The Free People of Taghazout

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Two types of worship happen in Taghazout, and both start by getting to your knees. Both answer a call at sunrise- the scratchy sound of a 90’s sound system blasting out the call to prayer, and the other, the crashing of a decent wave on the shore. I had arrived in Taghazout, Morocco to answer the latter. Although, I wouldn’t know what a decent wave looked like even if it hit me in the face- which, over the coming weeks, they did with an unrelenting ferocity.

Having spent most of my life with a love of the ocean, I wasn’t a stranger to surfing. I watched Blue Crush diligently, learning that surfing gives you abs and a hot boyfriend. I wore the Puka shell necklace and the baggy Billabong board shorts with pride. I even took a few lessons; frustrated when the whole class was just me flopping around on a board wedged into the sand. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that ‘surfing’ has always been on the aspirational to-do list. Perhaps even occupying a spot at the top.

However, I can’t imagine it was very high on the list for the population of Taghazout. Content with a simple existence where days spent fishing were broken up only by trips to the Mosque and bowls of steaming hot Tagine. Little did they know they were sitting on a veritable gold mine; The gold being a coastline which rolled in world-class surf every month of the year.

There would have been a moment when the first surfers rocked up in the Moroccan coastal town in their board shorts, boards wedged under their arms. In a country that regards shorts as underwear, you can only imagine what they thought of them; There’s no doubt that over cups of mint tea, they would have been the talk of the town. The town gossips would have had to move onto juicier topics though because the late 60’s and 70’s saw Taghazout becoming a favourite stop on the Moroccan Hippie trail. Of course, this was inevitable especially when you consider the area was fast becoming known for its cheap and plentiful hash. When Jimi Hendrix gave the place a tick of approval- his song Castles Made of Sand was supposedly written about the area- he sealed the town’s fate, and the VW’s came in droves.

I arrived, not in a clanking VW, but folded into a taxi after making the three-hour bus drive from Marrakesh. The blue and white mosque marks the town centre. The door to the mosque, wooden and heavy, and completely off limits to me and all women. Adjacent to the door, the local Tagine store with its fiery pots of food, and next to that, a surf shop. Nothing could sum up Taghazout better than this trifecta of shops.

Taghazout is a Berber (Amazigh), not Arab, village. Forget to make the distinction, and you will be kindly reminded. Pride in their Berber origins has not changed as the locals swapped out their Djellabas for boardies and bleached hair.

As the indigenous people of North Africa, to be confused as Arabs, the people who oppressed and alienated them, is an insult. But the mistake, often born out of ignorance, has lost its sting. The Berbers are just used to it.  While Berbers make up half of Morocco’s population, it’s only recently their culture and language have been officially recognised. Like many oppressed minorities, Berber’s have cultivated a fiercely independent spirit- many prefer to be called ‘Amazigh’ or ‘the free people’; A pursuit they have in common with wave seekers all over the world.

But in spite of the Berber pride, the majority have turned to Islam. Before the spread of Islam, Berber groups were Christian, Jewish or Animist- some still are- but in Taghazout life moves around the Mosque in the centre of town. While the men of the village shuffle towards the place of prayer, they bump shoulders with pink-skinned tourists looking to rent a board at one of the local surf shops.

It was in a group of these pink-skinned wave seekers that I first stood up on a wave. Like dishes in a dishwasher, we allowed ourselves to be scrubbed raw by the sea floor and our eyes to become prickly with the salty water. Our pursuit was noble, but our attempts floundering.

My board was as wide and long as they come; A garish yellow beast that earned itself the nickname ‘the banana’. But after a few tumultuous lessons, I was standing amongst the wash on my banana with pride. The quick downfall of my surfing career came swiftly after as my surf teacher stubbornly refused to graduate me onto the blue (less embarrassingly large) surf boards. My peers moved on to bigger breaks, bumping fists when they caught a good wave. With my absolute inability to determine a good surfing wave and a few harsh words from my teacher, I resigned myself to the fact that maybe surfing and I was never meant to be. But like any scorned lover, I imagine that one day I’ll pick it up again, and we’ll magically work. Maybe when those abs finally pop through.

The word ‘freedom’ gets thrown around a lot. Uttered when leaving our desks for the weekend, at the end of a divorce, or that first break away from the city on a new road trip. Yet, I’m not sure we know what it means. We see glimpses of it sometimes. In the months where we throw away our phones, and in days with no shoes and sandy feet. It’s always just within our reach, brushing the tips of our fingers. Taghazout is a closed iron fist that has grasped freedom; A place where it hasn’t yet slipped away. It’s a burning identity, a refusal to let go, and a perfect, green wave rolling into shore.

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