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A Scream And A Prayer
Kenny Moore
August 03, 1992
Politics and religion are inseparable from sport in the lives of Algeria's world-champion runners, Noureddine Morceli and Hassiba Boulmerka
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August 03, 1992

A Scream And A Prayer

Politics and religion are inseparable from sport in the lives of Algeria's world-champion runners, Noureddine Morceli and Hassiba Boulmerka

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In 1990 she moved to Algiers and intensified her conditioning in ways effective but mysterious. "We developed an Algerian method of training," she says. "It's very hard. It takes four to eight hours a day." Since her 80 miles a week of running would take no more than two hours a day, you are quick to ask what else she does. With a grin, she says, "It's a secret." And it stays one, though she hints that she does much total-body strengthening.

Like Morceli, Boulmerka trains for periods outside of Algeria, but she vigorously rejects any suggestion that she might, or should, emigrate. "When the FIS won the first round of elections," she recalls, "I said to myself, 'You can't be frightened of these people, because the majority of Algerians voted them in.' I'm not scared of Islam. It's there to facilitate the lives of the people, mine included. But I am scared of the fascists who hide behind the veil of Islam in order to impose their political will. These are the people you see in Iran. But Algeria won't be like that. Our doctrinaire Muslims are too smart. They want to get along with all the Algerian people. At least I hope they do."

And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."
—THE BIBLE (Matthew 22:19-21)

When you express the wish that Muhammad had said something similar, and so had provided for the separation of mosque and state, Baki Brahmia replies, "You have fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. who don't separate God and the state. The difference in Algeria is that the fundamentalists, as you call them, are in the majority."

"What do you call them?" you ask.

"Why, Muslims," says Morceli. "Or we say, 'the more faithful.' "

Morceli and Brahmia are sitting with you this afternoon in the lobby of the El-Djaazair Hotel in Algiers. Its densely worked tiles and carpets are the more dizzying because you are sharing the runners' fast.

"People in America told me that if they fasted, they'd die," says Morceli, "but it's good to fast this way. It makes you very, very strong. It's like a treatment for the stomach." He adds softly, "You must respect traditions of religion."

Morceli could avoid the fast by staying abroad, because travelers are exempt, but he makes a point of being home for Ramadan, turning it into a break from hard training or racing. Yet devout as he is, Morceli is quick to support Boulmerka. "I think it's normal for Hassiba to run," he says. "We, in the family of athletics, don't mind ladies running. It's no problem for most people here."

"For some," says Brahmia, "it's a problem. The population is probably 50-50, for and against. But it's easier for Hassiba to resist the closed-minded people because there are a lot of open-minded people. It must be hard in Saudi Arabia."

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