“I once went to Morocco Mall, and stayed for an hour, dreaming in front of the big aquarium. I think the fishes in this great jar live better than we do in our pigsty,” says a boy from Douar Tqalia (‘Tripeville’) on the outskirts of Casablanca. Tqalia is a squalid bidonville on the edge of Casablanca, and the image of this lad, with his nose pressed to the glass, gazing at well-fed fish, came back to me yesterday as I read Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, the English translation of Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen. The novel is in the news, not only because Nabil Ayyouch’s film of the book, Les Chevaux de Dieu, is in the cinemas, but because the English translation, by Lulu Norman, has just won the PEN prize for translation.
Sidi Moumen, where Binebine’s gang of wild kids grow up, is not too far from Douar Tqalia and shares all its awfulness, graphically described in the article quoted above (TelQuel 565). The two settlements play violent, gritty football against each other, the Stars of Sidi Moumen against the Eagles of Tqalia. The novel is the story of six boys growing up in a place where, as in either of these illegal douars, the streets are so narrow that the dead are carried upright to the cemetery, and the air is heavy with violence and abuse, the entrances guarded by police to stop the import of building materials for enlarging these festering piles of deprived humanity.
Lulu Norman’s is a glorious translation, mellifluent and convincing, once one accepts the unlikely articulacy of the uneducated narrator, who writes from his grave (or the Limbo beyond it), and explains his own eloquence rather perversely, “When I was alive I wouldn’t have been able to describe her as I can now. I wasn’t taught the words to convey the beauty of people and things, the sensuality and harmony that makes them so glorious.” Binebine is an eloquent describer of these dreadful places, and in a recent interview (Diptyk, Feb/March 2013) explains why: “Since I was very small, I haven’t been able to bear injustice. I was born and grew up in a country that was chaotic and unjust. When I began to write and paint, I couldn’t do anything but recount our failings. To give a voice and a face to the little people who surrounded me, to tell of their joys, pains, difficulties of existence, but also their violence, their scams. A whole world marked with a tender wickedness, a grinning despair.” In giving his narrator his lucid posthumous eloquence, Binebine is fulfilling that promise.
The Stars are a tightly knit little band, violent, tough and intermittently affectionate. They each have to take responsibility for their own ramshackle lives early, as they deal with imploded families, random aggression and extreme poverty. The poverty, the fragility of survival, is hauntingly described. “The wheel turns so fast. Between little and nothing lie a few crumbs, blown away by the merest breath.” The boys scrape a living from the vast landfill site on the edge of Sidi Moumen, where they dig in the stinking rubbish to find things to sell, and where twice they bury the victims of their sudden, explosive violence.
At one level the story is a simple one, of how a small group like the Stars, scraping an existence at the bottom of life’s pile, make easy pickings for the recruiters of jihadi terrorism: the six kids end the story (and the narrator makes his transition to disillusioned posthumous storyteller) by strapping explosives to their bodies and blowing themselves up in the lobby of a Casablanca hotel. It is of course, loosely told, the story of the 2003 Casablanca bombings, many of whose perpetrators came from Sidi Moumen.
The dynamics are all too plausibly described, the way in which the jihadi recruiters insinuate themselves into the vacuum left by the erosion of normal family affections and innocent childhoods. The groomers become pseudo-parents themselves, supplying the attention, the emotion and some of the worldly goods, too, that Sidi Moumen has denied the boys. “The emir and his companions were simple people, who sometimes did us the honour of coming to visit, filling us with light and peace. Hamid was proud of me; I could see it in his eyes. Sometimes Abou Zoubeir himself would join us. And it was like a victory over our mediocre, small lives … No longer were we parasites, the dregs of humanity, less than nothing … Gone, the fatalism injected in our veins by our uneducated parents. We learned to stand shoulder to shoulder and flatly refuse the worm’s life to which we’d been condemned in perpetuity.”
The escalation towards the suicide attack in Casablanca is a parody of love. The emir and his myrmidons give martial arts lessons, apparently unconditionally, and with them appreciation; they make small gifts of carpet scraps and music for the boys’ shack on the edge of the landfill site; they treat them, or appear to treat them, as human beings, worthy of respect; they find them jobs, and sort out scrapes – some of them big scrapes, as when Nabil kills the motor-mechanic for whom he is working. The price is a complicit religiosity, into which they are readily enough drawn, and which gradually erects a glass wall between them and their families, their old lives.
Shortly before the final bombing, the boys are taken by minibus for the first holiday of their short lives, at the Dayt Aouar lake, north of Ifrane in the Middle Atlas. Like a good father, the emir teaches the boys the names of trees and watches them swim in the lake, so that “the time we spent in the mountains will always be one of the happiest memories of my short life.” And then of course he kills them, and they collaborate willingly in their own deaths, swept up in a current of love that they cannot resist, and a web of commitments that they don’t know how to escape.
All this is classic grooming technique. But what Binebine gives to the novel over and above this account of seduction, and what makes it remarkable, is the strange, perverse glaze of camaraderie and intermittent joy that he gives to the boys’ life before the fall. It is what he describes as “une tendre noirceur … un désespoir souriant” – a recognition that there is joy even amongst the offal of daily life, despite fathers who beat you, deny your existence, belittle you, others boys who knife, cheat and steal from you, mothers who try, but fail you. In the slender interstices of misery, these boys do somehow make a life with its small loyalties and loves, its pride, its ésprit de corps, its achievements and its generosities.
It’s a magnificent achievement, to portray the sheer awfulness of life in Sidi Moumen, sparing little; and at the same time to leave the reader with a sense that humanity flickers and not infrequently sparkles beneath the muck. The narrator of the story manages both to explain with devastating honesty how dreadful life was, and to unfurl his bitter regret at leaving it for a handful of empty promises.
As for the easy-come-easy-go resignation that makes death contemplatable: “Sidi Moumen’s grim reaper was part of everyday life; she wasn’t as frightening as all that. People came and went, lived or died, without it making the slightest difference to our poverty. Families were so big that losing one or two of their number was no catastrophe. That’s how it was.”
And that, I suppose, is how it is, to this day, in Douar Tqalia and Sidi Moumen, the human dumps around Morocco’s big cities.
 Mahi Binebine, The Horses of God, trans. Lulu Norman, Granta 2013