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A Tale of Two Moroccos | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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(CNN) — There are few cities I enjoy spending time in as much as Marrakesh in Morocco.

In Marrakesh, life comes at you in full color. There is the old Medina, with its narrow cobbled alleyways where pedestrians, motorbikes, donkeys and stray cats (and the odd CNN crew) all compete for vital space

Within the old inner city, there is the loud and sinuous market, with its displays of vibrant clothing, stacks of shoes, traditional pottery and hand-woven rugs. And there is of course Jammaa Al Fna, Marrakesh’s huge central square that looks like a scene from a Thousand and One Nights story with its snake charmers and monkey handlers.

And tucked away behind the old walls and behind thick wooden doors are oases of calm and serenity called Riads: Traditional Arabic homes, wrapped around open-air inner courtyards with fruit trees and fountains.

Foreigners have been snapping up these age-old properties, where extended families used to live, and turning them into hotels and guest houses.

In the last 10 years — and since my first visit to Morocco — I’d noticed this trend: hundreds of homes bought, refurbished and transformed into destinations or Westerners in search for the exotic.

This month on Inside the Middle East, we wanted to report on this trend. I wondered: who is benefiting from the investment? Are things changing too fast in the Medina? Can Moroccans still afford to live in the heart of the old city?

It was a sunny day on the first day of filming. The CNN crew too had rented a Riad for a few days. I started on my first cup of coffee of the morning when producer Schams Elwazer checked her messages and announced: “There have been suicide bombings in Casablanca.”

Immediately, we put a call to CNN’s international desk in Atlanta. The flurry of phone calls that comes with covering a developing story starts: The Moroccan Interior Ministry, the information Ministry …

We hear from one source that the target was the American Consulate in Casablanca. A Moroccan source confirms that two men — brothers — blew themselves up in a street near an American language center and the U.S. consulate in Casablanca.

I called the Consulate: “Did something happen near your building this morning? I asked.

“Ma’am, I gotta go.” said a man’s voice. Nothing but dial tone.

In the inner courtyard of the Riad, everything was peace; in Casablanca at exactly the same time, young men, surrounded by police, detonated explosives belts strapped to their bodies, killing themselves.

It was all the paradox of Morocco on that April morning: The beauty of the country and the warmth of its people against the threat of Islamic extremism, distant and sporadic, but a murmur one can’t help hearing.

It was the third suicide attack in a month in Morocco. Recent bombings haven’t killed many people, but there are fears that al Qaeda is pushing hard to establish a region-wide terrorist network in North Africa. That same week, a bomb attack in Algeria killed over 30 people. Is al Qaeda actively recruiting in Morocco and loosely connected to the latest bombing?

Authorities scrambled to reassure visitors and investors: These attacks are the work of disgruntled youth and have nothing to do with international terrorism. But some experts say al Qaeda-inspired groups are spilling over into Morocco.

In the end, only the bombers died in the U.S. Consulate attack that day. After gathering the basic information, we picked up our equipment, headed out into the old city and went back to filming Marrakesh’s old Medina.

For the rest of Morocco, of course, life went back to normal too; but when I asked a few people in Marrakesh if they were afraid of another, deadlier attack, all said it was only a matter of time.