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Make Way for the King

by Richard LeBlond

In 1972, I headed from the States to Europe and North Africa with that wave of young North Americans for whom an international adventure was an essential experience in the new era of personal growth. I was 30 and had quit my job, turning all of my assets into cash, including a retirement fund. Life is not short when you’re young, and old age is dared. After a few months in southern Spain, I set out for Morocco.

On the ferry to Ceuta I met two young Englishmen who were headed to Agadir in a Triumph sports car, and they agreed to take me with them, stuffing me into that small space behind the two seats. They had been to Morocco before, and when we got to the town of Tétouan, the former capital of Spanish Morocco, they stopped and bought some hashish, a hardened form of compressed resins from the marijuana plant, Cannabis sativa.

We spent the first night in the beautiful Rif Mountain town of Chefchaouen, or Chaouen as it is called locally. This is where I would later come to recuperate from a frigid night outside, and from an ordeal with the Agadir police.

Other than the stark, fortressed beauty of Essaouira (formerly Mogador, a port once involved in the slave trade), the only thing I remember between Chaouen and Agadir is the night we spent on a bluff above the ocean, the two Englishmen sleep-sitting in the Triumph, with me lying on the ground underneath. The wind was howling, the temperature felt below freezing, and my clothing didn’t come close to keeping me warm. How could this possibly be Africa? I hadn’t considered that I was probably no farther south than the latitude of Savannah, Georgia.

Agadir was nearly destroyed by an earthquake on February 29, 1960, 13 years before my visit. More than 12,000 people had been killed and 30,000 left homeless. Although a relatively moderate earthquake at 5.75 on the Richter scale, the epicenter was shallow and near the center of town. In terms of human carnage, it was the worst earthquake ever recorded in Africa.

Making the city more earthquake-resistant during reconstruction became difficult because the populace believed it was God, not geological plate tectonics, that destroyed the city. The residents favored the reconstruction of personal behavior through religious oversight.

The two Englishmen and I separated in Agadir, and I checked into a hotel in the restored center of town. My first task was to find a shop that sold the traditional kif pipe so I could smoke bits of the small chunk of hashish the Englishmen had given me. Morocco was the first country I had been to where cannabis use, though technically illegal, was culturally acceptable. It was part of what attracted me.

About mid-morning the next day, I left the hotel in search of a kif pipe. As I approached the market area, a police van pulled up to the curb ahead of me. Two policemen got out to talk with a young couple from North America or Europe.

One of the policemen motioned me to join them, and the couple and I were escorted to the back of the van. The doors were opened, and we saw that inside at least eight people were standing and stooped over, since the “standing” space was less than five feet high. We were told to get in, and the doors were shut behind us. No reason was given.

When the van was fully crammed, we were driven to police headquarters near the edge of town. The building was five stories high and U-shaped on the horizontal plane. Within the opening of the “U” was a large area normally used for parking, but it now was our holding area. The entrance to the parking and/or holding area was fenced and gated with wrought iron about 12 feet high.

The rear doors of the van were opened and we backed out and stepped down onto the pavement of the holding area. Fifty or so people were already gathered there, most of whom had some accoutrements of the hippie movement — beards or long hair for the men, long skirts and hair for the women — with tie-dye, paisley, patchouli oil, peace signs, and beads in abundance. But there were also a few young couples who didn’t look like hippies, so it couldn’t be said that the police were just rounding up people who looked like Cher, Cheech, or Chong.

Vans continued to bring people into the holding area for the rest of the day, and eventually there were more than 125 of us (counting was one of the things I did to ward off what I hoped was paranoia). During the early part of our captivity, the police kept a distance except for unloading the vans, and in general seemed non-threatening.

But as anyone familiar with those times might predict, it wasn’t long before some of the hotter heads among us — at least a few heated by drugs — lost patience and began shouting for answers to why we were being held. It was in response to this that a few policemen appeared on the balcony that extended out from the second floor inside the “U,” above the holding area. Each of them held a submachine gun trained on us.

At around two in the afternoon, we were spoken to for the first time. A young policeman with a Western demeanor and good command of English walked into the holding area with a few other officers and told us that the situation should be resolved within an hour. But he failed to tell us what the situation was.

This routine was repeated about hourly for the next three hours, and then sometime after five o’clock a larger group of officers came into the holding area and had us form a line. We were asked individually to show our passports, and were then separated into two groups, the passport haves and have-nots. All of this happened under the watchful authority of the submachine guns on the second floor balcony.

Then around six the gate was opened and those of us with passports were allowed to walk back to town, still not knowing why we had been picked up. Those who had left their passports in a vehicle or room were herded into the police vans and taken to the place of their passport, then released upon producing it.

That night I learned from the hotel desk clerk why we had been rounded up. The king was coming.

After 13 years of recovery and reconstruction following the devastating 1960 earthquake, the small city was cranking up a new publicity campaign to attract tourists, primarily from northern Europe. King Hassan II was to be the highlight of the campaign’s opening ceremonies, and an indication of the depth to which Morocco was behind this remaking of the city.

Hippie-filled streets was not the image Agadir had in mind for its publicity campaign, at least not while the king was in town. The few straight-looking couples who had been confined with all of us hippie types may have been the victims of overzealousness or a misunderstanding. They looked indistinguishable from the crowd the Moroccans were trying to attract.

I was advised by the hotel staff to remain indoors the day after the ordeal, as the police were going to repeat the confinement-without-charge until all the undesirables had left.

The police had evaded responsibility for their overbearing action with silence, and left Agadir’s citizens to fill in the blank. We had been picked up and confined as a subtle form of ejection from the city. Forcible ejection would not have looked good on a tourist town’s résumé.

I got out of town as quickly as I could, but it took two days to find room on those hippie-filled buses.

Copyright © 2020 by Richard LeBlond

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