In the Seventies, a group of young hipsters leave Yugoslavia looking for the Buddhist monk Čedomil Veljačič, ending up in Morocco
If I say "Bearded", most people think of Islamic terrorists. Beards are now a symbol of everything that is bad: ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram. It all brings to mind insurgents and terror.
The West is using armies and the most advanced technologies, such as drones, to defend itself against these people. Ancient methods, like building walls, are also used against beards, and unwanted migrants. Barriers of barbed wire that have been put up at European borders, to stop refugees from crossing, have stirred passionate debates "for" and "against", as if the method were new. It isn't.
There has been a triple barrier of barbed wire for 23 years in Spain, built to stop illegal immigration from Morocco. The first was put up in 1993, the second in 1995 and the third in 2005. In the Spanish city of Melilla, the metal barrier is six meters tall, with acoustic and visual sensors and sharp blades (cuchillas). The blades work well. Each morning the guards find not only pieces of clothes hanging from the wire, but also pieces of flesh from those trying to cross the border.
Peace and Love
My friend Riki believes that "everything is relative". He likes these philosophical axioms, reminiscent of the studies he never finished. Riki has worn a beard since the first hairs appeared on his face. In his photos as a teenager he looks just like Jesus: tall, slim, with a soft, kind expression which shows between a thick beard and long hair.
Forty years ago, when Riki entered Morocco from Spain, making the journey in the opposite direction from those of today, the barriers between the two countries did not exist. He was a typical "flower child", one of those bearded hippies with long hair who professed and practiced the sexual revolution, the free use of drugs, peace, meditation, love, music, discussing philosophy.
For flower children, Morocco was then a “must”. They would climb over the boundaries, overcoming every kind of obstacle to enter.
Although the bearded hippies were peaceful, they caused a lot of troubles to the Rabat authorities. Many arrived without any money, and no intention of working to earn a living.
They camped in the main squares, lay on the ground anywhere, they dirtied the courtyards of sacred monuments; they used public transport without buying tickets and they didn't have an ID. Also, their philosophy of free sex and their use of drugs disturbed public order and challenged the rules and customs of the Moroccan patriarchal society.
Because of their appearance, they were easily identified. The police pushed them over the Moroccan border back into Spain with their bare hands, sometimes using clubs.
All sincere wishes come true
But Riki had a saying also for the black days. He would quote Gandhi: "Every sincere, genuine wish, sooner or later comes true". And so, together with Riki, we got ready to enter Morocco, not at the port of Tangiers, where the Moroccan police were more severe, but at the smaller Ceuta, which was less controlled and is an autonomous Spanish city in Northern African territory.
Our journey started in the summer of 1974. Originally, we had not planned a stop in Morocco. Our idea was to go to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka, from the Sanskrit, Lamkä meaning, "sparkling island").
India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Iran, Afghanistan were also countries which were a “must” to the hippy community of the sixties and seventies. People would go to do a pilgrimage, to learn directly from the gurus the postulate of oriental philosophy, to discuss the sense of life with the Buddhist monks, how to obtain freedom and how to find happiness.
There was a Buddhist monk we loved in a special way: Prof. Čedomil Veljačič . He was one of us, that is, a Yugoslav, from Zagreb. Veljačič was a university professor. He moved to Sri Lanka, took the monastic name of Bhikkhu and lived with the poorest monks, the beggars. However, our Veliačič didn't stop writing books, articles and essays. We were enthusiastic about his ideas, we were inspired by his life, we read his works out loud and discussed them in groups. For years, we had planned to go and visit him.
But just when we were about to do so, an unexpected event changed everything.
Neda, a girl from the group who lived in Spain with her boyfriend, sent an SOS: he had disappeared leaving her alone with a small baby, no money and no job. We therefore decided to change our program; we would first go to Spain to save Neda, and then decide how to continue our journey.
At the time, Spain was under Franco, a Fascist dictator, and there were no diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Spain. To enter we needed a transit visa which was issued at the Spanish embassy in Milan.
We left at the beginning of July. In our group we had a future professor of medicine, a theoretical mathematician who would become internationally well-known, a philosopher. All committed hippies with beards and long hair, extravagant clothes and minimum luggage: only a cloth backpack.
Traveling by hitch-hike was common at the time among young people, and we didn't think of traveling any other way. Everything went smoothly for a while and we felt that we were part of a well-organized relay. We travelled in two groups. The meeting was in front of the "Prado" museum in Madrid. We were to meet there in five days time, between midday and one o'clock, to then go on together towards our friend, Neda.
Her cry for help worried us so much that we gave up the idea of our much planned trip to the East. However, when we met her, we found that the situation wasn't that serious. Neda told her story alternating between laughter and tears.
It's all for the good, we decided, discussing if we should return to Yugoslavia or get onto a cargo ship and head for the East. We favored the idea of going to Morocco, because it was close and because we now had a baby in our group. So we headed towards the Spanish port of Algeciras.
The presence of the baby girl, in a sense, held together our group. We treated her like every one's daughter, we looked after her together, we took it in turns to carry her in a sort of marsupium, a large scarf fixed around the neck like African mothers do.
With hindsight, I think we were too relaxed, not to say irresponsible with a baby who was not even a year old. A new born ran risks on a journey of this kind. But at the time those problems did not worry us at all.
At Algeciras we had to stop for three days. The Spanish police would not allow Neda to exit Spain with a transit visa that had expired three years ago. We had to wait for a permit from Madrid. The only inconvenience that this obvious illegality caused, was to force us to stop. Neda was neither detained nor questioned about where she had been and what she had been doing in Spain for three years with a transit visa.
From other "flower children" we learned that it was easier to enter Morocco going through Ceuta.
In Morocco we went slowly along the Atlantic coast using public transport which cost very little. We went through Rabat and Casablanca, then left the coast to visit Marrakech, and finally we arrived at the much desired Essaouira, the hippy Mecca.
Since we were not common tourists, we did not stop to look at the ancient city, the monuments, the impressive medieval fort or the museums, and we did not go shopping. We followed in the steps of the famous hippies who had gone before us: Frank Zappa, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.
We are from Yugoslavia
We looked for and stayed in the company of other hippies. At that time, there were so many in Morocco that we outnumbered the local inhabitants in some small villages, especially in the small streets and the suqs. The Moroccans were very kind, they welcomed us, helped us, gave us directions, and accompanied us to the places we were looking for. But in the twenty days we were there, nobody asked us to their home. And this, we thought, was strange. In Yugoslavia it was normal that, after chatting to someone, you would invite him home.
When we said we came from Yugoslavia the locals would show enthusiasm, slap us on the back, give us the name of our president, Tito, and someone would raise two fingers in a victory sign, or raise their thumb to demonstrate that all was well. We enjoyed this reaction and didn't find it strange. We Yugoslavs were used to being welcomed wherever we went, so the friendliness of the Moroccans did not surprise us.
We had made no programs, we had not booked anything in advance, it was all improvised at the moment. The strongest impression left by that journey was the slowness with which every thing we did evolved. As if our life was going at thirty-three instead of forty-five revs.
This slowness could have been the effect of the grass, which was in abundance. It was offered to us for free, we shared it with the others as we did with the food. Lots were smoking, also in our group, even in public, as there were no restrictions, sitting on the ground in some piazzas or in front of the bar where the locals joined us in this pleasure.
If you exaggerated, then the local police would intervene and hit with batons.
After twenty days, we were on the way back. In Barcelona, five of us climbed into an old decrepit Volkswagen, given to Neda by a French friend who was going home. It was a noisy wreck and half broken, and gave the impression that it would fall to pieces any minute. Inside, it smelt of petrol. After one thousand kilometers, we also discovered it rained inside.
Is this car yours?
It was August, in the peak of the tourist season, and the roads were full of cars, crowds at the borders. "Our" car had French number plates and maybe that was why nobody checked us, and we were allowed to pass unhindered. All went well until we came to the border between Italy and Yugoslavia, at Fernetti.
That was the last border before entering our country. At that time, it was also the border between the West and the East, the "iron curtain" dividing the communist world from the capitalist.
That day it was raining heavily, outside as well as inside the car. Our baby was restless, and as soon as we arrived at the border, she started crying.
Two policemen stopped us, and saluted by bringing their hands to their foreheads. They thought we were foreigners, probably judging by our number plate. But as soon as we showed our red Yugoslav passports, the policeman stiffened, he studied the inside of the car through the window, he looked at the bearded passengers and at the baby crying and he looked disgusted.
He asked for the car papers. We did not have them. Unbelieving, he asked who was the owner of the car, and Neda gave the name of her French friend. The policeman did not understand, and then asked if one of us was "him".
“Well, where is he?"
"I think, in France", said Neda.
The policeman's face turned red.
The conversation continued amid the baby's desperate crying, our voices trying to calm her, and the noise of the rain. The policeman runned his hands through his hair, and walked a few steps as if to calm himself, then went towards a colleague.
The two policemen looked at each other without a word, then one shrugged his shoulders and the other said: "Go".
They swore at us, but they let us go.
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