In which the
singer-songwriter recalls a dalliance with absinthe in Morocco.
BY JIM BIANCO
Absinthe. There are two kinds. The most popular kind of absinthe
comes from grande wormwood. It’s green, psychoactive, illegal in most
countries, made of anise and sweet fennel and has been notoriously celebrated
by bohemian artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Oscar
Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Baudelaire.
Then there’s the other kind of Absinthe. The kind I had in Morocco in
To be perfectly honest, I can’t actually say it was absinthe.
I was definitely told it was absinthe, but to this day I can’t be sure. I never
drank absinthe again (for reasons you will soon understand), so I have nothing
to compare it to. For simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to it as absinthe because,
well, that’s what I was told it was by the strange man who bought it for me
from the herb store near the Todra Gorge just outside of Tinerhrir.
I was with my friend Chris. We had arrived earlier that
afternoon on an oversized public jalopy from Erfoud that dumped us off at the
mouth of the gorge. We planned to hike and take pictures. That never happened.
We walked from the bus stop, down the street into the only
hotel that was there. It was a one-story tall, crumbling, white stone building
with a small, no-frills restaurant, a few guest rooms and a lot of open windows
where the breeze could lazily move through the curtains all day long. We took
the last room they had available. We dropped our bags on the alarmingly small
bed we were to share that night, washed our faces and hands in the shared
bathroom down the hall, then walked back into the restaurant, hungry for food
We were greeted by a young, relatively stylish local. He was
dressed casually, with sideburns, slicked-back hair and a thin moustache that
lined his upper lip. He seemed very happy to see some American people like us.
Almost too happy.
“Please sit, my friends,” he said warmly as he pointed to a
pile of small red hassocks that surrounded a low, round table. We sat, half
squatting, sipping on mint tea and chatted with him awhile. He asked what we
did for fun in America
and we told him that we kept ourselves busy drinking and chasing women.
He laughed at us, pointing out that in Muslim culture the
only women we could chase were shrouded in hijab and certainly not interested
in Westerners. Also, he said, it was against the Muslim religion to drink. Fun
This smug little Berber hipster wasn’t telling us anything
we didn’t know. Chris and I had discovered quite abruptly how our own social
tendencies didn’t meld with Moroccan traditions. In fact, in an attempt to be
respectful and resourceful, we had reacted to the lack of booze and nightlife
by developing a mild addiction to hashish.
I didn’t want to discuss our unfortunate recreational
situation anymore. I decided to steer the conversation in a more productive
direction. “Do you have any hashish?” I asked.
He smiled wide. Then he said, “Of course I do. But I think
better will be maybe I can get you some local absinthe root from town. I think
you will like it.”
Fifteen minutes later we were staring at a giant, clear
plastic bag filled with what looked like 200 little acorns. He had gone to the
herb man in town and brought it back to the hotel for us. It cost 25 American
dollars; the most expensive thing we bought that entire trip. He told us that
we had to boil the little acorns in tea. He showed us into the kitchen and handed
us an old, metal teapot.
“You should only use about five or six acorns each. That
will be enough. Don’t use any more than that or it will be bad.”
“Okay. Got it,” we said.
He walked out of the room and into the restaurant where he
said he would wait tables for the rest of the night.
Chris and I took a handful of the little acorns, about 10 or
11, and put them in the mouth of the teapot, filled it up with water, and put
it on the stove and waited. We didn’t know how long we were supposed to boil
them for so we waited extra long, just in case.
We poured the yellowish hot water into a cup and took it
into the restaurant. Our hipster friend was there, tending to a couple of
European travelers. He acknowledged us with a head nod and gestured towards an open
table for us to sit at. We sat down and sipped at our fabulous concoction.
After about 20 minutes we had finished what we poured.
We didn’t feel anything.
We walked back into the kitchen where our teapot was and
refilled our cups. We were still optimistic.
We finished that round and poured another.
After that round, our teapot was empty.
We decided to boil another pot of tea, but this time we
threw in about 20 acorns. We waited for the water to boil and for the tea to
turn yellow again, and then we poured it into our glasses.
Round after round, we kept this up for two hours until the
giant bag of acorns wasn’t so giant anymore. We had finished half the bag, had
boiled over 70 acorns, but still didn’t feel anything.
We called our waiter-friend over and told him about the
failed tea. He didn’t understand why it hadn’t worked. He said he had heard
about boiling absinthe root for years, but had never tried it himself. He
apologized sincerely and handed us a few consolatory joints of hashish. We
We smoked the joints while continuing to boil and drink the
tea. We had, after all, spent $25 on it, and it didn’t taste too bad. Anyway,
there certainly wasn’t anything else interesting to drink. The night moved
forward, slowly. The breeze continued to blow in through the window from the
dark Saharan night, leaving a cool, calm sense of equanimity. What we thought
was going to be a maniacal evening of epic proportions turned out to be pretty
Then Akbar walked in.
Akbar worked at the restaurant as well, was a friend of the
hipster-waiter and, we soon learned, was quite well versed in the art of
boiling Absinthe root. We were introduced and, seeing there were no other
guests around, he sat down with us and shared a joint and listened to our
woeful tale of disappointment. He quickly declared the following creed:
“You don’t boil the root whole, you must crush it up into a
The next 30 minutes was spent skeptically watching Akbar use
a rolling pin to crush the remaining 50 acorns into a dusty powder. Fifty. He ran it through his fingers a
few times and sprinkled all of it into the teapot with a little water. Eight
minutes later, Chris and I were drinking it.
At this point, we were pretty stoned from the hashish. It
was hard to tell if anything was happening to us at all, as much as we wanted
it to. We finally got bored of waiting and said goodnight.
Akbar and the hipster shook our hands and wished us
goodnight. Looking back at it now, I think I remember a smirk on Akbar’s face.
It’s hard to say what exactly happened next. I wish I could
tell you a tale of hookah smoking in dark Moroccan hallways, belly-dancers
confessing to CIA assassins, and high-speed camel chases through the local
medina. Or that I transcended time and human consciousness while dancing
carelessly in the spiritual and mystical side of the universe… But instead I
Chris and I walked into our room and prepared ourselves for
bed. (Note: When two heterosexual men are forced to share a bed together, there
are a few more preparations than normal, like casually putting on a second pair
of pants, or an anorak.) In the middle of these preparations, I felt a surge go
through my body that could only be compared to having an orgasm on an electric
A wave of heavy anxiety rushed through my head and I had to
sit down. My eyes started going in and out of focus and my stomach clenched
desperately to itself. My breaths got short and fast and the muscles in my arms
started to flex uncontrollably. I rested my head in my shaky hands for a second
and tried to calm myself down, but couldn’t.
My breathing was frantic. I started sweating cold sweat. I
couldn’t tell if my heartbeat was twice as fast as it should be, or twice as slow.
I couldn’t manage to form words or sentences, so I started to moan. It was my
only available form of communication, a tactical cry for help, a part of my
natural survival instinct. Just as I began to wonder why Chris hadn’t come to
my aid yet, I heard similar moans coming from the other side of the room.
Miraculously I managed to fall into bed next to Chris. I
pissed my pants soon after that.
Then, the severe convulsions started, pulling up from my
insides and out through my twitching hands and feet. There was a burning demon
with a thousand heads pushing itself through each individual pore in my skin.
Then my nose started to bleed. Standing up wasn’t an option,
so I pulled a filthy sock off my foot and held it to my face to slow the
bleeding. By this point my vision was completely gone. I thought it was
possible that my eyes were locked closed, so I used the thumb and
pointer-finger of my left hand to manually force my eyelid open as wide as it
This was Friday night. We woke up on Sunday. Still blind as
bats. And we stayed that way for two more days. When I had to pee I would
squeeze my eyes together as tight as I could and feel my way down the long
hallway that led to the shared bathroom. My shame left a wake in the laughter
of the perfect Moroccan children giggling behind me as I walked.
When we were finally recovered, we packed our suitcases,
unable to look each other in our bloodshot eyes. We threw out the sweaty,
piss-stained clothes we had worn through the experience, leaving them in the
little plastic garbage bin that was in the bathroom. They smelled horribly.
We stumbled back down the street and climbed on the first
bus heading out of the Todra Gorge to Marrakech. It was there where we
eventually tried goat brains for the first time.
I can say with certainty that despite its gray pallor and
bland, veiny taste, it was a definite a step up from the absinthe root.
Chris and I eventually talked about the experience, but not
for a few weeks after. This is the first time either one of us has actually
written about it.
I hope Akbar reads Blurt.
Hey Akbar – screw you.
Jim Bianco’s third
album, Loudmouth, was funded via
Kickstarter and is available now at www.jimbianco.com.
JIM BIANCO – “SINNERS”