x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A wedding and a tragedy - there but for the grace of God

The joy of the royal wedding will forever be twinned with the tragedy in Morocco for some people.

What good has the royal family ever done for us? It's a lament you often hear from the British taxpayer nowadays. Or at least it was until the romance between Prince William and Catherine Middleton made the monarchy fashionable again.

But I for one will always have a huge debt of gratitude to William and Catherine and their choice of a wedding day. Their preferred date - Friday, April 29 - ensured that last Thursday afternoon I was safely back home in London rather than sitting in the Argana cafe of central Marrakesh.

When my wife had first considered a week-long break in Morocco's most exotic city, the need to be back home to watch the ceremony on TV encouraged us to go a week earlier than expected.

During our time in Marrakesh, we spent much of our time in Djemaa el Fna square, the city's centrepiece and one of the most exciting places I have ever visited. This human carnival of snake-charmers, tooth-pullers and fire-eaters had a hypnotic effect on us both, as it did with the thousands of other tourists milling about. Each day we invariably found ourselves sitting in one of the many cafes bordering the square, marvelling at the atmosphere.

While my wife bought enough footwear and fake handbags during our trip to start her own retail business, I made only one purchase. Not for me a pair of curly slippers or a ceramic tagine pot. The only item to catch my eye on our last day turned out to be a cheap, battery-operated train set.

Made in China, out of cheap plastic and labelled simply 911, it featured a small circular railway track with a motorised skateboard ridden by a tiny figurine of Osama bin Laden, who in turn was endlessly pursued by a miniature tank upon which sat an equally diminutive - and crudely styled - figurine of the former US president George W Bush. All great fun of course, or so I thought as I sat on the balcony of the cafe, inspecting my trifling acquisition over a cup of coffee and a kebab. I had little idea how relevant the purchase would be.

The restaurant where I sat was of course the very one blown up, quite possibly by individuals linked to al Qa'eda, barely 72 hours after we had settled our bill and left for the airport.

By the time the outrage actually occurred, I was back home in London. Indeed, the first I heard of the atrocity was on Thursday afternoon, when my mobile suddenly received a flurry of texts from friends and family, each one asking simply: "Are you OK?" As I was waiting for an appointment with my dentist at the time, their concern seemed somewhat superfluous - at least until I turned on the news.

Since then I've been much preoccupied with the notion of: "There but for the grace of God." Indeed, the apparent randomness of life and death on this dangerous planet was amplified when I heard that one of the civilians killed in the atrocity was the travel journalist Peter Moss. He and I not only lived within a kilometre of each other in London's West Hampstead, but had also shared a speaking event, reminiscing about our travel experiences at an evening organised by a local restaurant last December.

Afterwards, I recall we shared a drink and toasted our good fortune at being paid to travel round the world and describe our experiences. It could so easily have been me rather than him at the Argana on Thursday as my wife and I enjoyed this wonderful city and our good fortune in being alive. My heart goes out to his family.

It's difficult to estimate how much damage will have been done to Morocco's major tourist industry. But the fact that the bomb went off at a tourist hot spot leaves little doubt that the explosion was designed to inflict maximum economic havoc as well as mortalities.

"One's curiosity should always exceed one's fear" is a maxim I've tried to employ during my own lifetime. But try convincing a family of four with a limited budget looking for a safe environment for a week's holiday. One thing seems certain - the future of businesses in Morocco's souks is suddenly much less rosy.

And I, for one, will never look again at either the footage of Friday's wedding, nor the tiny train set on my lounge carpet, without being reminded of John Lennon's immortal words: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

 

Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London