Horses of God – Mahi Binebine (translated by Lulu Norman) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

I really like the quote on the “Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize” banner, Anthony Burgess, “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” A great line to open my review of Mahi Binebine’s “Horse of God”.

On 16 May 2003 in Casablanca, twelve suicide bombers died, taking the lives of thirty three civilians along with them. Two further bombers were arrested before they could carry out any attacks. To this day this event remains the largest terrorist attack in Morocco’s history. The suicide bombers came from the shanty town of Sidi Moumen a slum in Casablanca housing close to 300,000 people (various figures are quoted throughout the internet but I have used the census figures from 2004). The inhabitants scratching out existences by living off scraps and rubbish from the nearby dumps. Our novel follows Yachine (a self-given nickname) from the afterlife as he reflects on his journey from the slums to becoming a suicide bomber.
As you can imagine, this novel tells no easy tales, tackles an extremely controversial subject and creates anti-heroes in marginalised characters. The subject matter alone makes this no easy read, let alone the humanising of bombers as poverty stricken, bored youths who made a choice based on false promises. To say the novel made me feel uneasy is an understatement:
But around there, everyone got used to everything – to the stench of rotting and death, for instance, which became so familiar and clung to our skin. We couldn’t smell it anymore. And if it were suddenly, magically, to vanish, Sidi Moumen would lose its soul. The air would probably seem bland and insipid; dogs and cats would vanish from the scene, as would the hordes of seagulls that besieged the place, preferring its contaminated, sweltering heat to sea air, its shadowy foragers to fishermen of the deep. Even the old people would be bored if there were no more flies to swat away, or mosquitoes to anything. Can you imagine: Sidi Moumen, stripped bare! Without its wild nights at the dump. Without its campfires, where random musicians, their petrol cans transformed into mandolins, unfurl their laments into a hashish-scented sky; and those fields of plastic bags that sing in the wind, while teasing half-light turns the rubbish dunes into infinite beaches…
Our gang of friends who transition from kids picking through rubbish dumps to Salafia Jihadia terrorists, also lead lives where extreme violence is common place (people being murdered and buried in the rubbish being a common occurrence – nobody misses them anyway).  However, besides a life of no hope, the kids all play a weekly game of football (soccer) where the various slums passionately become their footballing heroes (hence the nickname Yachine – considered the greatest goalkeeper of all time, the “Black Spider” or “Black Panther” his nicknames). This is the one and only joy in their lives, besides their friendships.
In the beginning was the dump, teeming with its colony of rascals. The cult of soccer; the incessant fighting; the shoplifting and frantic getaways; the ups and downs of trying to survive; hashish, glue, and the strange places they took you; the black market and the small-time jobs; the repeated beatings; the sudden attempts at escape and their ransoms of rape and abuse…
As if the journey from a slum inhabitant to a suicide bomber isn’t controversial enough for you, the violence, including sexual, is graphically detailed, the drug use (hashish, glue sniffing) a common place occurrence, all the more that becomes piled on and it makes you begin to understand their attraction to religion as a means of escape, training in martial arts, a regimented and meaningful day, mentors, teachers who listen and at last some guidance and purpose.
He’d given us back our pride with simple words, winged words that carried us as far as our imaginations could go. No longer were we parasites, the dregs of humanity, less than nothing. We were clean and deserving and our aspirations resonated with healthy minds. We were listened to, guided. Logic had taken the place of beating. We had opened the door to God and He had entered into us. No more chasing around frantically, expending pointless energy, no more insults and stupid brawling. No more living like cockroaches on the excrement of heretics. Gone, the fatalism injected in our veins by our uneducated parents. We learned to stand shoulder to shoulder, to flatly refuse the worm’s life to which we’d been condemned in perpetuity. We knew that rights weren’t given, they had to be seized. And we were ready for any sacrifice.
As Anthony Burgess’ quote tells us, through translation I have managed to come across a work, which forces you to look at these terrorists as human. Surely a novel that will force you to examine your own beliefs, prejudices, ideas of victims and more – definitely not a comfortable read, but, I can assure you, an important work.
One flaw that did come to mind was the fact that our narrator uses such in depth language, occasionally a word that seems out of place, and given he “wasn’t taught the words to convey the beauty of people or things” it did occur to me how could he now? All knowledgeable after death?

The original title of this novel was “The Stars of Sidi Moumen” and I must admit this resonated with me a whole lot more than “Horses of God” – the phrase often used by Muslims when calling for a jihad (“Fly, horses of God, and to you the doors of paradise shall open!”) Personally the importance of their weekly soccer matches and the bond that their sport brought is to me a better title. And the cover? Young boys playing soccer, I get it, a decent soccer ball and all clothed and wearing decent footwear? That I don’t get.

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