IN CHEFCHAOUEN, the air is warm and dry. Clear blue skies peer down on the days I spend wandering this high-walled town in Morocco's Rif Mountains. Drinking mint tea and smoking Kif, I watch the evening sun slowly drop as the town becomes sleepy. Feeds of succulent Lamb Tagine home-cooked in cute hotpots followed by more Kif. Time moves on a different level here; there is no European living against the clock. Chefchaouen is the blue city of the Rif. Small stone homes are huddled along whitewashed alleyways, all painted in calming shades; Azure, Maya and Powder blue.
I stand on the hotel balcony at the end of the night, looking out over the mountain range. It is a plateau of silence, only broken by jangling bells as mountain goats scramble along slopes that hug the north side of town. In the darkness to the east lies the town of Ketema. A no-go zone with Hashish markets and a lawless reputation, it's one of Europe's main sedative sources. I imagine armed wholesalers cruising in SUVs, buying hash in bulk to feed the demand on the streets of Europe. But ancient Chefchaouen captivates. This is the real world. I fall back into my bed and the sound of the night reverberates in my head while I fade to sleep.
The bus pulls into the depot and the few of us waiting pile on up the steps. The driver takes my ticket money and I take a seat. We slowly leave Chefchaouen on our way to the pulsating city of Tangier on Morocco’s north-western corner. From the slowness of rural Morocco to an African urban hybrid, Tangier is a pressure cooker. Here is the merger of those trying to survive, trying to profit, and trying to escape. So many people with cross-section motives fill its winding alleyways.
The bus labours downhill towards the tail end of town, where we stop to pick up a much larger crowd. Two Policemen holding rifles quickly board the bus. They scan the interior and usher everyone down to the last few rows. The bus driver reassures us that all is okay. Then a chain line of prisoners board one after another, and fill every seat on the bus. The hot afternoon sun washes in through the windows. The chained - all men - are joined by a few women, who I presume are either wives or mothers. They carry food and bottled water in plastic bags. A policeman takes station up front and we start again, driving down the Rif Mountains, through the valley and towards Tetouan on route to Tangier.
One prisoner sits slumped in defeat. It's like the atmosphere has been suddenly ripped from the sky above. It came out of nowhere. There is no sun, only a sullen, heavy grey hanging over his head. Thoughts on how to deal with the oncoming sentence have overthrown him, and a mild panic sets in. A piece of bread touches his lips and he looks slowly down to the hand of his wife. She hides half crouched in the aisle, trying to stay out of the Guard's view while feeding her shackled husband some food.
We reach Tetouan a few hours later. Some prisoners who had fallen asleep are now waking to nudges. Faces are fixed to glass while the bus reverses in-between two tall concrete pillars, further into what I now assume is a prison yard. Looking out the front window, I can see locals stopped across the street. They stand looking at the bus and its chained up cargo as we roll back to a standstill.
The prison enclosure contrasts dramatically with the blue Moroccan vista above its towering walls. In the yard, armed men create a partition from the street, and a channel to the prison. The shackled column is herded from the bus into the building. A guard stands between us and those departing, while the wives stay seated - watching their loved ones slip away. The chained men look back, worried. The yard leads to an endless rotation of days and nights, all between walls that get narrower over time. The bus starts up again, and the prison doors close behind us.
Sample chapter from ‘Summer In The City State’ by Eamonn Sheehy © 2016.
Eamonn Sheehy - travel writing with a focus on people and culture.