We stopped for a coffee and a cigarette in a Spanish train station’s cafeteria. As we sipped and puffed, an American hippie dressed in an Arab robe lumbered by us.
”Hey dude, you from the States?” Neal inquired.
“Yeah man, I’m from San Francisco. My name is John. Where are you guys from?”
“John, I’m Mort and this is Neal. We’re from from upstate New York. Where did you get that awesome Arab robe?” I asked.
John, a classic American hippie, was tall, blonde, skinny and stoned. The odor of hashish permeated his body–a smell our noses knew only too well. He was dressed in a hooded blue and white Arab robe that swept the station’s cement floor.
In one long run-on sentence, John wowed us with tales of Moroccan days and nights. “Man you got to go, the Moroccans are really nice folks, man dope is real cheap, it’s the best hash you’ll ever taste, man food is real cheap, in Tangiers you’ll blow your brains out, you won’t ever want to leave the place, it’s far-fucking out.”
Then from under his robe, he reached into his shorts and pulled out a cardboard matchbox.
“Let me show you this shit.” And like a magician holding a deck of cards, John slowly opened the box. Our eyes lit up at the sight of five grams of soft yellow hash.
Neal nodded his approval and I knew our next adventure would be in Morocco.
Over the screeching of train brakes, the John continued to give his pitch. “You guys can trade those faded blue jeans you’re wearing for brand new Arab robes. You won’t believe it. In the Kasbah, hashish sells for a dollar a gram. An Arab guide will escort you to a dealer for a tip of few American bucks.”
His words sucked us in, like a Woodridge sucker fish falling into our nets.
My brain went into high gear.
Mort, weigh the pros and cons:
What could go wrong to two Jewish kids in an Arab country?
When it came to getting high, weren’t there always major risks and weren’t we risk-takers?
Didn’t John, the hippie, just say how friendly the Moroccans were?
Didn’t Morocco have a Jewish community dating back to the days before the destruction of the Second Temple?
Didn’t Moses Maimonides live in Morocco?
But I also remembered reading in my Junior Jewish Encyclopedia that for hundreds of years Moroccan Jews were forced to live in ghettos as second-class citizens.
As always, dope won.
We were on the next south-bound train headed for the southern Spain where we would board a ship that would take us to the northern tip of Western Africa.
From the ship’s railing, we waved good-bye to Spanish coastline and the Rock of Gibraltar. Approaching the port of Tangier, we marveled on seeing the city’s minarets. As we disembarked, we were assaulted by a wave of young Moroccan boys begging to be our city guides. A thirteen-year-old kid approached me, grabbed my arm and pulled me aside.
“My name is Mohammed Ali. For one low price, I’ll be your guide to the city. I’ll take you to a clean hotel.”
I wondered, “Where did he learn to speak fluent English?”
He lowered his voice, “Then I’ll take you to the Kasbah to buy hashish?”
I nodded my approval.
Neal having heard the “H” word said, “Sounds great. Let’s go.”
Ali led us into the European Quarter via the Rue De La Kasbah. We walked by a street named Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who discovered pasteurization.
And I pondered, “What would we discover in Morocco?”
Ali stopped at a pastel-white stuccoed fort-styled hotel. “This is a clean hotel and the rooms are reasonably priced.”
“Okay let’s check in,” Neal replied.
“Neal, do you remember studying the French colonization of Morocco?”
“I loved those French Foreign Legion movies where they fight the Arab on horseback. This Beau Gest hotel brings back memories. All it needs is a doorman dressed like Gary Cooper or Ronald Colman in that legionnaire’s white kepi with a sash wrapped around his waist.”
“Yup, a doorman standing at attention and saluting us as we entered the hotel.” Neal said.
The Hotel Scheherazade was built in the early forties. It looked like it came off the Casablanca movie set. Walking through the hotel’s horseshoe-arched portico, we entered the lobby. Its walls and floors were covered with glass mosaics and marble panels. The mosaics reflected sunlight which caused my eyes to blink as if I had fallen into a kaleidoscope.
I studied the glazed tiles looking for a drawing of Rick and Ilsa and only found sketches of nomads riding camels.
No Bogart, no Bergman, no piano, no Sam and no As Time Goes By.
Neal broke my train of thought, “Mort, we got to check in.”
As I examined the decorative arabesque-patterned rug that hung behind the hotel’s reception desk, the clerk, a thin man wearing a white linen suit greeted us, “Welcome to the Scheherazade. Please fill out the hotel registration and I will need to hold your passports while you are our guests.”
We handed the passports to him, paid for one night’s stay and were given a key to our room. We rushed up the stairs as if Ali would abandon us and not guide us to the hash dealer. After throwing our knapsacks on the beds, we washed the Saharan dust off of our faces and raced back to the lobby.
Our bar mitzvah-aged guide dressed in Levis whisked us into the Kasbah. We crossed through ancient white portals framed in blue and yellow tiles. The dust on the street caused my eyes and nose to twitch. Walking through narrow shaded alleys, we bumped into Arab men dressed in white caftans.
In the short distance from the hotel to the Kasbah, we time-traveled from the Twentieth Century into the Sixteenth.
My nostrils burned with a mixture of tobacco smoke, dog shit and Middle Eastern grilled meats. As flies landed on its dropping, one mongrel tied to a post, bore its rib cage and howled of hunger.
These odors melded together under a Saharan sun. They crawled though my nostrils, irritating my nose hairs which caused me to repeatedly sneeze.
“Gesundheit.” Neal said.
“Thanks,” I replied, thinking, “ Yiddish in an Arab capitol not too bright.”
We halted in front of a two-story building after hearing Ali say, “We’re here. Follow me up these steps.”
On the second story, I focused in on the door post and saw a smudge of brown paint. I imagined a mezuzah had once been nailed on the spot.
I thought, “Is this an omen?”
We entered a hole-in-the-wall apartment. My pupils expanded upon entering the dimly-lit living room.
Under an exposed 60 watt light bulb stood a skinny, twenty-something, dark-skinned Moroccan. Ali introduced us.
“Achmed, these are two Americans from New York. Neal and Mort and they want to buy some of your most excellent hashish.”
Achmed wore a red Polo shirt, blue Levis and a pleasant smile.
“Gentleman, welcome to Tangier.”
At this point Ali interrupted, “Guys, I have got to go back to the port so please pay me my guide fee.”
We thanked Ali, paid him his fee and watched him fly out the door.
Our dealer continued in perfect English. “It is a pleasure to meet both of you. Please have a seat on these pillows. I will be right back.”
As we sat down on the large decorative pillows, I examined the three foot high, ornate silver hookah. It rested on the floor in the middle of the room surrounded by pillows. I studied the Persian carpets mounted on each wall.
“Neal look at each of these carpets. They incorporate scenes from the Arabian Nights.”
“Yeah this room is right out of A Thousand and One Nights.” Neal replied.
In the corner of the room rested a solid wooden table. The table held a 1950’s RCA Victrola record player and the album jacket from Nashville Skyline . The past blended with the present as the Victrola played Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay. Dylan’s voice floated into my ears: Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed.
Next to the record player a small porcelain incense burner burned. Four lit incense sticks emitted a blue glow and the scent of jasmine. The smoke zigzagged and danced to Dylan’s lyrics.
I whispered to Neal, “This is fucking unbelievable. Are we part of a Hollywood set or what? We’re listening to Bobby Zimmerman. Last year at this time we were trying to meet the guy at his Woodstock home.”
Our pupils dilated as the Achmed returned holding two large sheets of hash. Each sheet was the size if a Spanish floor tile.
“Wow, that’s one hell of a site. I have never seen such a large quantity of dope. Each sheet would be worth at least a thousand dollars in the States.” Neal whispered.
But before the negotiations commenced, Achmed said, “Would you guys like a taste?”
We both nodded our heads in agreement. Achmed pinched off a gram of hash and inserted it into the hookah’s bowl.
As he readied the pipe, I studied the multiple-hosed hookah with its ornate brass fixtures and a blue glass vase. With a wooden match, Achmed lit the hash. The smell of sulfur hit my nostrils. The match flame sent a flash across the room.
Placing the hose in my mouth, I took a long deep drag. After a few seconds I exhaled the sweet-smelling smoke watching it float toward the ceiling.
After a few more hits we were all blasted. Achmed now turned to business. “How much of this shit do you want to buy?” he inquired.
Looking Achmed square in the eyes, I replied, “We’ll be in Morocco for only a short time, so we only need ten dollars worth.”
The room went cold. I watched his eyes and body language change from relaxed to uptight.
“Are you Jews? You look like Jews.” He sneered.
Silently, I moved my lips to recite the Shema Yisrael.
Neal uttered the denial, “We’re not Jews, no not us. We’re Christians.”
In my inebriated state, I paused to wonder, “How much better off we were with Neal’s denial?”
Achmed broke off a hand-sized piece of hash and said, “Here’s the deal assholes. Either you buy this chunk of hash for fifty dollars or I am going to have my Uncle Mohammad to have you arrested. He is the chief of the Tangier Police Department. ”
My bowels constricted, as he continued, “And if you don’t know it, in Moroccan jails the only food you get is from people on the outside. The jailors provide you with only dirty water.”
Hearing those words forced my stomach into my throat. My abdominal acids burned through my esophagus and tears formed in my eyes. Now I knew what could happen to two Jewish kids in an Arab country. Adrenaline ran through my veins like movie goers fleeing a burning theater.
I looked at Neal and whispered, “You grab the dope. I’ll hand him fifty dollars. We both dash out of here and run to the hotel, nonstop.”
“Let’s do it,” Neal replied.
I paid and we ran out the door, down the steps, into the street toward our hotel.
Neal stuck the hand-size piece of hash in his pocket. My capillaries popped as I scanned for Moroccan gendarmes.
In our Scheherazade room, we caught our breathe. Neal blurted out his plan, “Before the cops get here, let’s eat some of this stuff and dump the rest in the toilet.”
“I’m with you buddy. Let’s go for it.” I replied.
We each broke off a few grams, swallowed hard to avoid choking and washed down the dry clay-like substance with a glass of water. The remainder we flushed down the toilet.
“I can’t believe we just flushed over 40 grams of hash down the bowl.” Neal said.
Hitting the bed, I relaxed realizing that the incriminating evidence was gone. My blood pressure leveled off as the hash started to massage my brain.
Within an hour the first hallucinations appeared. The room’s walls crept towards my bed, slammed into the bed’s corners and then bounced off . I watched in a state of utter fascination. When I stopped focusing on the walls, the grey paisley-patterned curtains swam onto the ceiling as if a stream of sperm searched of a solitary egg.
Thrilled and terrorized by this hallucinogenic trip my brain went into sleep mode, a deep slumber.
Around four A.M., I woke to the ringing of the phone. I answered, “Hello. Who is this? What do you want?”
The male voice on the other end of the line responded in French, “A quelle heure est votre bateau au depart?”
“A trois heures,” I replied—knowing full well that we would be sailing out of Tangier at eleven o’clock in the morning and not at three in the afternoon. Finding it difficult to fall back to sleep, I tossed and turned wondering, “Who called?”
“Was it the police?”
“Was it Achmed or one of his conspirators?”
“Or, was it a hallucination caused by the ingestion of so much hashish?”
I fell back to sleep for about an hour. Only to be awakened at dawn by the voices of Moroccan cattle dealers bringing their livestock to market.
My paranoid, drug-induced brain, translated their Arabic cries. “Kill the Jews, Kill the Jews!” Hiding and shaking under the sheets, I pictured Arabs holding nooses and knives beneath my hotel window. My fear abated when their voices faded away.
Still shivering , I wondered, “How many times and in how many languages had my father heard those words?
I cringed at the thought, “Had he ever actually seen people murdered after those words were screamed?”
That morning in the hotel restaurant, over Turkish coffee and Galois cigarettes, I recounted the whole story to Neal.
“Mort, pretty scary story. That hash blew me away. I did not hear the phone ring or the cattle dealers chants. I liked how your brain translated Arabic to English, since you don’t speak a word of Arabic. But let’s play it safe. I think we should take a cab to the port right now. No sense in taking any more chances.”
As our ship left the shores of Tangier, I smiled at our luck and said, “Thank G-d we made it. Last night I pictured us jailed, hung and/or castrated. They were not pretty pictures…definitely not Hollywood.”
Neal listened but remained silent for a few seconds. I guessed he still felt the effects of the hash. Then he bellowed, “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord. I think I see the Spanish coastline.”
“Neal, when I get off this boat I am going to kiss the soil of Spain.” And I did.
As Morocco and Israel normalize ties, I thought presenting my 1969 Moroccan adventure which is taken from a chapter of my book, “A Hebraic Obsession” (available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Hebraic-Obsession-Mort-Laitner/dp/0996036903) would be of interest to TOI readers.