The Old Man and the Sea

I spent a week in Berber Country in South Western Morocco in February. I was doing a surf story for Ryanair Magazine.  If every story I did was a surf story for Ryanair Magazine, I think I’d be the happiest little freelancer in the world.

Taghazout lies about a 25-minute drive north of Agadir. It’s built right on the shoreline. At high tide, you walk out the door and your feet get wet. And sometimes when storms batter the west coast of Morocco, you can’t even open that door. One storm back in the 1960s stayed for a week and left with the entire fishing fleet on its back. But in general the waves that creep towards the beach fall into the enticing rather than frightening bracket.

It’s home to a traditional Berber community but, because of its proximity to the sea and good surfing breaks, has always had a healthy mix of foreigners coming and going. It started with the British Navy who used to stop by and swap their rusty Winchesters and venereal diseases for provisions and trinkets. Then US Marines stormed through during World War II liberating the Moroccans from the Nazis. In the late 1960s, the children of the war vets blew into town bringing their own form of liberation called peace and love, and after them the first combi-vans full of surfers appeared.

Lahcen Aitidir (pictured, previous page) got his first surfboard from an Australian in 1971, but he’d been surfing before that. “We surfed on tree bark or pieces of palm trees,” he says. “But it wasn’t so nice. It cut your skin.” They were the original boogie boards.

Lahcen is 54. He’s a sinewy, short man and when you see him throwing himself off the rocks on a multi-coloured longboard you think he doesn’t stand a chance against the incoming waves. But then he ducks and weaves past the breakers and you remember he’s been in this water for half a century and is as comfortable on a wave as a mountain goat is on a mountain.

Lahcen lives with his wife in a beachfront house at Hash Point – which got its name for being the lazy man’s surf spot in Taghazout. It’s a right-hander that breaks just in front of the town. You can pretty much down your tea, pay your bill, make a slow run for the water and be dropping into a wave in a few minutes. It’s the place where the first hippies arrived in the 1960s, and Lahcen remembers the time well.

“They had no passports and they didn’t use money. They traded necklaces and jeans for fish or even hash. They stayed all day without clothes. People were used to it. It was a great time and they were very nice people,” he says.

The hippies stayed in Taghazout for nearly 10 years. They lived on the beach or with Berber families. Everyone in the town can produce old photos of them with some Joni Mitchell look-a-like. Hendrix visited during that time too. Rumours abound that his song Castles Made Of Sand was written about the vulnerable buildings along the beachfront, but since the track was written in 1967 and Hendrix did not actually visit Morocco until 1969, it remains unlikely. Lahcen doesn’t know if he met Hendrix or not. “I saw many people who looked like Jimi Hendrix then, and they all played music too. They were all Jimi Hendrix.”

In 1973 the Moroccan military arrived in Taghazout with 20 trucks. They brought the hippies to the airport and deported them. People in the town cried and protested. “Their families in America were probably looking for them, but we were crying because they were our friends, our family too.” The surfers who arrived in the 1970s didn’t replace the hippies, but they were met with the same affection. Lahcen remembers the first VW van. “It had a kangaroo on the side of it,” he says.

Even today, the surf spots in Taghazout aren’t rammed compared with those in Europe and the US. Twenty surfers out in the line-up constitutes a busy day here, while most breaks in California or even Cornwall could only dream of such intimacy. But back when Lahcen was first surfing, two other bodies in the water felt like a crowd. As the 1980s progressed, Taghazout became the only place in North African surfing.

James Bailey, 26, runs the Surf Berbere hostel and surf school. He’s Lahcen’s neighbour. A short holiday and a £200 (€228) deposit later, he was swapping city life in London for a place where sun and unpredictable bowel movements are both guaranteed. Like Goa and Costa Rica, Taghazout is home to that brave breed of traveller with the ingenuity to make their favourite destination their place of business.

Surfing is the only show in town these days, and any other tourism that exists is riding on the back of the industry. The surf schools offer lessons on what are probably some of the best breaks to learn on. The water’s warm, the waves are consistent, and thanks to the scarcity of booze (it’s still available, don’t worry), you’re not paddling out every morning trying to piece together the night before.

It’s a special, close-knit place. If you wander into the surf shops around the town and mention Lahcen’s name, they’ll tell you that the first board they ever surfed on was his. Surfboards were, and still are, luxury items. Improvisation, repair and scrounging are as much bywords of the Taghazout surfing community as low and high tide. It wasn’t a million years ago that people here were using telephone cable as leashes, and let’s not forget those palm-tree surfboards.

The generation that followed Lahcen grew up with an ownership over surfing. No longer just for blond Australians avoiding the winter back home, if one of their own could surf the same waves then why shouldn’t they? Moroccan youngsters would hit the water before school, then come back out again after the last bell rang. Like Brazilian kids dreaming of getting signed up on football contracts, the kids in Taghazout dreamt of surf sponsorships, and if that didn’t work they could open a surf shop or school. It was still a nicer life than their fathers’ or grandfathers’ who fished or farmed in the mountains.

Imane Zagraou, 30, is one of the first female Moroccan surfers. She runs a surf school and has a sponsorship deal with Rip Curl. Which in the Moroccan surf world is pretty much like having it all. But in order to get that far she’s had to put up with an annoying amount of negativity that comes from being a pioneer. “I got strange looks and people dropped in on me [my waves] on purpose,” she says. On top of that her business and registration papers took twice as long to process as they would normally do for a man. Taghazout may stand out for its liberal internationalism but it’s surrounded on one side by the sea and the other by a conservative Muslim population.

It’s this conservatism that starts funny rumours. One goes that during Ramadan the more devout surfers don’t go into the water for fear of swallowing and breaking their fast. Though that may be true for one or two, the people of Taghazout have grown up alongside hippies and travellers, and their laid-back attitude and curiosity is a product not only of their Berber roots but also a cosmopolitan mix of visitors.

So long as the swell is working Lahcen Aitidir still surfs during Ramadan. “You’re not a fish. You just close your mouth,” he says.

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