For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’re bringing you Ira Cohen’s tribute to one of the Islamic world’s most popular delicacies—originally published in the September, 1983 edition of High Times.
Majoon, majoun, ma’jun… how soft the word is, how full of magic and jinn, how dark to the imagination! Majoon is the Arabic word for jam, but here in Morocco and all through the Islamic world, everyone knows that it is a special confection with Indian hemp, or kif as its main ingredient. In Morocco it is still as commonplace as fruitcake in England or angel-food cake in the United States. It is usually taken on festive occasions or in the wintertime, when it keeps you warm through the long Moroccan nights; but any time you feel like traveling, or crave some instant magic theater, all you have to do is find your favorite majoon seller and Open sesame! All doors fall down and you are off on a voyage with no turning back.
Eating majoon is like night diving. You descend into unknown depths surrounded by hundreds of shining eyes. Everything is underwater and slow motion. Is that a squid I have in my hand, or is it the head of Medusa turning me to stone? Majoon embeds you in black tar while you glow like sapphires or you leave your body behind and soar through the air, holding on for dear life to the long braid of your jinni.
The effects of majoon are like those of smoking kif or marijuana, but stronger and more commonly hallucinogenic, building up gradually in waves and often culminating in oceans of laughter. You wonder where you are or why everything is so strange, like, you never saw your hand before or heard the cry of the muezzin floating over the city. It may take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more before the majoon takes over, before you realize what has happened, and can last for as long as 24 hours. A lumière unwinds in your head, or suddenly a café on the edge of a cliff takes off and sails through the stars. Rooms contract and expand and somewhere from your own most secret places there is a babble of voices made up of old memories and hidden desires asking you to surrender. Each gesture is eternal, for time has nothing to do with metronomes, and minutes have become hours or even centuries. You can feel your heart beating faster and you want something to drink, since your mouth is incredibly dry, or you feel ravenously hungry and can eat for hours on end sampling one taste after another. But sometimes, especially if you eat too much majoon, you may sleep your voyage away.
The Moorish women, although they very rarely smoke kif as almost all the men do, like a nice piece of majoon now and then. It makes them dreamy and sensual, though they say that it makes them want to take off all their clothes and run naked through the streets. But that is the way it is. Sometimes you draw donkey ears, other times it is a command performance between stars and half-spoken wishes.
Remember Sabu’s ruby in The Thief of Bagdad in which anything and everything could be seen, and how it exploded into a million flickering pieces and him falling and falling until he landed among the tents of the Wise Men who called him Prince? Majoon is for dreaming, and anyone could be turned into a dog or a bird just like that. Once in Marrakesh I remember a gold-turbaned storyteller sitting on a faded rug from which the beauties of the hammam looked out. He flips sheets of colored papers—Noah’s ark loaded with golden lions, ibis, jeweled serpents, pink stallions, swords cleaving heads in two, blood dripping red all over onto the ground. Eggs materialize in thin air. Everyone has eyes. An Arab midget does a trance dance to ouds, drums and flutes; whirls, stumbles drunkenly and falls down. A crowd begins to gather around the storyteller as the sun sinks below the horizon and the red city of Marrakesh is glowing like an ember.
There in the Djemaa-el-Fna, it is the same as it has been for many centuries, and the Thousand and One Nights happened just yesterday, are still happening all around you, while there in the center of colors the storyteller unfolds his tale of the miraculous Aladdin who was conceived in majoon. “Yes, by Allah, this is the best majoon! It will cure you of all your ills, bring you laughter, thicken your seed! Buy it for your husbands! Buy it for your wives!” He pulls out of his sleeve one of his bonbons, holding it up for everyone to see, and there is a shuffle of yellow slippers as the crowd presses forward.
The white-humped Atlas holds up the sky like a great carnival tent and all around there is the bustle of people at twilight on their way home through a sea of Genouas, monkeys, pickpockets, sailing corpses, scattered teeth, 738 bicycles threading the eye of a needle, coming out on the other side, which is Marrakesh. And somewhere above it all you can see Negro acrobats in baggy red-and-green suits describing theorems of geometry in the orange air. Dig the imagery! Watch as the last sheets fall from his hands—jinn, afreets, demons all around under the power as Suleiman sits golden above the kingdom of beasts. So you step right past the porcupine quills wrapped in old anatomy charts, past burning frankincense and copal, and you cop a stick of majoon from a large brass tray. The magic numbers, the sword of Suleiman, scorpions and serpents, circles, stars and pentagrams are all yours for only khamsin francs or one thin dime. An old wizened Arab plugs into Allah’s switchboard with a one-way toy telephone and boy dancers do their bumps and grinds, while off at the side a trayful of goat heads looks coldly on the scene.
The ordinary majoon sold in the marketplace usually comes in the form of greenish black or brown sticks about the size of your thumb and is of a gummy or pastelike consistency. There are many different kinds of majoon, and the quality and appearance vary, naturally, with the recipe used. The most important ingredient is, of course, kif, or hemp, and it is best to use only the gum or resin of the plant—sometimes called chira or charas by North Africans and hash by foreigners—or the powdered buds and flowers when this is not available. The outer leaves, stalks and seeds, which are commonly discarded when the kif is prepared for smoking, are often used in the making of majoon, but may leave you with a throbbing headache, although local songbirds seem to thrive on a diet of seeds. Some of the best majoon is made by boiling the kif, stalks and all, with butter for many hours, so that the cannabis, or active principle of the hemp plant, is absorbed by the butter, which can then be used in any recipe you like.
The traditional majoon is made from powdered hemp, honey, fruit, nuts and spices and often contains samin, or rancid butter. Sometimes other ingredients may be added to give a particular effect, such as cantharides (Spanish fly), datura or stramonium, opium or poppy seeds, some pounded lizard (still considered an aphrodisiac) or any other of the countless powders and herbs sold in the magic shops of Morocco. Datura, a long, trumpet-shaped white flower with a heavy fragrance, which grows all over Morocco, is not really to be recommended, since it is considered a poison and is more likely to be employed for purposes of revenge than pleasure. Stramonium is a hallucinogenic and has always been a key ingredient in preparations involving sorcery and black magic, but extreme care should be exercised. It is probably more suitable for a Walpurgis Night than an Arabian one, and if too much is used, you will be spending all your time in long conversations with chairs or electric-lamp cords, and falling through walls or down stairs.
Cantharides is often used in majoon and helps to account for its reputation as an erotic electuary, but even without cantharides or other aphrodisiacs like soft amber, majoon, if it is properly made, will set the stage for a night of houris and exotic delights, for Allah is all-merciful and will provide endless orgasm in paradise. The scarabs or cantharides beetles are of a brilliant metallic hue in the shape of a death’s head—blue, green or gold, the gold bugs more highly valued than the others, as Edgar Allan Poe certainly knew.
Getting together the perfect majoon in Morocco would take you on a tour of the whole country to find the best of each ingredient—Taroudant for the gold bug, the mountain caves of Xauen for 75-year-old honey, the magic shops of Marrakesh for jduq jmel (small black seeds probably containing scopolamine) the Sahara for its specially strong gouza, or nutmeg. In fact, these ingredients alone could be used to make quite a powerful majoon without any kif at all. An Arab magician I once knew used to claim that he could make even stronger majoon without kif, only herbs, he said, very old recipe from Fez. In Marrakesh, with luck you may find the fabled white kif cookies or ghrebiya, which would pass anywhere as ordinary Girl Scout cookies, but would leave any Girl Scout flat on her back.
Once a psychiatrist vacationing in Morocco ate a great deal of majoon at my house, and after looking for a while at the brightly colored tiled floors and walls which began to revolve slowly around him like a giant kaleidoscope, he said, smiling, “Yes, I can see why you live here,” and helped himself to some more. Unfortunately, he ended up by fleeing the country the next day, afraid that if he stayed any longer he would never be able to return to his patients in America. Another psychiatrist who turned up once got a terrible case of the horrors after trying some majoon and began to scream that he had been poisoned. Despite all efforts to calm him, he insisted on having his stomach pumped at a local hospital in Tangier.
Majoon is not only useful for scaring psychiatrists; it is also excellent for taming savage lions. Once upon a time, when lions used to roam the Atlas mountains, there was one lion so vicious that it terrorized an entire village, attacking its inhabitants even in broad daylight. The people of the village, unable to capture or kill this lion, finally took their problem to an old man who was well known to them as an enchaioui, a man who has devoted his entire life to the enjoyment of kif. After listening to what they had to say, he promised to help them, but first he asked that they bring him 100 kilos of the best kif and a cow. When the villagers had acceded to his request, the old man cleaned the kif, keeping the best part for himself, and then killed the cow, stuffing it with the rest of the kif. Then he sewed the cow up again and left it at the side of the road just outside the village and waited in a tree with a goatskin full of water until the lion appeared. The majoon cow did its work and soon the lion was rolling on the ground and laughing. The enchaioui then came out of hiding and poured the water down the lion’s throat—the mouth gets very dry after eating majoon, and liquids, especially hot mint tea, help to intensify the effect. Then he took the lion by the ear and led him to the center of the village, where the astounded townspeople shook with fright as the old man and the lion looked at them, shaking with laughter.
Of course, kif, or hemp, may be used in many other ways and you can brew an excellent tea from its flowers with fresh mint and a lot of sugar. In Arabia, according to Sir Richard Burton, a mixture of powdered hemp leaves, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and mace, infused into watermelon or cucumber juice and then passed through a strainer, makes a pleasing beverage. Another traditional Arabian drink is made from dried hemp leaves, poppy seed and cucumber seed, black pepper and cardamoms pulverized in a mortar and added to milk or ice cream.
The Sufis regarded majoon as a symbol of mystical knowledge, and such 12th-century Persian poets as Attar and Nasafi commonly celebrated the Goblet of Jam in their verses. Nasafi, in The Unveiling of Realities, writes: “In quest of the Goblet of Jam, I journeyed through the world. Not one day did I sit down, and not one night did I give myself to slumber, when from the master I heard a description of the Goblet of Jam, I knew that I myself was that Goblet of Jam, revealing the universe.”
For the mystic poets, majoon revealed the essential harmony of the universe and the knowing man was even identified with the great electuary or ma’jun-i-akbar, the Goblet of Jam which opened the way to the secrets of cosmic correspondence and the nature of the true self. Hassan-I-Sabbah, the legendary old man of the mountain who led his cult of assassins from Mount Alamut in Persia and certainly one of the most renowned of all hashish eaters, is reputed to have said on his deathbed: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”
And that is what is most interesting about taking majoon, the sense of infinite possibility as you move from instant to instant, like Mister Magoo stepping onto a steel girder in midair. For some the experience may be frightening, but for others there will be no greater exhilaration than the exploration of new worlds of feeling and consciousness. O how I love walking in evaporated moonlight! Majoon Traveler recommends that you nibble slowly and see what happens. You have nothing to lose but yourself, and that is precisely what you may find in the losing. And remember that one ounce of pure gold can be drawn out into a wire 50 miles long. Al-hamdulillah— Allah be praised.