In 2003, just a couple of years after the Twin Towers attack, twelve suicide bombers blew up multiple targets in Casablanca. The bombers were all young men recruited from the slums of Sidi Moumen. These attacks did not cause much of a ripple in the western press—Muslims killing Muslims doesn’t inspire the kind of outrage that sells papers or grabs cable news channel eyeballs in the U.S.—but it was shocking event in the Arab world. It’s the inspiration for Horses of God, a fictional story rooted in the real life experiences of hundreds of thousands boys and men in the Arab world.
Four boys kick around a soccer ball in the dusty streets and desolate empty lots of Sidi Moumen, an immense, impoverished shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca. They’re kids like any other, paling around in wild packs of ragamuffin gangs and playing makeshift soccer games that have a tendency to end in scrappy brawls, but their horizons are limited by their circumstances. The bird’s eye view of the camera reveals the startling proximity of this desperate slum with the cosmopolitan cultural capital of Morocco—and of North Africa at large—but from the vantage point of these boys in the garbage-strewn streets it could be on another planet. Their dreams of a better life come not from experience but television, where they have the choice of European football matches and mom’s glamorous soap opera fantasies. The realities of survival are much less romantic.
Horses of God opens in 1994 and follows these boys over the course of ten years, watching the scrappy boys grow from fresh-faced, energetic kids to hopeless young men with no good options for a way out. Ayouch centers the story on two brothers: Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachid), a talented goalkeeper with dreams of football glory, and his older brother, Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), who turns to crime, the only business thriving in Sidi Moumen. They have no parental guidance to speak of, no education, and no role models for a better (or even different) life apart the criminals that run the streets. It takes prison to expose Hamid to another way and he returns a radically changed young man. He’s been converted—to Islam, yes, but more accurately to a community that educated him, welcomed him and instilled in him a sense of cultural pride—and he pulls his friends in with him.
It’s important to get into the real life of those people, from the very beginning, from where the story begins. Some Arab directors like me who live in the middle of the Arab world, close to the shanty towns. I spent lots of years there with those boys before making the film.
—Nabil Ayouch, to Dan Lybarger
Horses of God is not the first film to explore causes of terrorism and the willing martyrdom of young men who become suicide bombers, but it is the only one I’ve seen that digs so deep into the lives of the men before they become a part of the movement. Ayouch had shot documentaries in Sidi Moumen, which he says was only four or five miles from his home in the middle of Morocco, but was shocked by the 2003 attacks and the fact that all of the bombers came from that shanty town. By his own admission, he stayed away for a couple of years before returning in 2008 to meet the people of the town and begin research for a movie that would explore the lives of the men that led to their recruitment in the cause. After a year of his own research he read Mahi Binebine’s book The Stars of Sidi Moumen and found the story he wanted to tell, but he continued his own outreach. That research became the reality seen on the screen and inspired his casting. His stars were all non-professionals from Sidi Moumen. “They had played in the same playground as the real suicide bombers, they prayed in the same Mosque, some of them even knew them, they were not close, but they knew them,” he explained in a 2014 interview with Carlos Aguilar for Indiewire. “They have their own truth, their own life experiences in this neighborhood, and they know how it is to live there. That’s what they brought to the film.”
More than simply the making of a radical Muslim terrorist, Horses of God is a social portrait of the world they come from and the life of the story is in the visceral detail of the boys and their lives. Ayouch shot on location in Sidi Moumen to capture the squalor of shantytown slums that look more like an internment camp than a village (locals described it as an “open air jail”). His camera often takes to the sky to look down on the unending maze of streets, and just as often takes us back to the streets and through the maze in elaborate tracking shots. That change in perspective puts us in their shoes, trapped in this warren of streets and alleys that have no escape.
To call their home town a garbage heap is no colorful metaphor; the town is surrounded by mounds of trash, which the kids scrounge for anything of value (which isn’t much). The local marketplace is racket run by thugs who shakedown the merchants or drive them out. When Yachine gets a job working for the local mechanic, you notice that apart from the police there are no cars to be found in here. The best that the locals can hope for are mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles, and even those are dear. There’s not even bus or train transportation out. Unless you count the prison bus.
That makes Hamid an attractive poster boy for this brand of Islam, a former hothead who returns home as a calm, confident, polite young man, with a promise of a better life today and a glorious afterlife tomorrow. In a town where everyone is in faded hand-me-downs and home-mended clothes, his neat, clean appearance and bright clothes alone give him a sense of authority and integrity. And in a shantytown diseased by crime, the ruthless justice that the Imams bring to the lawless culture is empowering to them young men who carry out the vigilante policing.
The rhetoric that these Islamic fundamentalists teach is very simple. They always use the same words, the same speeches. It is really brainwashing. This type of speech cannot reach and cannot target anyone; you really have to feel desperate, hopeless, and abandoned to be open to this kind of words.
—Nabil Ayouch to Carlos Aguilar
This is a culture abandoned by both the government and religion. There are no mosques to be found as the boys are growing up, no charitable outreach or religious lessons. They come later, following the recruitment of their army of soldiers, the “horses of God” of the title. That’s important to remember in a debate that too often reduces the complexity of the Muslim world to radical Islamic activists and secular progressives. As stated in the film’s tag line, “No one is born a martyr.” These boys are not the product of a religious war zone but an economic ruin of dire poverty, chronic unemployment, runaway crime and blatantly corrupt cops. Hopelessness, mixed with masculinity and pride, makes them ripe for recruitment to a terrorist cause. TV is the only window on the world most of these people have and the most vivid thing seen on the screens is the attack on the World Trade Centers in 2001. The young men cheer, even those with no investment in the cause. It becomes the closest they have to cultural pride and kick-starts a recruitment drive of more young, disenfranchised men into mosques.
What makes their journey so compelling, and this portrait so eye-opening, is that these young men are not politically motivated until they are recruited. They aren’t driven by fighting social injustice or religious persecution. Everything they know about the jihad comes from the Imams, who are as much cult leaders and guerilla recruiters as religious figures. In a world that treats them as worthless, where only the Imams with an ulterior motive give them a sense of worth and a cultural pride, Ayouch shows how just how a Muslim extremist suicide bomber is forged.
There are lots of Sidi Moumens not only in Morocco but in countries all over the world. Where we should be very careful is in education, and we are not good enough in that regard yet. The lack of education is the best entry way for brainwashing.
—Nabil Ayouch to Carlos Aguilar