Horsemen of an Apocalypse: les Chevaux de Dieu


BBC News, May 16 2003:

At least 41 people have been killed and about 100 injured in suicide bomb attacks in Morocco's largest city, Casablanca, local officials say.

Ten years ago, the news of Morocco's first taste of post 9/11 terror hit the country hard, and exposed the dangers of religious extremism grafted on to extreme poverty.

Nabil Ayouch, in his film Les Chevaux de Dieu (Horses of God, official trilingual site) which had its Moroccan debut this week at Tangier's 14th annual National Film Festival, provides a searing portrait of some of the young suicide bombers and their trajectory from street urchin to urban shahid.

One of the strengths of this remarkable film is the way we come to know the group of kids who start out on the mean streets (no, mud alleys) of Sidi Moumen.

Terrorists, you will please note, were once kids, and not necessarily from those spooky madrassas in Pakistan or Afghanistan where they spend all day reciting scripture.  No, kids who play pickup football (okay, soccer).  Whose parents come from a variety of low-or-no-income situations (single mother prostitute, senile father, soldier brother, just to name a few).

Some future terrorists, through luck and/or skill, can wind up kicking the ball with Bayern Munich, and maybe avoid terrorism altogether.  Others, not quite so lucky, can get picked up by the brothers, whether in the prison recruiting grounds or when the bros "help" them get out of trouble with the police.  But this social work sometimes has a deadly mission, as in the case of the Casablanca Fourteen.  Maybe they will have to repay the favor someday with their lives.

Nabil Ayouch opened the film premiere by saying that he wanted to give a non-Hollywoodian treatment to the suicide bombers: instead of anonymous, dehumanized robots, he "provides a human face" to people who have to be counted among the victims.  Their jihadist masterminds send these poor lost souls off to their deaths with a smile, having built up their self-esteem for the one – first and last – time of their lives.

A clue to the sensibility that informs this film is the book on which it is based, Mahi BineBine's "Les etoiles de Sidi Moumen."

"In Sidi Moumen, I discovered a Morocco that I did not know, which shocked me, a sort of Calcutta,'' said the writer, who took five years ''of pain and difficult writing to put an urban nightmare into black and white." (Reading Morocco, April 25 2010).

Mahi BineBine has given the highest praise to Nabil Ayouch for his film, which doesn't reproduce the book but transforms its spirit to film.

Tahir Shah, who lives amidst another bidonville or shantytown on the fringes of Casablanca, writes of urban redevelopment plans to raze the ramshackle neighborhoods:

For six months the engineers have been toiling, building a series of plush apartment blocks… homes for the wealthy that will — soon — overlook our lives. It’s not the high rise apartments for a new wave of Casa Trash [nouveau riche] that worry me, so much as what’s going to happen to the hundreds of ordinary people who live in the bidonville.
Our maid Zenab just told me that a man with a clipboard came round and asked her questions…. how much she earns, how many people in her family have jobs, and whether she has relatives elsewhere in town. She came to work this morning and broke down sobbing, damping her eyes with the corner of her headscarf.  ’They said we will have to leave in a few months,’ she said. ‘But where will we go?’

That's a question best answered by talents such as Nabil Ayouch and Mahi BineBine.

Gerald Loftus

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