Book review - Horses of God

Mahi Binebine's Welcome to Paradise (2003) was a harrowing tale of would-be illegal migrants waiting on a Moroccan beach for the boat that they hoped would take them to a better life. In this latest novel, translated by Lulu Norman, the author's characters are again trying to escape poverty. This time, paradise is the glorious afterlife promised to Islamist martyrs.

Horses of God, based on the 2003 suicide bombings of Casablanca's Hotel Farah, is narrated from beyond the grave. Through a series of anecdotes, Yachine introduces us to his family and friends, who live hand-to-mouth in Sidi Moumen, a slum on the outskirts of Casablanca. They make what they can from odd jobs and garbage-picking. Binebene builds a vivid portrait of life on the dump and illustrates how their harsh existence feeds feelings of alienation.

Despite their poverty, the boys enjoy moments of pleasure. They form a football team and compete against players from the other slums. Their exhilaration after winning often leads to debauched hashish- or meths-fuelled parties. Yachine's love for his friend's sister, Ghizlane, and their gentle courtship, is at odds with the shocking instances of violence against rival slum-dwellers.

Yachine is protected by his older brother, Hamid, whom he adores. When Hamid is befriended by Sheikh Abu Zoubeir and starts attending religious meetings, Yachine and his friends soon join them. They are tempted by the opportunity to learn martial arts, the promise of a roof over their heads, and food and work, in return for prayer. Eventually, they are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Binebine is also a painter, and he uses all his senses to convey the squalor of the slum and "its camp fires, where random musicians, their petrol cans transformed into mandolins, unfurl their laments into a hashish-scented sky". This is in sharp contrast to the luxury hotel targeted by the suicide bombers.

However, as Yachine realises too late, violent jihad does not bring him paradise. Binebene movingly portrays the path from disillusionment to violence, and Horses of God is a timely reminder of how poverty crushes hope and breeds hatred.

Originally published in The Independent