Contradictory Paths Out of a Casablanca Slum, Sidi Moumen

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.

Casablanca at Night
Casablanca at Night, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Children in Sidi Moumen
Children in Sidi Moumen, (c) Deutsche Welle, dw.com

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.

Sidi Moumen
Sidi Moumen, Photo by Fadel Senna, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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.

New Tramway in Casablanca
New Tramway in Casablanca with stops in Sidi Moumen, Wikimedia Commons

The Horses of God

Director Nabil Ayouch
Nabil Ayouch, Director of 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

Horses of God Poster
Horses of God Poster, No one is born a martyr

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.

Scene from Horses of God
Achraf Afir, Said El-Alami, and Zouhair Sabri in Horses of God, (c) 2012 – Les films du nouveau monde

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

Joseph Ouechen
Photographer Joseph Ouechen

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.

Other Resources

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you for another fascinating post. Do you know whether the two photos of Sidi Moumen you included were from before or after the improvements carried out by the king? I sincerely hope they’re from before, because if the place still looks like that, there’s a lot more work to do.

    I don’t worry about “humanizing” terrorists. They were humans anyway. Being human does not necessarily mean being good. It’s valuable to understand what turns people towards senseless violence. No thinking person would take it as an excuse. If there are 300,000 people in Sidi Moumen, many or most of them living in equally bad conditions, then obviously the vast majority of them did not become terrorists. For those who did, it still comes down to individual decisions and influences. Some people simply have an inclination toward destructiveness and cruelty. In the US, the same kind of people who become terrorists in the Middle East become Proud Boys or Antifa, if fate happens to bring them into contact with such gangs. And most of them have no such excuse of poverty or educational deprivation. (I’ve heard that much of the membership of al-Qâ’idah is middle-class, not poor.)

    I believe the Islamic religion does play a role. Similar or worse conditions exist in the slums of Latin America, black Africa, India, Cambodia, and other places, yet poverty in non-Muslim societies doesn’t seem to produce terrorists to anything like the same degree. I notice that the US, which is plagued by violent gangs more than most Western countries are, is also much more religious than those other Western countries.

    From Ouechen’s words in the video, you can tell he’s a remarkably introspective and intelligent person. All the more remarkable for having grown up in a place like Sidi Moumen. I suspect his mother contributed more to that than just the 20 dirhems every so often. But it was still he who made the most of it, feeding his affinity for visual imagery rather than wasting the money on trivia.

    In any case, the terrorists are dead or in prison, while Ouechen is alive and creating and has a real future ahead of him. There may be two contradictory paths out of the slum, but only one of them actually goes anywhere.

    • Great insights Infidel. I don’t know the dates of the photos but they are probably within the last 10 years. Sidi Moumen is only one of many “bidonvilles” in Morocco and I’m sure that you can still find scenes like those in my post today. However, conditions truly do seem to be improving. There are several Moroccan cities that used to have similar ghettos that are now gone. Due to the sheer size of Sidi Moumen, and the nature of Morocco’s economy, such areas persist. I thought it was important to point out, however, that even in a developing nation, and one ruled by a king, attention is paid to providing government services to help the poor and that such efforts do make a difference.

      Excellent point about poverty not being a predictor of who becomes a terrorist. People that resort to violence, however, do seem to feel disenfranchised by society. From Timothy McVeigh to the Boston Marathon bombers to the Norwegian neo-nazi that gunned down dozens of teens attending a youth camp, they all felt they had been overlooked and cast aside, that society owed them something, and that their acts would bring about needed change. I suspect that having an “inclination toward destructiveness and cruelty” is a result of growing up with parents that are overburdened with their own struggles and ignore their kids and/or take their frustrations out on them. When parental interactions boil down to beatings or heated proseltyzing, I can see this leading to intense feelings of despair and desperation.

      In reading about Ouechen, I learned that he grew up with two parents and he thanks both of them for their support. I hated leaving the father out of my post but there wasn’t a specific anecdote to point to. I agree with your comment about Ouechen being “remarkably introspective”. He’s still a young man. It will be interesting to see where such introspection leads him 20 years from now.

      Love your last line! Thanks a bunch for sharing your profound reflections.

    • Mary Beth Seifert

      I appreciate your insightful comments, Infidel753.
      –MBS, Reader

  2. What an incredible write up. I haven’t heard of anything around this story and it sounds completely fascinating. I’m so interested in stories around this topic. I can’t believe I’ve missed this one entirely. Thanks for such a thorough introduction to it!

    Have you read the book Guest House for Young Widows? The author follows several women from various countries in Europe and Africa who go join IS (and a few who lived under IS and did a kind of go-along-to-get-along). I think you’d get a lot out of it.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I hadn’t heard about it. Sounds chilling. Hopefully, thanks to the Internet, such stories are getting out and perhaps serving as a warning to new potential recruits.

  3. Terrific juxtaposition of alternate life choices, Carol. I don’t recall hearing about this Moroccan attack. There’s so much we don’t know about what draws young people to radicalization, though we do know that slum conditions can lead to diverse forms of anti-social behavior.

    The young photographer reminded me of three young men from the Bronx in New York whom I saw interviewed on a video today. They came from a tough area where many of their peers wound up in jail or were killed. They started out spray painting graffiti on subway trains.Their first designs were intended to cover up the drabness and squalor of their daily existence. Over time, they honed their skills and formed a business creating spectacular murals that are commissioned by governments and corporations.

    Art is a powerful motivator for young people whose surroundings could otherwise lead them to destructive paths.

  4. I might have mixed feelings about watching it. And about Morocco. My grandfather, who spent all his porofessional life in Egypt, working for the Suez Canal, retired in Morocco just before the war. (My cousins say he must have been a spy). He died in “Casa” in 1944, of a stroke in the street. (Or maybe he was killed by German Intelligence?)

  5. Fantastic post. The juxtaposition of two life choices is well described.

  6. Mary Beth Seifert

    Loved this post, Carol. I learned from it! I’m interested in learning more about the photographer, the documentary you referenced, and the book Rennie mentioned. Thanks for doing this research, and for sharing it so eloquently.
    –MB Seifert

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