The Moulouya is one of the few actual rivers in Morocco. Several creeks in the Atlas mountains form the beginning of a long river. The water cuts through mighty ravines and irrigates innumerable fields. It speeds down the valleys, decelerates and meanders again across the plains. In the lower course, just before flowing into the Mediterranean, the river passes a small town called Berkane where it waters the borders of the Spanish and the French protectorate – a blessing for the thirsty land, an obstacle for many Riffians.
Mhemmed pointed to the winding river when they had reached the top of the mountain ridge. “We will have to cross through the water. We cannot take the bridge. It is patrolled by the customs,” he said.
“You know where we have to go, right?” Allal asked.
“Yes. We have to walk upstream. I am sure someone will be there now.”
The bridge was littered with customs officers. The number of officers had increased and the checks had become more rigorous than in the past. It was impossible to sneak past them unseen. Upstream they saw people swimming to the other side, slowly through the calm water. From the distance it seemed two persons were swimming very close to one another. Some climbed in a basket and were pulled to the other side with a long rope; the river was too deep to wade through. Most of them reached the French zone in one piece.
They approached a group. A young man came towards them. Ali was apprehensive when he shook hands with him.
“What are you up to?”
“We will work at our family’s place,” Ali answered.
“Okay. Give me two duro.”
Ali gave him the money and the young men joined the group. The man called Mhemmed, then Allal and Ali last.
He took Ali on his back, waded into the water until it reached his waist and lowered himself, leaning forward. Ali, strengthened his grip. The shock of the cold water took his breath away. Then he took a deep breath. The swimmer suddenly slowed down halfway through the river. Ali exclaimed: “What are you doing!”
The swimmer turned his head. He said: “I want more money, or I will leave you here.”
Ali panicked. Like a helpless child he cried: “No! Swim, I will give you everything I have!”
At the other side a group of locals waited for them: family and villagers of the swimmer. Ali took all coins from his inside pocket and handed them to the swimmer. Mhemmed and Allal stood a little further. The same had happened to them. They exchanged a look. The water was dripping from their clothes and their hair. Then they burst out laughing. They had lost their money, but at least they had not drowned, like many had before them. They took a break.
They passed shrubs and cactus hedges and looked over the hills. Never had they witnessed so many orange trees before. The landscape turned green and orange. The area they had entered was off-limits: French Morocco.
The three of them took to the Algerian border town of Zouj Beghal, which literally translates as “the two mules.” They visited an uncle of Mhemmed in Oujda on the way. They ate, drank tea, chatted and took the road at nightfall, hoping to enter Algeria under the cover of darkness.
Translated from Dutch by Dr. Judith Naeff.