On May 16, 2003 twelve boys from an impoverished slum of Casablanca blew up themselves and 33 victims in an attack coordinated by an Islamist cell in Morocco. They targeted a Spanish-owned restaurant, a Jewish-owned restaurant, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish community center, and the Belgian consulate.
In the excellent short novel Horses of God author Mahi Binebine provides a fictional account of this attack and, most importantly, the lives of some of the attackers. This story is told from the perspective of the afterlife by one of the dead attackers, a boy named Yachine.
Yachine tells us about his life, and the lives of his brother and close friends who also become attackers, growing up in poverty. Desperation, a pervasive culture of day-to-day violence, and bitterness are the stuff of life in their neighborhood.
The closest Yachine gets to hope is in his dreams of someday marrying the sister of a friend from his neighborhood. Yet even this bit of hope is crushed when, as they emerge into adolescence, Yachine becomes increasingly aware that his lack of education and lack of job skills, and his lack of opportunity for either, make it basically impossible that her family would allow her to marry him.
The film version of Horses of God, directed by Nabil Ayouch, just recently became available in the U.S. at Netflix and Amazon Prime. Horses of God was Morocco’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. The film is quite good, though I recommend the novel over the film, or at least reading the novel before seeing the film. The novel goes deeper into the hearts of these boys.
In either format, Horses of God serves as a powerful reminder that just telling or trying to make Islamist extremists to go away is entirely insufficient. For those vulnerable to recruitment into Islamist extremist movements, there must be a meaningful choice on offer. In their slum there is nothing for Yachine and his friends but the brutal daily grind of extreme poverty in which hope of change seems at best absurd, at worst a cruel delusion. Poverty alone does not cause terrorism, but it cannot come as a surprise that when Islamist extremists swoop into town– offering at least something – that some of the boys take note.
For Yachine and his friends, neglected, essentially abandoned, by the wealthy members of society, it is the Islamists who bring community and camaraderie, male role models, and opportunities for physical training – all attractive to teenage boys. The Islamists top it all off with a simplistic ‘Islam-is-the-solution’ ideology giving angry, confused boys meaning and direction, though sadly very dark meaning and direction.
In an interview about Horses of God, author Binebine acknowledges, “utter destitution is not the only factor in the manufacture of human bombs,” rather it can serve as a sort of “fertilizer.” A sad and dangerous “fertilizer.” He observes, “When you’re born into scum, without any prospects, no hope of escape, you become easy prey for the first dream merchants to come along.”
For those who would like to use Horses of God in school curricula or book clubs, there is a discussion guide available, based on the novel, from the Zephyr Institute.
Does the attack accomplish bringing about any changes in the boys’ desperately poor neighborhood? What does the afterlife hold for the attackers in this story? The movie does not tell us. But the novel does. For the answers to these two important questions you will need to read this powerful novel.