Berber Vodka in Morocco

Posted on 22 October 2021

If you enjoy a tipple, travelling in Morocco during Ramadan can be frustrating. But even the most devout find ways…

By Anton Crone 

The sky was a Fanta commercial, the dunes: pink waves, the palm trees: cardboard cutout silhouettes. From my perch on the roof of the kasbah in the Moroccan desert, I took a long pull of my drink. The ice clinked, the clear liquid sparkled, I felt its chilly passage down my throat and I gagged, realising Ahmed had been cruel enough to serve me neat, unadulterated water.

Ahmed had no doubt seen countless similar sunsets but his face was rapturous so I waited until the sky had mellowed to a dusky red before I disturbed him to ask for a gin and tonic.

‘Here among Allah’s people you ask for a gee and tee?’ he scolded. ‘You make me laugh, South African.’

‘But surely, with all the foreigners travelling through here…’

‘This is not Marrakech. We are Berber here, and it is Ramadan. You are among the most devout here in the desert. The sun has not even set and you want to drink?’ He flashed a mocking grin and turned to watch the sun descend until its copper head disappeared behind the dunes. Then he scampered off the roof to the cooking fires below.

My accommodation in Merzouga was clean and basic, but it was the most enticing place I had stayed in since I had been in Morocco and the aroma that wafted up from the fires below made my mouth water. I followed Ahmed down and seated myself at the table that had been prepared for dinner. After sharing a meal of the most delicious tagine with a quiet young couple from Spain and a noisy Australian woman, we retired to the brightly woven cushions in the courtyard to smoke smelly Moroccan cigarettes and sip endless cups of mint tea. Above us the sky was littered with stars and I studied Orion as he took aim with his bow at Taurus.

Conversation was difficult: I think the Spanish understood English well enough but I had a feeling they were feigning ignorance to avoid the verbal onslaught of the Aussie, who insisted she had seen more and travelled further and harder. I had been subjected to the saga of her travels on the 16-hour bus drive from Fez, after she’d singled me out as the only other foreigner on the bus. Now I cringed as she attempted to tell her story to the Spaniards in baby talk. A drink would have drowned her out. I tried to think of an excuse to retire early but before I could leave, Ahmed returned and sat on a cushion beside me. After ceremoniously pouring another round of tea from the silver urn, he sidled closer.

‘Tonight, South African, because I like you and you are far from home, we have a special treat.’

Dancing girls? A hookah loaded with hash?

‘Tonight, we serve you all vodka,’ he grinned.

Praise be!

‘Berber Vodka,’ he whispered. ‘Very strong, our own special brew. But only later, when there are not too many eyes.’

Proof that even the most devout could not resist.

My taste buds popped.

I endured the litany of the Aussie in anticipation of this fabled nectar. Periodic glances in Ahmed’s direction were met with the same assuring smile and when I watched him rise enthusiastically to greet a large group of Berbers who had arrived, he winked confidentially in my direction.

The Berbers carried decorative ceramic drums crowned with animal skin and small iron cymbals – musical instruments, I was sure, to enhance the effects of the desert brew Ahmed had promised. I watched eagerly for the moment they would draw the bottles from the folds of their djellabas.

One by one, they chose cushions and sat among us. Soon the drummers’ hands were beating the taught skins in ecstatic, pulsating rhythm and the cymbals were crashing between flashing fingers. Their closed eyes were raised to the constellation of Orion and their ululating voices soared in rhythm with their frenetic hands. I did not need to understand the words to know that they sang of love for the desert and the breadth of their nomadic wanderings.

I followed the rhythm by clapping my hands, then Ahmed handed me a drum and directed me to follow his hands. He beat his drum slowly until I caught up and it was not long before the Spaniards, Aussie and I were keeping pace with the heady beat, singing in a tongue that felt universal, completely absorbed in the music of the desert. ‘This,’ Ahmed said, ‘is Berber Vodka!’

That night, I got incredibly drunk.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

yoast-primary - 1002189
tcat - Other
tcat_slug - other-africa
tcat2 -
tcat2_slug -
tcat_final -