TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Eating my way through the Arab Spring
It kind of was. In the end, 17 people died, Moroccans as well as foreigners, including a 10-year-old girl. A man in his 20s named Adel Othmani is accused of dressing "like a Western hippie" with long hair and a guitar case, ordering an orange juice, and leaving behind a bomb that he later detonated with a cell phone. (The Fevrier 20 movement led a peace vigil the night of the bombings, at which people symbolically drank glasses of orange juice to protest terrorism.) Al Qaeda in the Western Maghreb officially denied involvement — though it supported the outcome — but it seems Othmani was a terrorism junkie, trying previously to get into Iraq and Chechnya, and the government claims that he bombed the Argana as a tribute to Al Qaeda. This was like his audition! What psychological madness can grip our world's young. I had never been so close to pure evil.
The people of Marrakech are nothing if not resilient, though. A day later and it was almost as if nothing happened. Out came the snake charmers, out came the Quechua Frenchmen. (Al Qaeda is tired, anyway — the Arab Spring is mostly about the economy and internal reform, not religious war and anti-Westernism.) All the tourist restaurants and food stalls were closed in the square though. Since we were still in shock and hardly had any appetite, we took the opportunity to order some of the more adventurous things on offer in the market. A bowl of snails ladled by a handsome vendor held a surprisingly delicious broth (soup will always help) and the snails, extracted with a toothpick, were more chewy than slimy, like salty jerky.
And a shared ground beef heart sandwich, richer than anything, washed down with an avocado shake, even richer than that, helped calm our stomachs. Our thoughts, however, remained disquieted.
OK, food. "Thank you Facebook" read graffiti in English on Avenue Bourguiba, Tunis' main thoroughfare. "The women of Tunisia are and will remain free" read another in French. And another in Arabic: "Bourguiba is for the people," referring to either the road itself or the beloved Westernizing dictator it was named after, who ruled before the dictator the people just kicked out.
Tunisia is regarded as the most educated country in North Africa — a program of free schooling proved deposed authoritarian Ben Ali's undoing when students, frustrated by the lack of jobs, used their knowledge to organize and overthrow him. (We met a street hustler named Wassam, for example, who said he held degrees in art history, math, and textile design, because what else had there been for him to do except keep enrolling in school?) So if we felt intimidated that everyone in Morocco was expected to speak at least three languages fluently — French, Standad Arabic, and Moroccan Arabic — here was a whole country of people who could probably help build a superconductor.
Five months after the revolution, however, and the recession was still there. General disgruntlement was simmering again. Protesters, impatient for the July general elections (later postponed until October) were showing up on the ministry steps. The shine of the revolution appeared to be tarnishing. Still, everyone we met was so intensely proud of what they'd accomplished, positively giddy with their newfound freedom of speech. We had no problem making conversation. Any lingering bitterness about the Bush era seems to have been dispelled once President Obama signed on to NATO's bombing campaign against Gadaffi. They hate Gadaffi.