Horses of God – “No One Is Born a Martyr”

This movie is based-on-true-events tale with an acute sociological discernment, Horses Of God, presents a dramatized account of the young men who, on May 16, 2003, committed suicide-bombing atrocities throughout Casablanca. By the end, 45 lives had been claimed (including those of the perpetrators), but Nabil Ayouch’s film is ultimately less interested in the planning and execution of that plot but the path that led the suicide bombers to their doom.

The residents of Sidi Moumen, a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco, live in tin-roofed shacks without electricity, running water or modern sewage disposal. The area sits atop a garbage dump where boys run wild in packs and engage in fierce football (soccer) matches that often burst into violence. Aerial shots paint this slum as a putrid, desiccated wasteland, in which the pickings are thin, even for foragers. The movie, inspired by Mahi Binebine’s novel “The Stars of Sidi Moumen” is not about politics or religion but about poverty and a society steeped in a deadly machismo. In its demystification of these youthful slum dwellers, the film makes their embrace of terrorism frighteningly graspable. Because it follows its main characters over 10 years, from childhood into adulthood, it gives their fates a sense of tragic predictability.

Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachi), depressed and introverted, lives in the shadow of his older brother Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), the pair spending their days scrounging for money, starting fights, and roughhousing with their peers. Their mother, with three sons, has only enough love for one, and she showers Hamid with praise and affection until the day he’s hauled away for smashing the car window of a corrupt cop. When Hamid returns to the slums two years later, he’s found religion and brotherhood with the most extreme of conservative Muslims.

“Horses of God,” a wrenching social-realist drama from the French-born Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, offers a powerful example of the depth of debate about the root causes of terrorism within the Arab world. This feature film traces the origins of an infamous attack few Westerners even know about, because it didn’t happen in London or Madrid or New York but in the heart of Casablanca, perhaps the most tolerant and cosmopolitan city in the North Africa. It would be easy to default to “they hate us for our freedom,” to interpret the Casablanca bombings as an ideological attack on the Westernized culture of Morocco’s largest city, where women walk the streets alone without headscarves, alcohol is widely available and the long-standing Jewish community, although much reduced in size, has not entirely vanished.

For the cynical mullahs who masterminded the attack, those may have been the reasons, although even that may be an oversimplification. It’s just as likely that al-Qaida-affiliated local radicals were pursuing their usual strategy of causing maximum disruption and turmoil at minimal cost, and of trying to shock a governing regime into military overreaction and/or widespread repression. As Ayouch’s film makes clear, the young men who carried out the attacks were desperately poor kids from the slums who had never even seen the skyscrapers and glamorous restaurants of the central city before, let alone encountered any Jews or Westerners except the ones on TV. Whatever “Islamic extremism” they may have absorbed had been recently implanted by opportunistic evangelists who filled the gaps in a failed state and a divided society, offering a measure of self-respect and discipline to dead-end kids who had none.

“Horses of God” – a phrase the Prophet Muhammad uses to describe those who fight for jihad – opens in the early ‘90s, when the four boys at its centre are just street ragamuffins out of classic European neorealism, running wild in the garbage-strewn alleys of Sidi Moumen, a sprawling shantytown across the highway from Casablanca proper. It’s a brutal world of drug dealers, corrupt cops and prostitutes, captured in exciting, intimate and claustrophobic detail, where a neighborhood soccer game can abruptly degenerate into gang violence and a party with a bottle of purloined wine can end with a rape. Throughout the film, our focal point is the likable Yashine, a good-natured, irrepressible kid who takes his nickname from his sports idol, the legendary Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashine. His older brother Hamid (played by Abdelilah Rachid, real-life brother of Abdelhakim), is both his protector and a troublemaker who’s clearly bound for a bad destination, with his backward Yankees cap and affected hip-hop mannerisms. Hamid drinks, deals drugs, shoots pool and openly defies the township’s crooked cops, until the day he goes too far and disappears into Morocco’s notorious penal system.

Suddenly, their lives have a noble purpose. They are expected to die for the glory of Allah, having embraced a cause larger than themselves. Unlike other movies about jihad, “Horses of God,” doesn’t concentrate on the terrorists’ grandiose indoctrination and the rituals of their final meals, prayers and preparations, which can attach a perverse glamour to suicide. Even after Yachine is chosen to lead one operation — the bombing of an Italian restaurant — he is shown shaking with fear, and his eyes do not burn with heavenly fantasies.

The tragedy is that their youth is so rarely a source of that kind of innocent joy. Instead, it’s their Achilles’ heel, a weakness that makes them easy prey for men—and sometimes other boys—on the prowl. The first of many men who exploits them, Ba’Moussa, earns their hatred (and ours) for stealing their labour while treating them with bullying contempt. But he turns out to be just the warm-up act for the real villains, the jihadi zealots who steal the boys’ lives. Hamid, Yachine, Habil, and Fouad all seem to buy into their vision of redemption through martyrdom, after years of inculcation, though their transformation is presented not as an epiphany, but as a long process of blind indoctrination. Fed by boyish longings like the desire to impress a girl, it’s grounded in the same thinly veiled threats of violence and insistence on unquestioning obedience to male authority as the rest of their lives have been. They never actually choose to become terrorists; they’re led to that point in a series of well-rehearsed steps and then told they must follow through or be killed for refusing. As the camera lingers on the revered leader who issued the order after he bids them goodbye, his coolly appraising gaze undercuts all his unctuous talk about brotherly love and respect. In the end, these poor doomed young men are just so many pack horses.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

“He wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.”

 
Albert Camus was a French-Algerian writer best known for his absurdist works, including The Stranger (1942) and The Plague (1947). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Camus started his involvement in political activities during his student years, joining first the Communist Party and then the Algerian People’s Party. As a champion of individual rights, he opposed French colonization and argued for the empowerment of Algerians in politics and labour.

“The Stranger”, or sometimes translated as “The Outsider”,  is considered the best at highlighting Albert Camus’ philosophies towards life of absurdism and existentialism. The story has two parts. It follows Meursault, the main character, before and after he commits a murder.  The philosophical contemplations are embodied by Meursault, a pied-noir office worker, who appears as a blank canvas, barren of any real emotions.

 

The novel opens with the news that Meursault’s mother has died – something that he greets with his usual indifference – and goes on to describe his lack of grief at the funeral, and his subsequent relationship with Marie, a young woman he takes to the cinema the day after the funeral. Later, when he is befriended by Raymond, a man of dubious character, Meursault is drawn into obnoxiousness, which ends with his murdering an Arab. The second half of the novel is concerned with Meursault’s subsequent trial and incarceration and, more significantly, his awakening to the absurdity of life, and his passage, in the full knowledge of death, into authentic existence.

 

The Stranger touches on a number of philosophical schools of thought, and Camus borrows from his forbears, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Even though Camus claimed not to be an existentialist, Meursault undoubtedly embodies the existential spirit; he recognises that life is limited to this world and that death, the fate common to all mankind, is inevitable and final.

By embracing authentic existence, Meursault sets himself apart as the outsider. Meursault’s most striking characteristic is his strict adherence to truth; he lives without motive, with a complete congruence between his thoughts and actions. In perfectly embodying one of society’s moral ideals, he causes friction between himself and an hypocritical society who cannot themselves achieve the standards they set. That Meursault will not make concessions, will not bring comfort to others by buying into the illusion, is the true cause of his condemnation.

 

There are philosophical works that offer a deeper and fuller discussion of the human condition, and The Stranger can feel a little lightweight. However, the novel is so luminously constructed, the ideas presented in such an accessible and immaculate form, that it is indisputably one of the very best introductions to existentialism and the ideas surrounding absurdism and authenticity.

The enduring appeal of this work can be attested by the continuous disconnection that we as individual have with norms impose by society. The world that Meursault inhabits is a strange version of our own, and his attitude, his disconnect from society, still strikes a chord.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_Earth

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

 

 

In 1961 Frantz Fanon dictated most of his last book, Les Damnés de la Terre, translated as The Wretched of the Earth, from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis. He was 36 years old and dying of leukaemia. The disease had recently blinded him for some weeks but he managed to complete the book in ten weeks in a race against death.

Fanon, who was from Martinique in the Caribbean, had ended up Tunisia after he joined the Algerian national liberation movement in 1954. He had joined the Free French Forces fighting the Nazis as a teenager and, as a result, had been able to study medicine in France after the war. He had specialised in psychiatry and had taken a post in a psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria.

 

The Wretched of the Earth draws on Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle against French colonialism as well as his travels around Africa as an ambassador for the Algerian national liberation movement. It begins with an account of the colonial city, ‘this world divided in two’, and goes on to examine the internalisation of colonial violence among the oppressed, the resulting violence among the oppressed, and the moment when violence is turned back on colonial oppression.

Fanon then turns his critical attention towards anti‑colonial resistance, stressing that in the colonial situation Marxism needs to be ‘stretched’ and paying particular attention to the political agency of ordinary people, including peasants and the urban poor. He is committed to forms of struggle that are genuinely mass-based and participatory.

The book’s third focus is an examination of the pathologies of the regimes that came to power in Africa after colonialism. In Fanon’s estimation they took over rather than undid colonial systems, demobilised the mass movements that had brought them to power and used their own political credibility to entrench authoritarian and predatory regimes. Against this, still committed to a radical humanism, he posed a refusal of technocratic approaches to development and the full involvement of the people in both political and economic life. The final chapter of the book, drawing on Fanon’s case notes from his period as a psychiatrist in Algeria, investigates the damage done to human beings by colonialism and violence.

The Wretched of the Earth was banned on publication in France and copies were seized from bookshops. But it was heralded in radical black circles in the US and taken up in places such as Iran and Sri Lanka. Fifty years later it remains the key text in radical circles in South Africa, where it is regularly cited by grass-roots militants.

Initial readings of the book often caricatured Fanon’s endorsement of violence against colonial regimes. Fanon’s support for violent struggle was often read outside the context of the extraordinary violence of French colonialism in Algeria and there has been a racist double standard in which Fanon is excoriated for endorsing violent struggle while white intellectuals, such as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, are not subject to the same condemnation. Although he had been decorated for bravery while serving in the Free French Forces, Fanon had a personal horror of violence and was acutely aware of the damage that it can do to individuals and societies.

Many of the misreadings of The Wretched of the Earth are due to the way the book is developed as an unfolding narrative in which consciousness changes in the vortex of struggle. Statements affirmed with unqualified emphasis at one point are often questioned later on. This means that the book has to be read as a whole to be properly understood and that simply taking isolated quotes or extracts will not give an accurate impression of the author’s intentions.

Fanon left this world as The Wretched of the Earth entered it. Fifty years on, his final book retains an extraordinary political charge in countries where it remains necessary to oppose both new forms of colonial or neo-colonial power and new forms of elite accommodation with that power in the name of the nation.

 

The Battle of Algiers- “The Revolt that Stirred the World”

The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black-and-white film The Battle of Algiers, recreating France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising, is an extraordinary experience. Granted, the audio dubbing of gunfire sounds a bit rickety now, and the way the intertitles switch between Italian and French is eccentric, but everything else makes this a newer-than-new release. It is of its time in many ways, yet somehow more extreme, and more contemporary, than anything else around. Famously, the Pentagon arranged a special in-house screening in 2003, evidently fascinated by exactly the same qualities that have mesmerised the movie’s followers elsewhere: its icy candour on the subjects of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and the vital importance of torture in eliciting information. Those torture scenes are laid out in montage for us without any self-conscious emotional affect or drama; they include blowtorching the suspect’s naked torso, waterboarding, and clipping electrodes to the earlobes before hand-cranking the voltage. These scenes are presented without any of the internal humanising or dramatising conflict that would be considered vital now: they do indeed look almost like a military training film. Another sort of director, possessed of a more conventional liberal scruple, might have felt the need to show a torturer’s inner pain or the torturee’s hidden backstory. But Pontecorvo shows them in terms of strategy.

The anti-hero is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the paratroop commander entrusted by the French government with putting down the Algerian revolt. He is a tough, wiry professional soldier of the sort adoringly imagined by Frederick Forsyth: a veteran of the French Resistance who shrugs his shoulders at any possible irony. He is the centrepiece to the most remarkable sequence, captured on the film’s poster. At the head of his troops, he simply leads a triumphalist, introductory parade down the main street, to reassure loyal citizens that the French army will crush the terrorists – and to face down the terrorists themselves. He strides easily, casually, with no sidearm on show, utterly confident in the power of the spectacle he has created. With his fatigues, beret and faintly sinister sunglasses, he looks like a cross between a top para in Northern Ireland and an IRA chief. Mathieu’s face moves in and out of shadow on this sunny day: the result of the natural light that Pontecorvo is using, and integral to his “newsreel” effect.

The French authorities first license a covert bomb attack in the casbah – “state terrorism” before the phrase was invented – but then, under Mathieu, they embark on a disciplined campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names of operatives further up the pyramid-chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. No nonsense about hearts and minds: this is a military solution to a military problem. “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim …” Mathieu crisply briefs his men, and a 2007 audience holds its breath. “… so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” This film was composed in an era when Islamic identity was not as important as it is today: there are no mosques, no religion here. Then the keyword was “Arab” and it easy to forget that as recently as the first Iraq war in 1991, the question was whether a putative brotherhood of Arab nations would support Saddam. Mathieu’s campaign is crowned with Pyrrhic victory.

The terrorists are beaten, but a later popular uprising drives the French out, precisely as Mathieu had enigmatically appeared to predict, using Dien Bien Phu as his benchmark: the Indo-Chinese imperial burden which the French fatefully handed on to the Americans. Whatever they made of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, this is a must-see for everyone else now.