Couscous with Al Qaeda - Page 3

TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Eating my way through the Arab Spring


International Women's Day, Ouarzazate, Morocco

And we had to check out one of North Africa's top French-Berber restaurants, Relais Saint-Exupéry — named for The Little Prince author and storied desert aviator's private runway — where, for about $30 we could pull out the stops with an eight-course formal diner Francais. Lapin and canard pate, balled melon pelted with pink peppercorns, a tangy, deep-red dromedaire avec sauce "Mali," and a tiny chalice of Berber fig liquor were soon finished off, as was a yummy bottle of full-bodied 2002 Domaine du Sahari Guerrouane Rouge. That's right, even in the Sahara I could sniff out wine.

In the Draa Valley

Les Jeunes Tinariwen de M'Habib performing in Ouarzazate

Now, unearthly, overcast, red-walled Marrakech thrummed with activity, masses of tourists pouring into the huge, famous Djemaa El Fna square. Djemaa is basically where all your Raiders of the Lost Ark fantasies of Morocco come to life — snake charmers, smoke-pouring food stalls, boisterous storytellers, scheming monkeys, even (yes!) elaborate drag shows. Except, of course, for all the cell phones, dreadlocked Spanish kids in genie pants, and tacky French families dressed in the worst cheap Quechua brand travel wear imaginable. Obviously, colonialism didn't win.

The morning of April 28 we'd hunted in vain for bisara, a thick pea breakfast soup drizzled with green olive oil from Moulay Idriss, but had given up, grabbed a couple kaab el ghzal ("gazelle's horns," small croissants stuffed with almond paste) and decided to e-mail our folks.

We were in a nearby Internet cafe when the blast hit. The clock rocked against the wall: 10:56. A man in a hooded shepherd's tunic at the terminal next door looked up at me, panicked, and then mimed ducking under his desk as a question. I wasn't sure how to answer. When no immediate second blast came, we hurried out of the building. No source of the explosion could be found, but Hunky Beau and I both had the same thought: the square. We walked about 100 meters and rounded the corner into catastrophe.

It looked like the Cafe Argana, a large, terraced tourist favorite, where backpackers regularly stopped for ice cream sundaes, had folded in on itself. A man dressed in a tuxedo gestured like a mad maitre d' from the collapsing second floor to the crowd below, most of which was covered with debris. We surged forward to see what we could do, but people were already hauling off bodies. I saw a frantically shaking, middle-aged white woman lifted in the air with no legs. A man's bald head lay on a table, an arm (his?) had landed like a limp bird on a crumpled metal railing. Yellow tablecloths were used as stretchers, as shrouds. Finally, the ambulances came.

Stunned, we walked slowly from the square. Morocco was supposed to be safe! Rumors quickly spread. Someone was smoking by a gas canister. An oven had exploded. An old furnace burst. Polisario, the Western Saharan separatist group, had struck. The anti-monarchical Fevrier 20 movement had turned violent. Possibly Al Qaeda itself?

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