed homes, shop names, visitors’ abodes and the general appearance are reminders to travellers of Andalusian towns.

The Fierce Nationalist
The following day we drove east through forested mountains. Here and there villages scarcely dotted the countryside. It is said that the isolated Rif Mountains are ideal for warfare. It is no surprise then that Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi’s troops often ambushed the Spanish and French armies here.

Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi led an armed resistance against Spanish and French rule in North Africa and established the short-lived Republic of the Rif (1921–26). A skilled tactician and organizer, he led a liberation movement that not only made him a national hero but his tactics are known to have inspired others like Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.

Bolivia, Mexico and Peru’s Connection
As we drove along a busy highway Christine, Ahmed and I kept up a lively conversation in Arabic, French and English, translating back and forth. Suddenly I pointed out some women with wide-rimmed straw hats. “See there! Do you know that the Mexican sombrero had its origin in this part of Morocco?”

Some believe the Spanish after converting a local tribe known for their wide-brimmed straw hats, mistrusted the new Christian converts. To rid the country of this group, the Spanish settled them in what is now Mexico, hence, the similar Mexican straw hats. I have no proof but this suggestion appears to be quite popular throughout Morocco.

Moments later Christine called out, “Look! It’s a Bolivian women’s dress!” She had a point. We passed women clad in a dress that resembled the folk costumes in Bolivia and Peru. Like the sombrero, the blanket-dress could have had its origin in these mountains.

About 120 km from Chefchaouen, we continued northward toward the coast. Fog engulfed us. The road plagued with potholes and broken surfaces slowed our speed to a snail’s pace. I cursed Michelin and their maps which indicated the 65km route was a scenic drive.

The Final Stretch to Tetouan
At El Jebha we drove along the coast toward Tetouan. The scenic highway wound back and forth around mountains with soaring cliffs that plunged into the Mediterranean. There was never a straight stretch and it was apparent that the distance as the crow flies between El Jibha and Tetouan more than doubled when driving on the highway.

Close to Tetouan, at the town of Amata, we stopped at the Café Arraha. We were all happy and relaxed as we sipped on our Moroccan tea. As dusk fell I considered the countless mountains we had encircled as we arrived to Tetouan.

Situated amid orange, almond, pomegranate and cypress trees that envelope dazzling white houses, this former capital of Spanish Morocco is a strangely enchanting city. It has a dramatic setting between the somber Rif Mountains and the colourful Martil Valley. The white homes with their green tile roofs represent a fine mixture of Spanish and Moorish architecture and give the city an inviting character.

The next day we toured the old city built by Spanish Arab exiles. Tetouan was the end of our Rif exploration. We had lived in the aura of the Spanish Arab exiles as well as Abd El-Karim El-Khattabi’s exploits while at the same time glorying in the landscape that they called home.

If You Go:

Facts About The Rif Region:
1) Nationals of most countries do not need visas - only valid passports.

2) If you know French, it is easy to get around in Morocco. Almost everyone speaks French, but a good number also know English.

3) Unit of currency in Morocco is the dirham. At present, it fluctuates at around 8 to a dollar. Exchange money at banks or hotels. Rates are almost all the same with no commission.

4) When traveling in Morocco, trains are the most comfortable and are reasonably priced – from Casablanca to Marrakech $15 first-class. Buses are inexpensive - CTM the best. Small autos, with unlimited mileage and fully insured, rent for about $30 a day. Petit Taxis are metered and very reasonable - always ask the driver to turn on the meter. If not metered, negotiate fares before entering the cab.

5) Restaurants and other food outlets are inexpensive. One can eat a complete meal of the day for from $8 to $15 in good restaurants. In top restaurants meals cost from $15.

While in Chefchaouen try a meal at the Hotel Parador – best food in town.

6) Two good hotels to stay in while touring the Rif region are: Hotel Parador, Chefchaouen. Tel: 039 98 61 36/63 24. Fax: 039 98 70 33. Cost of room about $60. per day. Hotel Chams, Tetouan, Tel:+212 / 0399990901/2/3. Fax: +212 / 0399990907. Website: Cost of room about $60 per day

7) The mass of hustlers that once infested the tourist spots have been greatly diminished by the strong arm of the law.

8) Tips are expected for every service - always carry small change.

9) Bargain for all tourist items - never shop with the guide - his cut is about 30%.

10) At night, avoid dark alleyways. Morocco is safer than many other countries but muggers still stalk the lonely streets.


photo: Habeeb Salloum

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