Ouezzane, Morocco – Holy City of Hills and Hashish

On the same road from Meknes to Chefchaouen in Morocco, a historically significant destination often overlooked is Ouezzane. A sprawling town positioned just at the southern border of the Rif Mountains, it was once a place for Andalusian Jewish refugees and criminals to escape to in the mid to late 1400s. The religious overseer for Muslims of note was named Moulay Abdullah ben Brahim, who actually attempted becoming Sultan over Morocco in the 1700s.

Those of Jewish ancestry regard Rabbi Amrane ben Diwan as the most significant religious man to come out of the area, and many of the Jewish faith make annual pilgrimages to his tomb. The Berbers of the area regard Ouezzane as one of the holiest cities in all of Morocco. In the 1700s, descendants of Moulay Idriss formed a group known as the Taibia and became the town’s ruling body. Following, Moulay Brahim became its head holy man or Shreef.

The shreef of the region, considered one of the holiest men in the country after the king, is looked upon with great respect. He lives outside the city center in a sanctuary surrounded by gardens. The gardens have probably lost some of their past glory, but are still well kept. Since the area is now sparse, if not devoid, of Jews, the Shreef is said to control the entire area’s religion on his shoulders. Should any civil cases or questions of morality arise, he is the people’s religious mediator and decision maker.

Ouezzane has a small medina. The southern half of the town forms the old Jewish area and has a strong Andalusian feel due to the extravagant houses with balconies still holding their tiled charm. The famous Rabbi and other Jews were buried in a cemetery outside of town in an area known as Azjem.

One of the most famous stories that ever came out of the area was when Shreef Si Absellam married British Emily Keene, a Christian, in the late 1800s. In doing so, he gave up his three Muslim wives to be with her. The divorce and new marriage caused much strain for the townspeople, who no longer looked at the Shreef as a pure and moral leader as before. Additionally, he was an alcoholic and a kif addict. Emily Keene stayed in Morocco and upon her death was taken to St. Andrew’s Christian Church in Tangier for burial. Her tomb is a popular tourist attraction.

If you do travel in Ouezzane, much like Chefchaouen, you will be hassled to buy hashish. The drug was made illegal in 1961 and police are always looking to make a statement by catching foreigners red-handed. The area is ideal for hiking, but talk to locals about how you can stay away from the 90,000 hectares (215,000 acres) of cannabis fields. Overall, Ouezzane has interesting historical ties for both Muslims and Jews. It is a place where both claim their own miracles occurred. Stroll around the Muslim and Jewish cemeteries to fully appreciate how these two distinct cultures once lived side by side in harmony.