You emerge in...a shopping mall, a multilayered concrete complex of stores and restaurants, covered but open to the wind. It is thronged with promenading Algerian families. "Riad Elfeth," says Morceli. "The Victory Garden. It's only like this now. After Ramadan, it goes dark at night again."
Morceli and the Brahmias stroll and mingle, letting you sense that the city is far from an armed camp. The mood is light. "Normal," says Morceli.
Well-wishers respectfully extend him a hand, giving Morceli the choice of taking it. Mildly, with a shy grin, he usually does. His face is an image of youth, of potential. "I don't come out much," he says.
Above the heads of the crowd, large TV sets show a sweating orchestra and a ravaged old singer pouring out tinny chaabi music apparently so exquisitely heartrending that Morceli will hear no sarcasm about it. Soon you are at a table outside a café, sipping brick-red orange juice, getting back to beginnings.
Morceli was born Feb. 20, 1970, in the small town of Ténès, 125 miles west of Algiers. His father, Abdallah, worked in a building-materials factory, and his mother, Kamla, took care of their six boys and three girls, one of whom, Zahia, is Noureddine's twin sister. Their house was 120 meters from the Mediterranean. As a child Noureddine loved fishing for sole from the beach, because he could jam his pole in the sand and sprint away with the wind whenever he could no longer endure inaction.
He cannot remember a time that he was not wholly and willingly subject to Islam's discipline. "All my family are very, very strong believers," he says. His religion's five basic duties are giving alms to the needy, saying prayers five times daily, fasting during Ramadan, professing the faith and, at least once in life, making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Morceli devoutly performs the first four duties, and he promises to make his pilgrimage, or hajj, when he can bring a "proper seriousness" to the mission.
His family, however, did not feel that simply observing Islam's fundamental practices would produce worldly rewards. "I was always taught," says Morceli, "that good is from God and that he says, 'Move if you want to get something. Don't sit and wait.' "
So there was a second family discipline: running. "My most vivid memory is of when I was seven," Morceli says, "and watching on TV when my brother Abderrahmane placed fourth behind Steve Ovett in the 1977 World Cup 1,500 in Düsseldorf."
Abderrahmane, Noureddine's inspiration and intimate, has coached him ever since. What's more, Abderrahmane's best friend, who ran 3:36.50 in the 1,500 in 1981 and is an attorney and an agent for Algerian runners on the European circuit, also gives Noureddine advice. Who is this helpful man? The same Amar Brahmia who is now ordering everyone glasses of hot, bitter sugared tea with crushed mint leaves. "Abderrahmane and I even got married on the same day," says Brahmia, winking. "But not to the same wife."
So Noureddine grew up never wondering what he wanted to do, or how to do it. "I am gifted by God," he says with arresting simplicity, "and I prove it by working very hard. From age 11, I wanted to be world champion. I ran my first race at 12, four miles of cross-country on the beach. I sprinted too hard at the start and came in fourth, and afterward my chest burned, and I thought, From now on I train seriously."