Witness to a terrorist bombing in Marrakesh

A midday explosion comes alarmingly close to our writer, in the old section of the large and ancient trading city.

Crosscut archive image.

The Argana Café one day after the terrorist bombing of April, 2011, its famous second floor balcony completely destroyed. Sixteen people were killed in the explosion.

A midday explosion comes alarmingly close to our writer, in the old section of the large and ancient trading city.

When it came, the huge sound was unmistakable. At that moment I was talking to Mohamed Hassoune, and as we both instinctively flinched from the explosion, I knew from his eyes that he was thinking the same thing as I was. A bomb. He was 83, but as a young man had served in the French military where he fought in some of the fiercest battles of the Italian campaign. He knew the sound.

Everyone on the balcony of the fondouk became very agitated, and a young man ran to find out what had happened. After 10 minutes or so a report came back that it had been propane gas tanks that had exploded at the Argana Café, a favorite restaurant of foreign tourists about 75 yards away from us on the huge Djemma el-Fna Square, the centerpiece of the Moroccan city of Marrakesh and the major gathering place for visitors.

I wanted to believe the explanation, as this was a common enough occurrence in a country where most kitchens, domestic and commercial, cooked with gas from tanks. Coincidentally, only the day before we had visited the housekeeper of our hosts who had recently been terribly burned in just such an accident.

My wife, Joan, and I were in Marrakesh to work on a project recording oral histories of a group of older Moroccan men who had spent their lives trading in antique art — jewelry, pots, leather bags, woodwork, and other ethnographic material that they collected while traveling around the country. We had met several of them the year before while staying with our hosts, themselves ethnographic art dealers.

The four of us were entranced by these self-made men, their stories, their approaches to commerce, their panache and idiosyncrasies. It was a way of life fast disappearing. The material that they so loved to buy and sell was getting more and more difficult to find, and several of them were quite advanced in age. So Joan and I had returned to Marrakesh to join our host and friend Robert Morris to begin this documentation project.

There are a number of fondouks in the market area of the medina, or old section of Marrakesh. They are two-storied, built around a central courtyard, historically used for storing and selling goods, such as wool, that would be brought into the city from the countryside. While the goods were being marketed downstairs, the sellers would stay in small rooms located on the second story. Those fondouks that I am familiar with don’t serve this original purpose any longer, and there are now workshops and shops on the lower levels, with the upstairs rooms in use as small — very small — shops.

We had just completed our initial interview of the project with Mr. Hassoune, who was the first to open a shop in his fondouk over 50 years earlier, and were discussing whether to go to lunch on the square, or return to Robert’s house to download our audio and video recordings. The day before we had eaten at a place a few doors down from the Argana.

Opting to go home, we turned on the television when we got there and heard a report from Al Jazeera news that a number of people had been killed and wounded in the explosion on the square attributed to those gas canisters. Following the news that day and early the next we learned that 16 people had been lost and some two dozen wounded. Most were tourists.

It was soon learned that it had not been propane tanks that had done this horrible damage, but a terrorist bomb, remotely triggered and packed with nails for maximum damage. Suspicion immediately was directed at al-Qaida in the Maghreb, a well-known terrorist outfit in North Africa, but they disclaimed responsibility. Weeks later, the government had arrested six Moroccans for the crime, supposedly al-Qaida wannabes, but not directly linked to that organization.

Marrakesh, known as the “Red City,” was once the imperial capital of Morocco and is its second largest city, with just over a million residents. It has been for hundreds of years a major trading center, with the largest souk, or traditional market, in the country. It is very cosmopolitan, including a large expatriate population of wealthy foreigners — much moreso than its traditional rival, the more staid Fes, located to the north over the rugged Atlas Mountains at whose feet Marrakesh sits. It’s also a big international tourist town, made even more so in recent years by the advent of low-cost airlines flying directly from Europe.

It was no surprise, then, that terrorists would target the tourist industry there, and the bombing seemed to stun the residents of the city. Before the arrests of the perpetrators, everyone I spoke to blamed it on the “Algerians,” as no one believed that Moroccans or more specifically a Marrakshi, as locals are called, could do such a thing.

Morocco is seen as the most stable of North African countries under the rule of the youngish King Mohammed VI. However, it is still a country run by a royal and economic elite, with much poverty, and high-employment among its youth, well educated or not. It has not been immune to the upheavals of the Arab Spring. There have been major pro-democracy demonstrations in the country, most notably in Casablanca, the largest city, and the capital, Rabat. We witnessed a few smaller ones ourselves in both cities. 

A reverent march in the Djemaa El-Fna Square in Marrakesh, Morocco, in response to the bombing of the Argana Café three days earlier in April, 2011. The procession is led by a horse-drawn carriage and by two bell-ringing water sellers dressed in traditional garb. Youtube video by Joan Zegree, Copyright 2011.

Speculation abounded among the people we spoke to, most merchants, as to who was behind the bombing other than the ubiquitous “Algerians.” Some said it was anti-government militants who had been jailed for years, but some of whom had been released weeks earlier in the government’s attempts to defuse the pro-democracy movement. Others speculated that it was a put-up job by people in the government who feared for what more democracy would bring to the status quo. 

The medina’s response to the bombing was often wrenching to watch. Our dealer friends were terribly upset. Business went on as before, as business was, after all, business. But there were a number of protests against violence that we witnessed that were tremendously moving. I’m sure that there were others that we missed.

Things went on in the square as before, but the immediate area in front of the Argana was cordoned off with the wreckage of the second floor of the restaurant like a gaping wound for all to see, and bits of detritus from the explosion still littering the cordoned off crime scene.

Lots of cops, lots of onlookers and, at the times we were there, notables touring the wreckage — including the king himself a few days after the explosion. At the time I speculated that European governments had or soon would send in anti-terrorist experts to help with the investigation, and that later proved to be the case.

Two days after the bombing we saw a large procession coming towards the Argana from the opposite side of Djemma el-Fna, led by a beautiful horse-drawn carriage with a huge red Moroccan flag waving from it, and by two traditional water-sellers of the square donned in their distinctive costume and gear. Surrounding the carriage and following it was a quiet and melancholy crowd of hundreds carrying red roses to protest the violence.

A day later, as we walked the narrow streets of the medina we passed a large group of chanting people, mostly burly men, headed to the square. They were notably angrier than the group we saw previously and proved to be merchants from the market’s shops. One can imagine their concern not only about the terrible carnage, but the impact it might have on the welcoming reputation of Marrakesh, and therefore on their livelihoods.

The bombing in Marrakesh hit the international news within several hours, and we sent the requisite emails to close friends and family to let them know we were OK. But this was a little story in the big picture. Terrorist bombings happen every day in many places in the world, and the one in Marrakesh would soon be a memory tucked in the recesses of our collective minds, to be superceded by even worse or more immediate events. Ironically, the big daddy story of them all was announced four days later, displacing even in Morocco the Marrakesh news: the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan.

And what, a psychiatrist might ask, did I learn from this experience? Well, first of all how much I love my wife, thankful that nothing happened to her — or to me, or to our friend Robert. Had we decided a bit earlier to go to lunch on the square instead of going home, we might have been among the casualties.

I grieved, of course, for those murdered and their families. But there was also a certain distance from all that was happening that allowed me to observe with a critical eye. I know that sounds cold, but this was not my town, and I knew I would be leaving in a few days. If I could have helped in the time after the bomb went off, I hoped that I would have. If I was asked for help, I hoped that it would have been given. Perhaps I could have sought out something to do, but I did not.

What if this had happened in Seattle? Would we have behaved any differently than those in Marrakesh? Would there be heroes like the Argana waiters who tried to help the maimed and wounded just after the explosion? Would we hold protest marches like those in the square? Who would rush to the hospitals to give blood, and who would prepare food to give to rescuers? Who would simply shut their eyes, be happy nothing happened to them, and go on with their lives?

Would we remember, or would we make ourselves forget?


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