MARRAKESH, Morocco — When Morocco awoke Monday to yet another Arab Spring shock — the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden — this nation was already reeling from the terrorist bombing last Thusday's of the Argana Cafe in Marrakesh, which claimed 16 lives and wounded dozens more.
Monday also marked the day after Morocco's Labor Day, when people traditionally gather to demonstrate for political and economic reform, especially in Casablanca, Rabat and other cities.
The Morrocan victims of the April 28, 2011, attacks share much with the American victims of Sept. 11, 2001. They represent a microcosm of what made the country great.
For the United States, people were sipping their morning coffee as the workday started at the bustling economic center of the World Trade Center. For Morocco, its international group of Europeans, North Africans and locals were simply and peacefully enjoying a mint tea or fresh squeezed orange juice, while gazing over one of the world's most famous squares — the Jemaa el Fnaa.
American Teacher at Home in Morocco
I came to Morocco in 2005, as a Peace Corps volunteer, knowing relatively little about this country, language or culture. However, thanks to the support of the Peace Corps and the deep sense of hospitality and sharing Moroccans have for each other and outsiders, I learned how to thrive in this different place. I quickly felt at home.
I settled in the town of Amizmiz, about 60 kilometers south of Marrakesh, and the simple cafes surrounding the Jemaa el Fnaa were a frequent meeting place for me and the collection of friends that every Peace Corps volunteer acquires while serving.
Fools in the Terroist Zone
In response to last Thusday's bombing at the Argana Cafe in Marrakesh and reflecting on what the past months in the Arab world may hold for the future of the region, one of my former writing students, Khadidja Ihsane, composed the following short essay:
"Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools." To me, this famous quote pronounced by the genius Albert Einstein is definitely a tangible explanation to what is happening today in the Arab World. Lately, we have witnessed the uncontrollable fury of Arabs swept by a wave of revolutions and attacks not only against foreigners, but also against each other. It is crystal clear that behind all these violent acts there is an insatiable desire for change. However, the way this thirst is trying to be quenched has not been suitable so far, and the bomb that struck the main square of Marrakesh on April the 28 is the irrefutable proof.
In fact, assuming that this was a plot executed by al-Qaeda for religious reasons, we should not forget that the religion, Islam, they worship is the same one that fosters tolerance between religions and promotes the right to choose one's own religion. They also forget that when innocent people are killed by Muslims, this opens not only the mouths of non-Muslims to point out the cruelty of Islamic movements, but also the door to a certain hatred between Arabs and non-Arabs.
The worst thing about this tragedy is that stereotypes are spreading throughout the whole world through the media. Nowadays, all Arabs are unfortunately falling prey to the nickname of "terrorist."
In five years if such deeds are still done in the name of religion, the Arab world will look like a jungle with a derisory reputation where each one is creating his own laws. Moreover, more conflicts will take place since Arabs are themselves not in perfect agreement with each other. This is like a gun that is now pointed toward non-Muslims, but which will turn against Arabs one day as these attempts are done randomly and unreasonably.
Violence can induce no fruitful upshots, but only more violence. Furthermore, when authors of these acts kill people, this does not provide the chance for people to think about the choices they have made in their lives, but rather convince them about the righteousness of hating other ideologies and existence as well. Unfortunately, generations will grow with the same ideas about Arabs and, who knows, maybe non-Arabs will themselves deciding to take revenge and behave more atrociously through the advanced technology they have.
Differences in belief are not meant to create conflicts or to kill people; They are rather meant to let people think deeply and use wisely their intellectual potential. When such brutal deeds are done, they paralyze the sense of distinction between the right way and the wrong one and develop the feeling of abomination between humans.
Decisions and documents matter, and the new constitutions and laws being debated now throughout the Arab world will, if done well, create the foundation for more free and productive societies. If done poorly, they may only cement the corrupt and sclerotic systems that led to these protests in the first place.
Because of my proximity to Marrakesh and the closeness developed with people there, I came to consider myself a "Marrakeshi" in a way. To Moroccans, the word denotes a joking and charming personality that makes people happy.
In addition to the good fortune of living near Marrakesh, I met my wife, another Peace Corps volunteer, here in Morocco. After a short hiatus back to the United States, from 2008-2010, we resettled in Morocco as teachers at Al Akhawayn University, a public Moroccan institution in the small town of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas.
We teach academic English to incoming students at this university, which has adopted the American system of education in contrast to the more prevalent French system. All classes at Al Akhawayn University are taught in English, and the American system provides a solid liberal arts basis and specialized education to students who, we hope, will become the future leaders of Morocco.
Teaching in a place like this university and in a country like Morocco has particular challenges and gifts. In your classes, you face issues directly that are challenging the nation and world — Islam, terrorism, social development — and you are happy to know that these discussions do not stop at the door.
The Moroccan King's Speech
In the context of the Arab revolutions of these past months, my students have not only been following the regime changes and uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as historical events, but they have also seen Morocco's king, Mohammed the Sixth, address these changes — particularly the Moroccan protests of February 20 — with a now-famous speech on March 9.
In it, the king opened the door to constitutional, economic, judicial and political reforms that will shape the course of this country for many years. Today, virtually every news program is devoted to the reforms and the actions of Morocco's new Political and Economic Council, the constitutional reforms, the regionalization program and many related issues.
Teaching here brings the chance to be on the forefront of history with the very people whose voices will eventually lead this country and region. Sometimes, however, living history is painful, as those in Morocco and the Arab world know all too well.
On April 28th, I was starting my grammar class when one of my students told me that there had been a bombing in the Jemaa el Fnaa. Naturally, this disturbed me, but I felt that in the midst of teaching a class, a teacher has to move things along. Thus, I taught the lesson, videotaped student speeches, reviewed homework about quantifiers and modification of nouns — the important stuff.
At one point, though, I noticed that this student was tearing up and seemed lost in thought about her beloved city, but she pulled herself together and the class moved through. This is a student I especially enjoy for her hard-working attitude, open mind and, her genuinely delighful Marrakeshi personality.
Following class, we all started talking about the bombing. Having no details at that point, the group speculated about the bombing, offering potential narratives. Was the perpetrator an Islamic fundamentalist, politically motivated person or just a crazy guy.
The discussion veered into how this made us feel, and another girl from Fes said that the scariest thing was that the bombing could have been anywhere at any time. A person can be sitting in a nice cafe in Marrakesh, or a bus in Meknes, or a cyber-cafe in Casablanca — all sites of bombings or attempted ones in the last decade — and suddenly find themselves under attack.
The victims themselves are entirely innocent and with no connection to whatever political, religious or philosophical point the attacker wants to make. As a result, said my student, people stay home out of fear for their safety.
Devastation at Argana Cafe
On the news the night of April 28, I saw the devastation of the Argana Cafe. What's more, I realized that the victims of such attacks spread far beyond the dead and wounded. News reporters interviewed several witnesses to the event, and it was palpable how utterly shocked and violated they felt.
Sometimes, they were at a loss for words to describe exactly what they had seen or were and experiencing. One Moroccan man could hardly speak through his disbelief and sadness as he described the event. Another shocked Marrakeshi, described the scene in the only way he knew how: "I thought I was in an American movie."
We still do not know who committed the act, but it is becoming clear that it was relatively sophisticated, using some a remote detonator to explode a chemical bomb packed with nails and pieces of scrap metal that were embedded in the flesh of the victims.
The perpetrator(s) allegedly entered the Argana Cafe, ordered an orange juice, set down the bomb and exited. Was it al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Salafis or others? Of course, conspiracy theories abound. It seems best to withhold judgment until the investigation by a team of Moroccan and European experts is complete. We all pray for justice to be done.
As one of my students, Iname Msaidi, remarked, "As an Arab student living the wave of change, I believe that it is time to make our voices heard. In other words, it is time to address the real problems such as unemployment, education and health care, which concern all Arab citizens."
This will take time, but terrorism and violence threaten to inject fear into the process and may cloud people's judgement at a time when clear minds are the most precious commodity in society.
America and other countries may celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden as the final chapter in some epic battle, but Moroccans have only just turned the page in their most recent battle with terrorism. They are unlikely to feel much comfort from the death of the leader of al-Qaeda thousands of miles away if, as is alleged, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is the group behind the April 28 attacks. We pray for the ability to see the straight path through these difficult times.
The Future in Our Students
For myself, I came to Morocco to settle, build a family, work for a university and live my life as an ad hoc member of Moroccan society. Just last weekend, two days after the Marrakesh bombings, I was on a committee sitting in a room at Al Akhawayn University interviewing candidates for next year's freshman class.
When these students came in, we asked if they would like to conduct the interview in Arabic, English or French, and throughout the day we had students, each a high school graduate, speak all three fluently and intelligently.
One girl wore the head scarf; another was as fashionable as any young woman in New York. A boy had lived in Abu Dhabi with his father for three years, while another came from Al Hoceima, 320 kilometers to the north and spoke Tarifit, one of Morocco's several indigenous languages.
We asked them questions about themselves, mathematics and current events. All of their faces darkened when they spoke about Marrakesh. I'm not sure what they were feeling — I sensed sadness, of course, but also the frustration that, in the midst of this promising and progressive Arab Spring, their country has to face the old specter of terrorism.
Nevertheless, their commitment to their country is strong. One girl spoke about having to fight her school's guidance counselor, other students and even her own father, who all wanted her to only apply to universities in the United States. But she wanted to stay in her own country and attend Al Akhawayn University.
Having the chance to teach and know students like Khadidja, Iname and other promising young minds such as those we interviewed on Saturday, being able to wake up every day speaking Arabic and French with friends and colleagues, and living in a part of the world that is experiencing some of the most dramatic change in the past 50 years is the very reason I came back to Morocco. I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.
As long at Morocco exists, I hope that my family and I can exist within it.