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May 16, 2014 12:32 am

Moroccan Film ‘Horses of God’ Shows How Suicide Bomber Brothers From Casablanca Shanty Learn to Love Death (REVIEW)

avatar by Joshua Levitt

'Tarek' from the film poster for 'Horses of God.' Photo: Screenshot.

'Tarek' from the film 'Horses of God.' Photo: Screenshot.

At the New York premiere of the Moroccan film ‘Horses of God’ on Wednesday night, the chilling words of Imam Abou Zoubeir, the fictionalized Salafia Jihadia preacher who sends 14 young men from the Sidi Moumen shantytown into cosmopolitan Casablanca and their deaths as suicide bombers, captured the essence and allure of jihad, as true today as it was 11 year ago this Friday, the anniversary of the terrorist attack the story is based on.

The imam, with steely eyes and a powerful tone that entrances the young men, tells them they will be the “horses of God,” Allah’s cavalry, that they were “chosen” to fight the apostates. Their greatest strength is that “we love death as much as they love life. We are stronger than them, and they know it. Death does not scare us.”

Those lines resonated with this reporter because the leader of Hamas, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, used the same words to encourage graduates of Gaza’s  “jihadi education” camps, which graduated 13,000 “foot soldiers” earlier this year.

“The best way for us to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday is to walk in his footsteps and provide the future generations a jihadi education,” the Hamas leader told the students of Gaza. “We shall walk in his footsteps in educating the future generation to love death for the sake of Allah as much as our enemies love life.”

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“This is the generation that will be qualified for liberation, victory, return, and independence. Woe betide you, oh sons of Zion, for weakness knows no entry route to the hearts of this generation. This is the generation of stone, the generation of the missile, the generation of tunnels, and the generation of martyrdom…”

At the core of the film, a pair of brothers, Hamid and Tarek — portrayed brilliantly by amateur actors, Abdelilah and Abdelhakim Rachid, actual brothers who grew up in the Sidi Moumen slum — embrace Islam to gain control of their penurious circumstances for good, but then have to choose to sacrifice their lives to perform the will of their Imam.

Nabil Ayouch, the director, born to a Moroccan father and Tunisian Jewish mother, has also made other thought-provoking films. He described the characters as being “brainwashed” by the Imam, but as also having no way out.

“The weird thing with the slums is that there is no door,” Ayouch said. “There is no window, there is no way out.”

“So, you can have dreams. You can have hopes of a better future, of a job, of employment, education, a love, but there is no place for that, there is no future,” he said.

“So, when someone comes and says to you, ‘I’m going to bring you love, I’m going to give you direction, I’m going to give you discipline, I’m going to give you a future,’ even if this future is becoming a martyr, you jump on it.”

“That is very sad. I mean, you would like to cry, you would like to shout to them, ‘don’t do that’, and one of them didn’t do it, actually, and that’s true, it happened in reality.”

“But, when you come and say to those boys that violence shouldn’t be a source of expression, you have to offer them some other sources of expression, if not, he said, shrugging his shoulders. The only way out, their only salvation, is death.”

The desire to die is a concept we still find difficult to understand, but the film paints their struggle for life, especially by the main character, younger brother Tarek, as so dismal and futile that death could be seen as liberation.

The brothers grow up in an isolated and violent world, basically a trash dump bordered by a highway, that author Mahi Binebine, who wrote the book  the movie was based on, told The Algemeiner was the extent of their universe. He said that when he asked young men in Sidi Moumen about where they were from, they would not say Morocco, or, from outside Casablanca. “Sidi Moumen was their country.”

A lawless land of squalor and poverty, the first scenes of the film set the scene in Sidi Moumen, where their childhood soccer game ends in a brawl that older brother Hamid, at 13, finishes by wildly swinging a chain at the opposing team; they steal beer from a wedding, and Tarek’s best friend, Nabil, passes out, and his brother Hamid rapes him as the others watch, and Tarek, at 10, is dumbstruck.

As they grow into teenagers, Hamid sells hashish, including to the police, until he is finally arrested and sent to prison. Tarek’s life, in what would be death on Earth for this reporter, is to wake up every day at dawn to bring a wooden cart of oranges to the dusty Sidi Moumen marketplace, selling fruit individually to other poor people for pennies, most of which he has to fork over at the end of the day to the new neighborhood strongman who replaces his brother as his protector.

Every day, selling the oranges, and baking in the Moroccan sun, Tarek and his friends learn to numb themselves with hashish to endure their misery. When Aziz, the new strongman, becomes enraged when his “take,” a handful of coins, feels light, Tarek dares to take him on. He has no fear for his own life, because what is it? He has nothing, he is nothing, there is nowhere for him to go.

Without the orange stand, his best friend, Nabil – the one raped by Tarek’s brother – is the son of the slum whore, who, before she is chased out of town, gets him a job working for its most debauched resident, fixing mopeds, and Tarek goes to work there, too. One night, as they are closing up shop, the shop owner returns, drunk, and attempts to rape Nabil. Tarek, who must be reliving the horror of when he was immobilized, at 10, watching his brother do the same, grabs a wrench and strikes the older mechanic down.

Nabil tells Tarek to stay put, and he runs for help. But the mechanic comes to, so Tarek grabs a tire iron and beats him mercilessly to death.

Of course, the men who remove the body and hide their crime are the “brotherhood” of the Imam, who Hamid has become involved with after finding religion in prison.

Imam Zoubeir offers Tarek the chance to be reborn in a “life of free of sin,” absolving him for all that happened, blaming his poor circumstances, his lack of education, the absence of positive role models, for all that had ever happened to him, and how it led to his crime. “You’ve lived with rakes and libertines,” the Imam says. “They’re the criminals, not you.”

The brothers and their two friends, Nabil and Fouad,  learn discipline, the Imam’s favorite word, waking at dawn for prayers, practicing martial arts and slowly taking all their meal times with the “brothers,” and gradually leaving behind their old lives.

In what is really one of the most redemptive scenes of the movie, although we know this to be the chronicle of a death foretold, the grace with which the young men embrace their religion, proudly grow their beards, wear matching tunics and onyx rings, and learn to walk confidently and humbly through the slum, is touching. In one scene, at dawn prayers, watching from above as dozens of men come out from their tin shack homes to make their way to a makeshift mosque, we feel the promise of their religious purity and of what might be able to happen for them, for the good.

Of course, at that inflection point in the film, the Iman tells the friends proudly that they have been chosen for death and that each young man must respond individually to him, Alahu Akbar, to accept this yoke and ultimate responsibility to choose to die.

For many viewers of the film, the portrayal of their upbringing, which is all but the final scenes, when they prepare for and carry out their suicide mission, will be eye-opening. In our society, where terrorism is discussed in political terms, the reality of how these young men can grow up to become terrorists is too often ignored.

In Morocco, the 2003 Casablanca bombings were also eye opening for the Moroccan people. One of the young bombers, driving in the back of a van to Casablanca in the days before their dark mission, tells the others it is his first time he’s actually been to the city beyond their slum.

After the screening, director Ayouch said that, a decade ago, when he first went to Sidi Moumen, 50 percent of the people he met said they had never been inside the city of Casablanca; conversely, “99 percent” of the people of Casablanca, had never been to Sidi Moumen or any of the outer slums like it.

Author Binebine explained how the realization of how poor and disconnected those slums were led the government to build a train connection to Sidi Moumen, while the writer, also a renowned painter and sculptor, raised money to build a 15,000 square foot arts and culture center, with a cinema, a library and a computer room. “We have a lot of things for these kids, and we know if they are not in the cultural center, they will go this place with the religious mafia.” The idea was to provide more ways out of the slum.

The movie, itself, is also opening new eyes to their situation, and, in its U.S. release, to a whole new audience.

The film was brought to New York through the Jacob Burns Film Center at the urging of Oscar-winning director of ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ Jonathan Demme, who recalled on Wednesday how he felt when he saw the film at its Moroccan premiere at the Marrakesh Film Festival.

“All I can say is I can remember the first time I saw Orson Welles’s ‘Touch of Evil,’ and how that seemed like the first movie I had ever seen, it was so thrilling in the way it had been done,” Demme said. “And, then, I remember, especially, the first time I saw ‘Mean Streets,’ and how it just redefined how engaging a film can be.”

“And I had that experience with ‘Horses of God,'” he said. “I just thought, my God, look at this thing! And, also, of course, I have to say, as a filmmaker, I could never do any of this, how did they think that up? Look at this!” the Oscar-winning director said. “It was one of the really great movie-going experiences of my life.”

The reality of the attack was equally precise in its execution, with five attacks occurring between 9:55PM and 10PM. Ayouch described the sites as being chosen because they were the basis of the multicultural “Moroccan DNA,” the “very cornerstones” of their society, which suffered a deep blow. “It was an end to the age of innocence,” he said.

In terms of the number of dead, 33 innocent people lost their lives, in addition to the 12 martyrs, while two failed terrorists were arrested en route. The targets were a Jewish cultural center, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish-owned Italian restaurant, a five-star hotel, and the Casa de Espana, a Spanish flamenco club and favorite spot for ex-pats. For this reporter, who covered the Casablanca bombings as a foreign correspondent in Madrid, the film transported me back to those black months of 2003, where everywhere I looked, I saw death.

The Casablanca bombing was on Friday, May 16. On Tuesday, May 12, another group of suicide bombers attacked three sites in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where one of my best friends, Mr. Tony, what his English grammar school students called him in Madrid, had gone to make some easy money, teaching Saudi Officers business English, at the Vinnell Corporation compound there. The bombers came at night, killed the guards at the compound gate, and then exploded a truck bomb in front of the residences. In total, 39 people were killed and 160 were wounded, including my friend, who survived with a new nickname, Scarface Tony.

In the film, in a scene prior to the terrorists’s final night, the group are in a safe house, and we see clips of the television they are watching: footage of Osama Bin Laden, a how-to video for assassins to learn how to slit throats, and a recording of what might have been Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal’s beheading. Then bloody news footage from the war in Iraq.

It seems so long ago, but the Iraq footage reminded me that it was only one month before, April 8, 2003, when I first experienced death, and I was stunned after the film when I remembered what a fearful time it was then, and what the world endured.

It really started the day before. I came home from a long day in the newsroom and saw that my black cat, which I begrudgingly inherited from a French reporter, had swan-dived to her death from a window sill, probably trying to jump between the rooms after the breeze had slammed the door shut. It was just a cat, a strange, ornery, twisted black cat, but we had become close friends, and I wasn’t sure what to do with her dead body. I asked my neighbor Jorge, because I knew he had buried his father and he would know what to do, to come over. He brought a wine crate for Black Cat, that was her name, we played Janis Joplin’s Cry Baby, because she had been that kind of noisy, crying all time creature, and he took the box away with him, and said he would call for it to be picked up the next day. I was surprisingly shaken up.

The next day I hoped would be an easy one, but, no, death followed me. I had first reported from Morocco two years earlier, over a diplomatic kerfuffle on the weekend of King Mohammed VI’s wedding, when Moroccan police claimed an island off the coast that was anachronistically still under the sovereignty of Spain; the only casualties were some goats, scared by the Moroccans they jumped to their deaths in the sea. After some odd but uneventful reporting, I became great friends with the crew of Spain’s Telecinco television station, and had some adventures in Rabat’s souk with cameraman Jose Couso, the first person I knew to die.

April 8, 2003, the U.S. Army crossed the Tigris River into Baghdad, and a young tank gunner saw someone with binoculars on the top of a tall building, and he fired, killing Couso and Reuters photographer Taras Protsyuk. The bombardment was ruled accidental because the gunner didn’t realize it was The Palestine Hotel, where most of the journalists were staying. The shelling injured many journalists there, including Reuters reporter Samia Nakhoul, the wife of my colleague, Financial Times Middle East editor David Gardner, who long before held my job in Madrid. Death had found us all.

I remember the horror of following my friend Couso’s condition on the radio over that afternoon. First, they said he was injured, then it was reported the doctors had amputated his leg, and I remember thinking what would a cameramen do without a leg, maybe he could get a job teaching camera skills at university? Then, they said Couso was dead.

A few days later, I ran into his younger brother, who looks just like him, in a bar, and I threw up. The next week, my friend Dan Trotta, now Reuters Bureau Chief in Havana, chose to be embedded with the troops in Iraq. He asked me if I wanted to go, too, and I just thought that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. What would my mom think if I died covering some war that didn’t really involve me, anyway?

In the film, the older brother, Hamid, the reckless one, the former drug dealer who introduced the Imam to his younger brother and their friends, asked the same question to Tarek. If they both killed themselves on this suicide mission, who would take care of their mother? How sad would she be without them both?

The week after the Casablanca bombing, May 21, 2003, a huge earthquake in Boumerdès,  Algeria, killed 3,500 people, just like that. Some 10,000 people were injured and 200,000 lost their homes. Another friend of mine, also from that reporting trip to Morocco, Laura Echevarria, the international correspondent for Telecinco, was sent to Algiers to cover the story. Everyone seemed to be dying or tempting death. Would she die now, too?

Ten months later, March 11, 2004, another group of young Moroccans, similar, but different, living in the very center of Madrid, just down the hill from my apartment in Plaza Santa Ana, blew themselves up on commuter trains at morning rush hour, killing themselves and 200 working class Spaniards on their way to their jobs from the outer boroughs. As the manhunt proceeded over that week, the organizers and leaders of the attack blew themselves up in an apartment on the outskirts of the city. I remember getting in a cab to see where it happened, then I told the driver to turn around. What was there to see? Everyone was dead.

‘Horses of God’ puts a human face on these young men who choose death over life. In the 11 years since Casablanca, the world’s governments have focused on the policing and criminal enterprises to stop terror – the networks, the financing links, the chat room conversations, the airport metal detectors, sifting through the unimaginably huge mountain of potential evidence that might help police stop another attack.

But even with the $75 billion dollars that’s been spent in the U.S. by corporations and the government on electronic eavesdropping for the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, only one potential terrorist, with the flimsiest of plots, has so far been caught.

‘Horses of God’ speaks to the role of poverty and the importance of education, and of creating opportunities for people to overcome the circumstances of their birth to be able to choose life.

The film also underlines the condition of humanity, as true 11 years ago as it is today, that our focus must be on the religious war these young men in Sidi Moumen, or in Gaza City, or even the real life Tsarnaev brothers, in Boston, believe they are fighting.

Ultimately, it comes down to what we want in this world. In the film, Tarek loses his chance to win the neighborhood girl of his dreams, when he’s told she’s been engaged to someone from the big city, “who works in computers.” Rather than selling oranges, or fixing mopeds, Tarek has been selling the Imam’s sermons on cassettes in the street in front of the mosque. He has his religion now, but he still has nothing. What hope does he even have for a life?

Should the world end in conflagration, in fire and brimstone, to be reborn anew? Should it be the opposite, we will vanquish our enemies, and then the world will end with our side as the victors?

Apocalyptic-Millennial, or Millennial-Apocalyptic, as those two choices are described by religious scholars and historians. I learned that the Jewish tradition teaches something that you could call Millennial-Millennial. If you want a thousand years of peace on Earth, then make it, and a thousand more will follow.

Choose life.

‘Horses of God’ is playing at New York City’s Film Forum. Friday night’s showing is at 7PM with a Q&A session featuring director Nabil Ayouch who will speak on the 11th anniversary of the Casablanca bombings.

Watch the trailer for the film ‘Horses of God’ below:

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