Yes, but briefly. Boulmerka's victory for Islamic women was a fraying rope flung across a yawning social chasm. Many Algerians, even as they cheered, found their pride at odds with their religion. In public the devout female Muslim should be covered from head to toe. So having the bare-legged Boulmerka defeat the nonbelievers was wonderful, but for the strict it was a guilty pleasure.
Within a few months doctrinaire imams pronounced a kofr, or denunciation, of Boulmerka as un-Muslim for "running with naked legs in front of thousands of men." Boulmerka, who had worn modest boy's shorts in Tokyo while the rest of the women's field pranced in Lycra briefs, shot back that she was indeed a practicing Muslim but that the traditional Islamic woman's leggings and head scarf might inhibit her stride.
Boulmerka, 24, was hardly new to this. For years, when she ran on Algerian roads, men had sometimes spat or thrown stones to convey their contempt for her dress or endeavor. She had ignored them. But then Algerians began voting Boulmerka's critics into high office. In late 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the doctrinaire Muslim political party, won so many seats in the first round of the country's first free parliamentary elections that it seemed assured of taking control of the government after the second round of voting in January.
Opponents of the FIS, including the army, believed that the party would do away with the democratic process. "In Islam, the people do not govern themselves by laws they make of their own, as in a democracy," wrote the late Sayyid Qutb, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and mentor of the FIS. "Rather, the people are governed by...laws imposed by God, which they cannot change." Muslim, in Arabic, means one who submits to the will of God.
When Bendjedid indicated in January that he was willing to share power with the FIS, the army had heard enough. It forced Bendjedid to resign, canceled the elections, installed a ruling council and outlawed the FIS. The party's followers rioted, and hundreds of people died in the fighting. The government council declared a state of emergency for one year and empowered the military to make arrests and conduct trials without observing normal legal procedures.
It seemed just the time to visit a pair of Muslim milers.
It is not yet sunset in Algiers, but a thunderstorm has blown in from the sea and made the afternoon night. Date palms, papyruses, cypresses and daylilies all thrash together in the cold, wet wind. Creamy buildings, which seem to have been lifted from either Paris boulevards or Cairo squares, rise steeply from the harbor into seething clouds. Hailstones shred banana plants but bounce off rubber trees. Algiers, on the Mediterranean coast of Africa, is barely 200 miles from the Sahara but is at the latitude of Tulsa. The city mixes climates, plants, architectures, histories, bloods.
A thunderbolt's oddly pink light momentarily reveals FIS graffiti spray-painted on the walls in curvaceous Arabic. The sound of the thunder echoes away until it is replaced by an amplified metallic voice, quavering and ancient. It is the muezzin calling from the mosque, calling that the sun is down, that the fast may be broken.
It is Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year, when the faithful abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. It was during Ramadan in A.D. 630 that the prophet Muhammad won military and spiritual victory over the city of Mecca and established the first Islamic state, on the Arabian peninsula. The rhythm imposed by Ramadan is of hearty meals at dawn and dusk separated by wan, parched days and recharged, festive nights.
So after dinner, a freshly showered Morceli, with his manager, Amar Brahmia, and Brahmia's brother, Baki, take you out on the town. Amar drives through rain and dense traffic to a vast, dim parking garage where aged attendants, gesturing in the thick blue haze, enforce three-centimeter spaces between cars. The only exit is a stairway filled with twin torrents of Algerians urgently going up and down. Morceli, dressed in a loose black suit, black dress shoes and an audibly yellow and green shirt, directs you up and steadies you in the crush with a protective hand on your shoulder.