Northern Africa: Egypt and Morocco

Northern Africa: Egypt and Morocco

A good example of cultural imperialism towards cannabis culture is provided by Napoleon, who during the Egyptian campaign published a proclamation in which he ordered that: 1) The use of the drink that some Muslims prepare with hemp, and the smoking of hemp flowers are prohibited throughout Egypt. Those who have this habit lose their reason and are caught up in violent delirium. 2) The preparation of the hemp – based drink is forbidden throughout Egypt. The doors of the rooms in which it is distributed will be walled up and the owners will be imprisoned for three months; 3) All the quantities of hemp arriving at the borders will be confiscated and burned in public.

But this did not help to prevent the spread of hemp throughout Africa, as can also be seen from some testimonies of the colonial period.

C.S. Sannini, a French man traveling to Egypt in 1800, reports that: “The most used hemp preparation is obtained by crushing the fruits (flowers) together with their membranous capsules: it is cooked in the oven with the addition of honey, pepper and nutmeg, and then the resulting sweet dough is swallowed, in doses of the size of a walnut. The poor, who soften the misery with the amazement produced by hemp, are content to eat the capsules of crushed seeds kneaded with water. There are also those who eat the capsules as they are, and those who smoke them mixed with tobacco. Others throw away the seeds, reduce only the capsules and the pistils into fine powder, mix this powder with an equal amount of tobacco and smoke the mixture in a kind of pipe, which seems a rough imitation of the pipes coming from Persia (Iran), and it is nothing more than a coconut emptied and filled with water. This way of smoking is one of the most common pastimes of women in southern Egypt. ”

Here is the description of the preparation of hashish, according to a report of the Central Office of Egyptian Narcotics, dated 1934: “Once completely dried by the sun, the plant begins to release  a fine amber coloured powder, particularly abundant in the capsules of seeds . It is then carefully laid out on large pieces of cloth, making sure that nothing is lost of the precious powder, and is thus taken to a special room that must meet certain conditions: it must be clean, have smooth walls, and must be possible to close it tightly. In addition, the floor must be smooth and hard to prevent the fragments from being broken off during the beating. The plants are then piled up in the middle of this room, and the workers proceed to the first beating with sticks or leather belts; although experts are specially engaged for the job, they must frequently interrupt the work to allow the lungs to get some fresh air. The purpose of the beating is to separate from the rest the useless twigs, which are thrown aside, and extract the first and best quality of hashish from the plant. Through this operation a cloud of very fine dust is lifted from the pile, which is deposited on the floor and surrounding walls. This powder is the hashish and at the end, after several rounds of beating, a pile of broken stem leaves and capsules containing the seeds remain on the ground; all this material is then passed through silk sieves or metal mesh of different widths, and mixed in various proportions with more or less fine powder, to obtain the different qualities of hashish.

“The last operation consists in putting the various mixtures in rectangular linen bags, which are sealed, flattened and then placed in a special cooking plant. It is a kind of closet about one meter high, provided with two air-tight doors; inside it has a shelf, about 2/3 of the height, under which two heat sources are placed with boiling water on top. The bags are placed on the shelf and the closet is closed: after 10-15 minutes the powder in the bags becomes soft and pasty, then the still warm bags are extracted and pressed into the desired shape; after having hardened for two or three hours, they are ready.”

Dr John Davidson, on holiday in Morocco in the second half of the nineteenth century, recounts: “The merchant of esrar (= secret preparation), arrives in the locality in which Cannabis is cultivated, divides into teams the groups of people that accompanies him. They enter the extensive fields of Cannabis and begin to cut away all the flowered tops, so that the leaves, from which the product is obtained, can develop more vigorous. Two weeks later this operation, harvest begins, after the merchant has ensured that the leaves are quite developed and very sticky to the touch. After all the plants have been collected and placed under a canopy, the leaves are detached from the stems and spread to dry on a large carpet called ‘kilim’. (Kilim or Ghilim is the Persian/Farsi name in today’s Iran for the rug on which prayer is performed). As soon as they have reached the desired dryness, they are all placed on one half of the kilim and rubbed, then, they are strongly rubbed on the other half of the kilim until they are reduced to powder. This first product is immediately separated from the rest and carefully put aside, because it constitutes the first quality esrar, called ‘sighirma’. The residue, which contains the fibrous tissue of the leaves, is then reduced to powder in the same way. This second product is not taken into account, and is worth half of the first. “A similar method is employed in the East for the preparation of Hashish (Chira). In other parts of the world, the cut tops are pressed between coarse cloths. The first process produces the quality known as Sighirma. More energetic rubbing, a less valuable product called ‘Hurdais’ is obtained.

Today in Morocco the situation has radically changed and little secret remains around the Cannabis. For 57% of the population, the old habit of smoking is that typical Moroccan cannabis specialty called ‘kif’. The kif is obtained by mixing the dried and finely chopped leaves and flowers of Cannabis, with an even amount of dark tobacco, an operation which the most serious smokers take personally. This mixture, more or less certainly sold in some bars, is carried around, usually in sufficient quantity for the day, in special leather pouches, whose making  varies from region to region. For smoking the typical pipes (sebsi) are used, consisting of a thin wooden bar, usually between twenty and forty centimeters long, often inlaid and decorated, and by a tiny terracotta stove (chkaf) or very rarely of marble (or metal).

When there are more people together smoking, that is, most of the time, the consumption of the kif follows a rather rigid and rather complicated rItual that can be roughly summarized in this way. The first smoker fills his pipe and turns it on, with a very agile hand movement and perfected by centuries of tradition, and always with just one shot. Then the sebsi is passed on to the person sitting next, who must smoke it all and empty it from the ash, by means of a sharp blow given with the right hand open on the left that holds the end of the pipe, which produces a characteristic sound, like the sound of an applause. Once this is done, the second smoker returns the empty sebsi to the first one that fills it, reignites it and passes it to a third, then a fourth and so on. Meanwhile, the second one extracts his own kif and his own sebsi and begins to make it go around in the same way. The concept would be more or less to let everyone taste the kif and sebsi of each other, and possibly any kind of kif in all the available sebsi, but if there are more than three smokers it is practically impossible to experiment with all the possible combinations because everyone finds their head full of kif long before it all end and quietly lose the count, without worrying about it. Obviously, if a friend arrives, one after the other, the others make sure to offer him a sebsi, and he returns the favour, so that the perfumed smoke of the kif continues to hover over the mats  where smokers sit on and the glasses full of mint tea, spreading away from the bars and houses through the labyrinthine alleys of the Medinas, and inviting others to the ancient rite.


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