Most Americans only know the city of Casablanca from the 1942 film of the same name, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It’s a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, located on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast and home to roughly 4 million people, numerous large international corporations, a bustling stock exchange, and thriving tourist industry. Casablanca has an impressive public transportation system, museums, cinemas, hotels, recreation centers, and many other signs of prosperity. Like most massive urban areas, it also has slums. One of its worst was Sidi Moumen, a shantytown northeast of the city with a population close to 300,000.
My post this week tells two stories about young men and the choices they made to extract themselves from the misery of Sidi Moumen. The first is about a group in their early 20s who, inspired by 9/11 and a subsequent call-to-action by Osama Bin Laden, perpetrated the deadliest act of terrorism in Moroccan history. The second introduces a young man, roughly the same age as the attackers, who found a way to escape the ghetto and become an internationally acclaimed photographer.
A Breeding Ground for Radicalization
In the spring of 2003, a bloody terrorist attack in the heart of Casablanca briefly turned the world’s attention to the impoverished and neglected Casablanca suburb of Sidi Moumen. On the evening of May 16, 14 terrorists wearing explosive-laden backpacks and armed with grenades and knives spread out across the downtown. Wearing synchronized watches, they managed to discharge 5 explosions over the span of 5 minutes. In total, 45 people were killed (33 civilians and 12 terrorists). The explosions injured more than 100 people, 97 of them Muslims.
In the aftermath of the bombing, the Moroccan government reacted swiftly and severely, arresting dozens of suspects believed to be connected with the attack. Many were held secretly and subjected to torture, raising condemnation from a variety of human rights organizations. Investigators soon learned, however, that every member of the human bomb brigade came from Sidi Moumen.
King Mohammad VI seized upon the occasion to marginalize his political rivals, taking special aim at the conservative Islamist party, PJD. However, he also undertook a number of public projects to improve conditions in the drug and crime-infested ghettos surrounding Casablanca. Many make-shift homes were razed and people were moved into new housing with running water and electricity. More money was allocated to improve the schools and build additional recreation facilities for the area’s youth. The government also put in 31 kilometers of new tramway with 9 stops in Sidi Moumen, making it easier for residents to travel to and from a stable job. The problems of illiteracy and deprivation are far from solved but nearly 20 years later, life in Sidi Moumen is markedly improved.
The Horses of God
Countless numbers of people from all over the world have wondered about the conditions that can lead a young man to turn himself into a “kamikaze guinea pig” as one French newspaper put it. In 2012, the French-Moroccan filmmaker, Nabil Ayouch, released a film called The Horses of God, that attempts to demonstrate how such radicalization takes place. The film is based on a book by the Moroccan author, Mahi Binbine, called Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen (English translation titled The Horses of God). I have not read the book but I recently re-watched the film and it’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction, based on the Casablanca assault. (A French subtitled version used to be on YouTube but I couldn’t relocate it. Amazon, however, has a version with English subtitles.)
The film attempts to recreate the conditions that spawned these futile acts of evil. It’s the story of two young brothers and their friends, growing up in Sidi Moumen. Gradually, the care-free and street-savvy boys become idle and disenfranchised young men struggling to make a life for themselves. After a series of completely plausible events, the brothers and two close friends end up in an extremist cell of Al Qaeda.
Realism at its Finest
In an interview, Ayouch described the difficulties of filming on location. “When you choose realism, using non-professional actors, in an overcrowded slum, you’re vulnerable and you know it from the start… it’s a physically violent location, verbal violence nearly continuously, because a slum is very paralyzing, and you have to face this violence… Sometimes you have to [stop and] explain why you are there, and why it’s important for people to talk about such conditions.”
In some ways, The Horses of God is a hard movie to watch. There are almost no scenes of beauty in this film. Many of the roles are depraved and the setting is one of decrepitude layered with perspiration and dust. Yet, I found myself sympathizing with the main characters and hoping for their defection until the bitter end. The cast members, all non-professionals, give Oscar-worthy performances. Ayouch’s use of drones to film action unfolding in a maze of narrow passages, carved from a sea of hovelled rooftops, incidentally reveals the striking levels of poverty and chaos that reign in Morocco’s worst ghettos.
Critics may claim that such films humanize villains unworthy of our empathy—that they justify terrorism even. I disagree. Understanding the conversion of an innocent child into a cold-blooded assassin, willing to sacrifice his own life, is not the equivalent of a defense. And without understanding, we have no chance of defeating violent forms of extremism. I have to admit that I’m fascinated by such stories but I also feel a moral imperative to know at least a bit about the suffering that goes on outside of my home, my city, and my country.
Light From the Shadows
All of the terrorists that conducted the Casablanca attack were between the ages of 20 and 23. When you see the vastness of Sidi Moumen and learn that many of its inhabitants rarely if ever leave their blighted neighborhoods, it’s hard to imagine how anyone might manage to break the multi-generational cycle of poverty and go on to lead a productive life. But some do. One such paragon is a young Moroccan photographer, named Joseph Ouechen. Ouechen was born in Sidi Moumen in 1982 and was still living there in 2003—the same age as the terrorists.
Ouechen relates in a TedX talk, how he managed to bootstrap himself out of misery. He credits his mother who, when possible, would give him 20 dirhams (approx. $2) to escape from Sidi Moumen. 10 dirhams bought him a round trip ticket into Casablanca where he would spend hour after hour hanging out in news kiosks, flipping through as many magazines as he could, and studying the pictures. He used the remaining 10 dirhams to pay his entrance fee to an Internet Café. “For me, going to an Internet Café was like traveling virtually, seeing the other side of the world and what went on there.”
A Self-Driven, Web-Based Education
A product of abysmal public schools, Ouechen had no chance at higher education. As he puts it, he could not even conceive of the things he went on to achieve. Sitting in those cafés, however, he was dissatisfied with search results depicting the Morrocan people, who were often shown wearing a kaftan or leading a mule down a dusty, rutted track. In 2010, he created a fashion photography blog, posting the works of artists in other countries. He remained frustrated, however, that fashionable people in Morocco seemed to have zero presence online. In 2013, he purchased a new camera and began posting his own pictures of people in the street.
Today, Ouechen’s photos have appeared in style magazines such as Morocco’s L’Officielle, Germany’s Blonde, and the United States’ Elle and New York Magazine. In addition, multiple exhibitions in Paris have featured his works and he recently became part of an effort to promote Morocco as the home for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Despite the cruel hardships that still remain in Morocco, Ouechen insists that we not look upon his story or people with sadness. A perpetual dreamer who has learned to believe in himself, Ouechen, who is an ardent follower of Islam, sees himself as master of his own destiny that only God can stop.
Lessons to be Learned
I don’t know about the lives of the actual young men who chose to blow themselves up on that tragic day in 2003. I’d be willing to bet, however, that unlike Ouechen, they didn’t have parents or other adults who consistently encouraged them. That is, not until the day when they found themselves in the welcoming embrace of Al Qaeda recruiters. It behooves us all to give some thought to how we might disrupt such indoctrination.
In closing, I hope you’ll find a few minutes to watch the following video about Joseph Ouechen’s ongoing quest to find truth, beauty, art, and his ultimate place in the world.
- The New York Times, AFTEREFFECTS: MOROCCO; Suicide Bombs Kill at Least 14 In Casablanca
- dw.com, Il y a 10 ans, les attentats de Casablanca
- La Presse, Dix ans après, les attentats de Casablanca marquent encore les esprits
- Goodreads, Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen
- Telerama’vodkaster, Les Chevaux de Dieu : Interview de Nabil Ayouch, réalisateur du film
- l’Obs, « Les Chevaux de Dieu » : il était une fois à Casablanca
- Le Monde Diplomatique, Au Maroc, «on te traite comme un insecte»
- YouTube, From Sidi Moumen to New York Magazine
- World Press Photo, Joseph Ouechen
- Vice, Photos of Moroccan Punks and Metalheads Keeping the Scene Alive
- YouAreTheStyle, blog of Joseph Ouechen
- Living Simply Blog, I Love You Casablanca
- Telquel, Le Maroc, Terre de football
- Vimeo, Joseph Ouechen – Light and Shadow