The eye couldn't help but fasten on Noureddine Morceli and Hassiba Boulmerka as they ran their respective 1,500-meter finals at the world championships in Tokyo last summer. They stood out in their Algerian green, the green of mallards and meadows, the green of Islam. Morceli, the indoor-record holder, was the favorite in the men's race, but Boulmerka was virtually unknown in the women's.
Morceli followed a strong, even pace and kicked early, with a full 400 meters to go. He blasted into the lead so hard, burning 100 meters in a maniacal 12.8 seconds, that he seemed certain to be exhausted well before the homestretch.
Boulmerka didn't claw out of the pack and into the lead until late in the last turn. Behind her was world and Olympic 3,000-meter champion Tatyana Samolenko Dorovskikh of the U.S.S.R., famed for her kick and just beginning to open up.
Morceli covered the second 100 of his last lap in another extraordinary 12.8. His third 100 was yet another 12.8. He had just run the fastest finishing 300 in the history of championship 1,500s, but he still had 100 meters to go and Kenya's Wilfred Kirochi was only five meters back.
Boulmerka, in her homestretch, labored to hold on. She told herself that now was the moment to believe. She had been strong all season. She would be strong once more. And so she was. Dorovskikh could sprint no closer.
Morceli, far from tightening, gained an astounding 10 meters in his last 100. He relaxed across the line in a meet record of 3:32.84. Barely 10 meters past the finish, he sank to his knees and placed his palms and forehead upon the track. There he prayed, motionless, a slender brown man in green, abruptly transformed from conqueror to supplicant.
As Boulmerka won her race by three meters in 4:02.21, she screamed. Slowing, she seized her hair with both hands and kept on screaming, as if her passion were so great that it might burst her brain. "I screamed for joy and for shock, and for much more," she said when at last she was able to explain. "I was screaming for Algeria's pride and Algeria's history, and still more." Boulmerka was the first female world champion from her country, which is divided over the very idea of female athletes. "I screamed finally for every Algerian woman," she went on, "every Arabic woman."
Morceli's performance capped an undefeated season that revealed him to be, at 21, the most talented miler who has yet lived. He was humbled. "My prayer was just to God," he said, "to thank him for giving me the power for the victory."
No nation had ever before produced both the men's and women's world or Olympic 1,500-meter champions, and Algeria duly went wild. "At the airport," said Boulmerka, "it took the National Service to control the crowds. They threw mountains of bouquets." Boulmerka, overwhelmed, was borne through Algiers in an open limousine. "From the balconies the women threw out candies and wheat seeds. We do it at weddings. The wheat is symbolic of sweet life, basic life."
Boulmerka (pronounced bull-MERK-uh) and Morceli (MORE-sell-ee) were awarded the Medal of Merit, one of Algeria's highest honors. President Chadli Bendjedid was so moved at the ceremony that he kissed Boulmerka on the forehead. There were pledges of money and houses. "And," Boulmerka says, "several leaders of political parties told me, 'You did what we haven't been able to do for years. You brought us together.' "
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.
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 cafè, sipping brick-red orange juice, getting back to beginnings.
Morceli was born Feb. 20, 1970, in the small town of Tènès, 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."
The young Noureddine seemed best suited to long distances. "At 14, I ran for live hours," he says proudly. "Three of us did. We just went for a run, and nobody wanted to stop, so we...kept going."
"They ran for 2½ hours, and then they had to get home somehow," says Baki Brahmia, 29, a 3:37.70 1,500-meter man who has about him a clarity appropriate to someone who just took his Ph.D. in solid-state physics from Warwick University in Coventry, England. Morceli is surrounded by remarkably capable people.
By osmosis, by example, by videotape, by making games of race tactics in workouts, Morceli's support group taught and toughened him. When he was 16, he had a bad race and finished sixth in the Algerian high school cross-country championships. "I got so upset that I trained three times a day," he says. "I was crazy. Two weeks later I beat all those guys in the Algerian youth championships and realized how good I could be." Solemnly, he announced to reporters his intention to become a world champion.
And so, as if ordained, it came to pass. At 17, Morceli placed second to Kenya's Kirochi in the world junior 1,500. At 18, in need of a good track, he enrolled at Riverside (Calif.) Community College, where he ran the 5,000 for two springs, preparing for European summer 1,500s, almost all of which he won. At 20 he was ranked first in the world.
"No injuries," he says. "I would like to thank God for that." His tone is offhand, with a little nod down the table, as if God, too, were there chewing a soggy mint leaf. Amar Brahmia says some credit must go to Morceli's practice of taking recuperative breaks between the indoor and outdoor seasons and of using training camps in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. "Algeria has its expectations," Morceli says, "and they grow. When I go outside this country, my mind is clean. I can focus just on what I want."
Undistracted, he won 21 straight 1,500s or miles, indoors and out, before coming in second in a 1,500 in Rome on June 9. Morceli ran the fastest mile (3:49.12) and 1,500 (3:31.00) of 1991. He believes he might have approached Sa‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤d Aouita's 1,500 world record of 3:29.46 if there were now as much depth of talent in middle-distance running as there was in the early '80s.
"When Aouita, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram were at their best, they had close competition driving them to their records," Morceli says. "Last year I was by myself for the last half of most races."
By midnight the chaabi singer's voice is gone and the mall has started to clear. "Have to get some sleep before morning prayers," says Morceli, rising, and you are reminded of him crouched on the track in Tokyo. He was certainly right, back then, to count his blessings: talent, family, guidance and discipline. It was as right for him to pray as it was for Boulmerka to scream.
Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because [men] spend their wealth to maintain [women]. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for [women] from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. God is high, supreme.
—THE KORAN (Surah 4:34)
After such a ferocious passage, there is a need for historical context. The Koran is mild compared with the desert tribes that the Prophet reformed. One of Muhammad's earliest prohibitions was against the then common practice of killing infant girls. But Islam still differs tremendously from many other religions in its treatment of women.
Hassiba Boulmerka grew up in Constantine, in the Atlas Mountains, 350 miles cast of Algiers. The city is built upon a broad plateau and cut almost in half by a huge crevice that is spanned by a suspension bridge. The impression is of a collection of cliff dwellings.
"But the town was planned by the French," says Boulmerka. "It has all the amenities, a university and parks, so it was easy, physically, to run there."
Her French is clear and musical, her complexion as pale and freckled as a Parisienne's. "I'm completely Arabic," she says. "My parents came originally from the remote countryside. But for 10 years my father drove a truck in France and sent money home to our family."
As a teenager Boulmerka was hyperactive, vocal and in need of an outlet. When she won a footrace in school, her father, who had seen Frenchmen celebrating their daughters' athletic attainments, raised no objection. "My parents supported me all they could, emotionally and financially," says Boulmerka. "At first I really had no problems. All my classmates and I received a Muslim education, so there were rules, like no alcohol, no eating pork, no women going out dancing. We all lived by those rules, in harmony between men and women. We could do sport together, although the number of women in sport has always been small. At one point there was a move in the parliament to ban women's participation in sport, but the majority voted to keep it. Then, about when I started, the doctrinaire Muslims began 'working in the dark,' agitating against sport for women. It wasn't obvious, but I could feel it."
Here is the history that led to Boulmerka's plight. In the seventh century, Arabs from the Arabian peninsula invaded much of North Africa, spreading their culture and religion to the shores of the Mediterranean. They spent much of this time trying to subdue the Berbers, a warlike nomadic people, many of whom were blond and blue-eyed. But when the Berbers finally took up the green banner of Islam, they did so with a will. An Arab-Berber army invaded Spain in the eighth century and gradually overran the Iberian Peninsula. Because the Arabs adapted and preserved the science and culture they found in conquered lands, their empire became a light of human civilization while Europe was sunk in the Dark Ages.
Spanish Christians fought the invaders and slowly regained control of their lands, driving out the last Arabs in 1492. In the 16th century, Spaniards captured Algiers and other coastal cities of what is today Algeria. The Spanish in turn were expelled by the Turks, under whose rule the Algerians chafed for the next 300 years.
Then came the final humiliation. In the 19th century, France colonized most of North Africa. The government in Paris came to consider Algeria a vast southern province, as French as the mainland. So when, after World War II, Algerian pressure for independence became irresistible, France resisted anyway, fanatically.
From 1954 to 1962, many Algerian women fought beside their men in a savage war of independence, and when it was won, some women refused to return to the subservience symbolized by the veil. So Boulmerka was born into a pluralist society, which until lately seemed resistant to the calls for government by the Koran that periodically sweep the Muslim world.
"Algerian women are treated better than women in other Islamic countries," says Boulmerka. "Today, Algerian women can wear swimsuits on the beach. But women don't always know the force they have within them."
Boulmerka discovered some of her own extraordinary force in 1988 when she won the 800 and the 1,500 at the African Games. After the Seoul Olympics, at which she did not advance past the first round in either event, she and coach Amar Bouras made a four-year plan for the 1,500 in Barcelona. "You can't be a champion in a week or a year," she says. "You must accept a time of suffering."
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."
Asked what kind of Islamic state the FIS would have tried to create in Algeria, Morceli says, "That's a good question. I don't know." The issue is so heated that taking a position on it would only subject him to an avalanche of reaction from both sides. So you accede to his unspoken appeal to drop the subject.
Morceli reaches for your copy of the Koran and examines it intently. "It is good to read the Book," he says. "Especially when you are mad—if you read the Book, you feel good inside." He says his daily prayers at dawn, noon, 4:30 p.m., sunset and 90 minutes later. The prayers consist of "reading the Koran only," he says, "asking strength and forgiveness."
"Just what," you blurt out, "do you need to be forgiven?"
"You never know," says Morceli with some firmness. "You can do something wrong by your eye, by your hand or by thinking."
After a workout, Boulmerka perches on splintered wood bleachers in a field house in Vincennes, France. She has raspberry-colored fingernails, thoroughly chewed. There are eight shades of pink and plum on her sweatsuit and shoes. "I'm here to settle down and train," she says.
It is harder for her than for Morceli to shut out everything but running. Much roils beneath her pastel surface. "When I won in Tokyo, I wasn't comfortable with being the center of attention," she says. "I like to keep things simple, not be a star. But I've become a representative of all Algeria, and of young women in particular. I've gotten so many letters wishing me courage. Often they ask for a photo, but when I send one, I mustn't write my name on the envelope if it is to get there." That's because the photograph might be confiscated by "the more faithful" postal workers, enforcing Islam's dim view of depicting the human form. The Koran, it happens, nowhere prohibits such visual representation. Not until the ninth century did Islam consider figurative painters and sculptors to be competing blasphemously with God the creator.
Boulmerka feels the Koran can be read far more liberally than doctrinaire Muslims have interpreted it. "When the Koran was written, there were no cameras," says Boulmerka. "And the Koran itself says you must work for science and technology, search it out. If the Prophet came to earth, he would accept TV, cameras, cars and planes, properly used."
And maybe even modern women, aching to be good. "I sometimes feel too selfish," Boulmerka says. "I have a relatively luxurious life, and I'm bound by my faith to help people who are poorer, less healthy than I am. I want to set up a group to help drug addicts and handicapped people. I'm looking for sponsors for it. No one has done that in Algeria."
Boulmerka clearly embraces her role as, if not a star, an exemplar. "I prove that Algerian young men and women can be athletes or doctors or engineers," she says. "That is so important to me that after my running career I'm tempted to get into politics."
She gets into them right away. "We've been governed by the National Liberation Front [FLN] since 1962. And in the last election, when people wanted change, all they had to vote for was the FIS, which would like to use the country as a toy. So I'd love to help create a new party. Seventy-five percent of Algerians are under 30. I'd like to invite all young people to join in and show that they are aware of the real economic and educational problems of Algeria and that they can be responsible for solving them."
The soldiers outside a radio station in Algiers wear stiff new combat fatigues and carry AK-47 rifles with beautifully polished hardwood stocks. This is a place that the discontented might hit, so you are searched on your way in to watch Morceli do an hour on a talk show.
He takes off his jacket, puts on earphones and is asked about the challenge of Morocco's outspoken Aouita, who was injured in 1991 but recently returned to break the indoor 3,000 record. "He used to be my idol," Morceli says sadly. "But he talks too much, and he avoids racing the best athletes unless he's certain he'll win. All I can say is, if he wants to win the Olympic 1,500, I'll be on the track."
A little mouse quietly drops out of a hole in a wall and moves, unobserved save by a delighted Baki Brahmia, over a tangle of cables that crosses the dim floor like mangrove roots.
Before the show, a gentleman's agreement was reached that Morceli wouldn't be grilled on questions of politics or money. Now the interviewer breaks the agreement, asking if Morceli would accept were he to be named by the ruling council to a government position. Morceli says he would not. The interviewer immediately asks how much money Morceli makes. Morceli, his eyes widening at this rudeness, says that the most important thing is to perform one's best. The mouse appears poised to run up the interviewer's pant leg.
Amar Brahmia adds, on the air, that Morceli commands as high an appearance fee as Carl Lewis, "and no athlete would get more than that." The mouse turns and vanishes into a dark corner. Decorum is preserved, which is a disappointment all around.
This late-twentieth-century Islam appeared to raise political issues. But it had the flaw of its origins—the flaw that ran right through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the faith. It offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything—but who had ceased to exist. This political Islam was rage, anarchy.
Among the Believers (1981)
Boulmerka, having bravely called for a practical approach, is asked how she would structure Algeria's government. "I can't project a precise shape," she says. "I'd have to know what the people want, but I believe accommodation is possible, even if we have to create a half-Islamic, half-secular government."
When she is asked to face the apparent contradiction in those terms, to recall that the FIS believes that secular law—such as equal rights for women—destroys the purity of Islam, she is clear about where she takes her stand. "I know I want it to be very democratic."
Paradoxically, Boulmerka says, the army's emergency rule is good for Algeria—for now. "Thirteen million Algerians can't read and don't know what politics are," she says. "These are the people the FIS takes advantage of. It's going to be hard to establish any working democracy when they're not used to it." Boulmerka's speech slows under the weight of feeling. "I don't want my country to fight for democracy, as some countries have for centuries, without achieving it. The Algerian people aren't quite ready. They could tear themselves apart. We can use this year to teach. But democracy is not dead. The ruling council is protecting democracy."
Driving his black Audi, Morceli and his 19-year-old brother, Ali, escape Algiers. The hillsides are lit with mustard. The land resembles Marin County, Calif., in March, but with goatherds. After a half-hour drive, the Morcelis are running in a pinewood. The rain has stopped; the footing is duff and loam. Ali, a deer, bounds away ahead. He is training for the 800 meters in the world junior championships. "In 1995, when he's my age," Noureddine says, "he's going to run 1:39." Coe's world record is 1:41.73.
Noureddine keeps turning to check on you as the pace inches up. "This is running easy," he says, "just to keep shape, a little bit, during the fast." When he trains in earnest, he says, he runs only 50 miles per week, "but well paced, 4:48 per mile."
He's on a six-minute-mile pace now, his stride short and balanced, with no hint of preternatural speed. After half an hour and some further quickening, you slip back, faint and unfueled. Thus you can watch from the side as Noureddine does a series of 100-meter strides between closely planted pines. The passing trunks give him a context, and he is revealed as a rocket.
He stretches his Achilles tendons by pushing against a tree. The fragrant pine bark is smooth and yielding; he could be pressing against a hand-tooled saddle. "We used to have a golf course to train on," says Noureddine. "But the president took half of it for a house and garden. So we come to the forest."
During the drive home, the rain resumes. Traffic is light. Noureddine says, "People are all inside, waiting to break their fast." Not quite all. Occasionally, cars careen from behind and fishtail around him. "Crazy, crazy," he says each time, cautiously making his way through his city of hypoglycemics.
Boulmerka feels perfectly able to bring Algeria the Olympic gold medal for the women's 1,500. But, ever the realist, she doesn't believe she can break Tatyana Kazankina's 12-year-old world record of 3:52.47. "I can get near it, maybe," she says. "But I don't know how many more years I will continue. Every year it gets harder to balance my training, my friends, my other interests and my duty to visit my parents and take care of them."
Boulmerka can seem curiously shy for such a socially involved person. That, too, is rooted in her religion. When she is asked if she plans to marry or has a boyfriend, she blushes and says vehemently that such a question cannot be asked of a good Muslim woman.
Her embarrassment reminds you of her experience at the gala IAAF awards banquet last year in Monte Carlo. "My race at the world championships was the first time I ever felt complete confidence in myself," she says. "I will never forget the emotion of that day. But I'd never dared to look at my own film of the 1,500. I'd tried, but I couldn't. Then, at that banquet, with no warning, they showed it, on a huge screen—me, winning and screaming."
As she did then, she puts her face in her hands, mortified by how much of herself she had revealed. "I couldn't face it," she says. "I had to turn away."
Morceli, with admirable restraint, squeezes a wedge of lemon into his chorba, a traditional soup of tomato, lamb and pasta. Then he takes up a spoon and breaks his fast of 14 hours.
Nourishment makes Baki Brahmia talkative as he tries to decide who was the most prominent Algerian ever. "We have our history," he says, "but if you ask which Algerian most makes the rest of the world vibrate with interest...." He swivels to Morceli. "It must be him."
Morceli says "second plate" and heads to the restaurant buffet for a mound of couscous, fish, meat and potatoes.
"I'm proud of Noureddine for not allowing his success to change his personality," says Brahmia. Several comely women at a nearby table stop breathing when Morceli passes them. Brahmia immediately says, "The Koran may permit a man four wives, but God discourages it if you can't be fair to them all."
Returning, Morceli says, "I only plan to have one wife." He says that he may take her soon. "Maybe after the 1993 world championships." This does not mean that he has made his selection. As he catches and returns a flash of dark eye, he says, "I have to pick carefully. It's my future. But it's good to get married. It helps to avoid doing very bad things, like in Europe sometimes. If you are not able to get married, you have got to fast, fast, fast. God said that."
Asked how long he will race, Morceli becomes unexpectedly animated. "It's possible to go on to 37, 38," he says, almost defensively. "You can, if you are serious and dedicated each day. Look at Aouita at 32. Look at John Walker and Mike Boit. Age has nothing to do with it, running the 1,500." Morceli clearly dislikes talk of quitting his calling. Does one quit the faith?
A last talk with Boulmerka passes quickly from your control. "Algerian journalists always seem to have the same questions," she says. "There's no evolution to what they ask, so I make sure to mention what's important."
That is, simply, her creed of sport: "In athletics, on the track, I learned to suffer, to love my country, to concentrate, to take responsibility. I believe you can express your self in sport maybe better than in any other field. All that, and it brings everyone together, too."
Boulmerka is caught in more than a struggle to be free of some patriarchal traditions. Her athlete's instinctive, childlike drive to improve and to find common ground with others in the process must inevitably war with the sectarian purity of doctrinaire Muslims. This is a great divide: between the religion of compassion and the religion of coercion.
Boulmerka and Morceli together, having gone into the world and returned victorious, face the question of how to explain our secular, fax- and CNN-wired society, for which there is no better symbol than the Olympics, to nearly one billion Islamic souls who see in it an ever more corrupt fall from the faith of the Prophet.
The Islam of the Prophet's time was open to learning and built upon it. The rigid religion of the FIS seems sterile by comparison, obsessed with making, in Naipaul's words, "abstract men of the faith, men who would be nothing more than the rules."
But Algeria's milers transcend the rules. They have used the discipline of Islam to fire extraordinary achievement, and they are not alone. It may be that the most renowned examples of personal attainment in the modern Islamic world, from Morocco to Kenya, are its runners. They are products of their culture's toughness and intelligence. They have not rejected the arena. They have mastered it. Let us hope that they shame the most zealous keepers of Allah's faith into accepting a thousand years of hard-won human civilization.