Horses of God – Mahi Binebine (2010)

Horses of God cover

“No. You cannot defeat a man who wants to die.”

Being a semi-regular reader of other book blogs, I tend to gravitate towards more serious topics at the moment, and Maphead (see side menu for link to his great blog) recommended this title by Binebine. I was looking for something different and as this was set in the slums of Morocco and based on a true story, this would hit the spot. Plus Maphead usually chooses really obscure books (which is right up my alley.) I don’t always like to read what everyone else is reading. Contrary, I know.

Library didn’t have it (understandably as it’s a bit specialized) and so ordered this as a physical book. It’s slight – about 167 pages, but the story will sock you through the eyes and make you think and re-think about news that you hear almost every day.

The story is set in the shanty town of Sidi Moumen, and details the growing up of four boys who all end up growing up to choose to be suicide bombers. It’s based on a terrorist bombing incident that actually happened in Casablanca in 2003, and although there is no excusing killing innocent bystanders, after I had read this my thoughts were with the young men who choose to wear the “Paradise belts” and kill themselves and others for hope, really. I know – how can one be empathetic towards terrorists? However, after reading this and seeing how little hope there is when one lives in a dreadful dirty slum city, who is to say that you wouldn’t have made the same choice if it had been you in that situation?

The writing was very very good (or the translation from French was). Here is an example of how quickly new people to the slum slip into the routine of ordinary life there:

“They slip into the mold of resigned defeat, grow used to the filth, throw their dignity to the winds, learn to get by, to patch up their lives. As soon as they’ve made their nest, they sink into it, they go to ground, and it’s as if they’ve always been there and never done anything but add up the surrounding poverty…”

(The selection of the word “nest” is perfect for this bit. Birds tend to build nests by gathering up little stray bits and pieces around; people in this slum city do exactly the same action for building their own homes (or “nests”) – gathering sticks, metal or plastic to make their living space.)

The PoV is presented from one of the boys (now a grown and dead man) who relates his story with a really unexpected dry wit. (This was a great touch as it’s a serious story otherwise. There were some one-liners in here which really humanized the subjects and made me laugh out loud.) But most of the narrative is very neutral about life – the boys grow up in slums, they live for playing football/soccer* for their local team**, there is little education and fewer jobs and less money, and they cling together as a gang against the hardness of their own lives. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story as well for a bunch of very normal slightly naughty boys in poverty.

There are very few options to leave this shantytown life, so when there is a meeting of a charismatic religious man who espouses the philosophy of revenge on the Infidels (who caused all the problems in the first place) and a future life in heaven where life is clean and luxurious, it’s easy to sympathize with why the boys fall into that group. Who could say that they would have behaved differently in that situation? I don’t think that you can.

This was an amazing read and has won numerous international prizes for fiction. However, I haven’t seen its title anywhere except on Maphead’s blog (and then on Goodreads when I went there to research it more.) It’s also been made into a movie (same title in English; French: Les Chevaux de Dieu) by Nabil Ayouch and which wowed critics at some of the international film festivals.

Honestly, this was one of the most searing books that I have read this year, and highly recommend it even if it only makes you think about a bit more.
• The local football/soccer team is called the Stars of Sidi Moumen which is so poignantly hopeful considering these kids’ probable future of never leaving their slum lives behind. It almost makes me cry.
** I was curious about the meaning of the title (Horses of God) and after doing some superficial research, found that in the religion of Islam (and countries where that is a prevalent belief), horses play a pivotal role in both religion and life (nomadic travel, horse racing etc.). When a majority of other social events had been banned, horse-racing was still allowed, and in the Islamic religion, messengers for God travel on horses. (That’s what I gleaned, at least. If it’s different, please let me know!)

1 thought on “Horses of God – Mahi Binebine (2010)

  1. Great review! Well done!
    Thank you for the kind words of praise! I’m glad I was able to steer you towards this excellent novel. Glad you also share my love of obscure books!
    Keep up the good work!!

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