An Attack at the Heart of Morocco

04/29/2011 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2011

Cafés in Morocco's Jma El Fna square like the Argana, which was bombed in a terrorist attack yesterday, are a mainstay of this bustling marketplace and tourist attraction in the center of Marrakech. In the square, snake charmers and fortune-tellers compete for attention with herbalists hawking homemade Viagra and self-proclaimed dentists hang out their shingle with rows of teeth and pliers arrayed on a cloth before them. Storytellers assemble crowds to listen to Moroccan folk tales while acrobats and monkeys tumble for tourists and locals alike. Rows of outdoor food stands sell savory meat roasted deep in the desert sands for over 24 hours, fresh orange juice, and land snails served up in a broth.

Tourist attraction though it may be, the gatherings are spontaneous, as much a spectacle for other Moroccans as for foreigners. In the second story Café Argana, tourists could escape the chaos and still be in the center of things, sipping mint tea and watching shadows grow on the red walls at sunset while still enjoying the exotic din of the square below.

On April 28 a bomb tore through the heart of the café, killing at least 16. It is not the first time Morocco has experienced an attack. In 2003, bombs in Casablanca ended the lives of 45 (though none were tourists), and an attack near the US Consulate in an Internet café in 2007 killed the suicide bomber while wounding several more. The 2003 attacks, happening in the context of September 11 and the War on Terror, rallied Moroccans around the figure of the popular King Mohammed VI. Many of the 2003 bombers were found to have come from the poor shantytowns outside the city of Casablanca, resulting in a subsequent campaign to build permanent housing and focus on ending urban poverty. Indeed, Morocco's levels of absolute poverty have declined since, and Morocco has worked hard to remove some of the conditions that contribute to extremism.

Tourism revenues have since skyrocketed, with almost 9 million visitors to the country in 2010. Tourism represents 10% of Morocco's GDP, and in the past ten years, Marrakech has turned into a radically different city. This has not always been a good thing. Costs of living have skyrocketed, and foreigners have bought up hundreds of ancient houses in the old city, turning crumbling riyads into palaces whose interiors grace the pages of foreign architectural magazines. With the influx of tourists, the city has also experienced increasing problems with sex trafficking and child prostitution, something that the Moroccan government has actively taken measures to address. Nevertheless, for some Moroccans, Marrakech's success has also resulted in a city seemingly out of control.

The attack will no doubt be a blow to tourism, which was already down this year in the face of regional unrest. What it will do to Morocco's own protest movement, which has consistently fielded its own largely peaceful demonstrations since February 20, is another open question. News reports have already begun to emerge suggesting that Morocco may feel that the protests have created a climate of instability that now necessitates a crackdown. This would be a shame, as the protests have been touted as a model of civility and dialogue regionally, and a positive step toward democratization.

In videos taken after the attacks, police mumble into walkie-talkies and Moroccans mill about the square, looking dazed. Only the skeletal outlines of the second-story café remain: a wooden splintered roof falling in on itself, shards of furniture scattered on the floor around a brilliantly intact, blue and red mosaic wall.

Jma El Fna is one of the world's most unique places, a spontaneous carnival that manages to recreate itself, day after day, serving a vital human need for community. Even in the 21st century, wandering in the square, one has the illusion of being part of a spectacle from days when street performers also served as itinerant journalists, bringing news from other towns and cities. Now, news of the blasts was transmitted almost instantly via the Internet, a sign that even as Jma El Fna appears to exist somewhere outside of time, the square, and Morocco itself, are very much a part of the tumultuous currents that have rocked the rest of the region.