Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Terrorists and Tourists

After the 2003 bombings in Casablanca security was amped up all over Morocco. Cops and soldiers began doing foot patrols through marketplaces and neighborhoods where they didn't usually go unless there was trouble. One cop and one soldier were stationed in front of the school where I taught. The number of police checkpoints on the nation's highways increased exponentially overnight.
Just a few weeks after the bombings I took a bus from Meknès to Beni Mellal and back one weekend. Normally it's a six-hour bus ride. This time it took over eight hours to get there because the bus had to stop at every crossroads in the country while police inspected the luggage stored underneath the bus and checked the ID of every passenger. A lot of people were asked questions about their journey, but not me. My US passport was like gold. They were interested in finding terrorists, not tourists. I noticed that they waved most of the cars through the checkpoints. I guess terrorists only use public transportation.
The ride back to Meknès took about eleven hours. Not only had more police checkpoints sprung up over the weekend, but the bus was going to Fès, which meant getting off in Azrou. I had to take another bus or a grand taxi from there. It was dark by the time I arrived in Azrou. There were no busses and not enough Meknès-bound passengers to fill a grand taxi. After waiting for an hour I bought the remaining two seats just so we could leave. After one minute on the road the driver got pulled over for running a red light. He had to talk to the cop for 15 minutes and pay a bribe before we could move again. It was a long, slow, boring night time drive. Eventually I struck up a conversation with the passengers and the driver. People got out one by one along the road in Meknès until there were two of us left at the end of the route, two blocks away from my apartment. It was 11:30 PM. We got out of the taxi and each grabbed a strap of his bag as we began walking up the street.
Immediately a police paddy wagon rolled up. Two plainclothes cops and one guy in a uniform jumped out and surrounded us closely as they demanded our IDs. They barked a bunch of questions at us, concluded we were not the droids they were looking for, and sped off into the night. As we got to the head of my street and parted ways, my companion gave me a keychain as a gift. It's an inch-thick chip of wood with an Arabic prayer for travelers inscribed on it. Four years later it's in my pocket right now.

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