Mahi Binebine

Translator’s Introduction

On the outskirts of Casablanca, next to a vast, sprawling dump, lies the shantytown of Sidi Moumen, where Yachine and his friends grow up amid the chaos of drugs, violence, and despair. The barefoot boys start their own soccer team - the Stars of Sidi Moumen - and play among the detritus and buried skeletons of the dump.

Yachine's beloved older brother Hamid begins to attend religious meetings with Sheikh Abou Zoubeir, who beguiles the Stars of Sidi Moumen into believing that there is a better world in the afterlife, where their faith in Allah will be rewarded. 

Based on the Casablanca bombings of 2003, this is Mahi Binebine’s powerful evocation of the life and death of a suicide bomber.

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I am sure I am not the only translator who compiles lists of words, phrases and synonyms so that during the translation process I have a range of alternatives at my fingertips, in a register that works, to help ensure the elasticity of language needed for a good translation. 

These mini-thesauruses come from blitzing all the words I think of (or find, or read, or, most often, serendipitously hear) for a recurring word or subject. When the translation is finished, these lists look like guides to the book’s themes. For Horses of God, they revolved around dirt, fighting, eating – which gives you a flavor of the book and the lives described. (One such list reads: thrash punish attack punch pummel hit strike maul batter pulverize pelt slam go at come at have at set on fall on swoop pounce let him have it lunge thrust battle fight clash confrontation struggle skirmish run-in set-to scrap). 

In this translation, the narrator’s voice was my main concern. For reasons that become clear in the story, I needed it to be both believable as an illiterate street kid’s voice and at the same time possess a literary sensibility and education   So slang and tone were crucial throughout. I was also anxious that the religious passages of the book later on – smoother, more rhetorical and internal – should be as compelling as the descriptions of the boys’ more obviously eventful and exciting early lives in the slum, as portrayed in this excerpt…

- by Lulu Norman


Horses of God, Chapter 4 

Of all the Stars of Sidi Moumen, only Fuad was able to go to school, which was a few kilometers from the shantytown. He lived in an outhouse of the mosque where his father performed various duties: muezzin, caretaker, imam, as well as other more unpleasant but no less lucrative chores, such as laying out corpses, exorcizing the possessed (or presumed possessed), or reading the Koran at the cemetery. Fuad lived for only one thing: playing soccer with us, which he was categorically forbidden to do. Yet he was unquestionably a born striker; he alone could make the difference in a big tournament. As soon as he could escape his father’s clutches, he’d be back in the team, and the matches would be unforgettable. But Fuad was forever scanning the sky, because once he’d been caught right in the middle of the dump: from the top of his minaret, the muezzin had spotted him as we waded through the muck after a ball. I can still see Fuad now, petrified, almost fainting, the second the cranky loudspeaker sputtered his name. His father’s voice was unique and impossible to mistake, since we heard it five times a day. A shrill, artificial voice that made you want to do anything except go and pray. I reckon Fuad wet himself, knowing a beating was inescapable. In any case, after that incident, he disappeared from the scene for a long time. He’d been completely banned from going anywhere near us. And even from leaving home, except to go to school. We’d sometimes see him in the morning, his satchel on his back, being dragged along by his uncle like a condemned man to the scaffold. He’d shoot us a sideways glance, enviously, sending subtle signals to find out the results of the matches we were playing without him. If his uncle noticed, a vengeful slap would fall like lightning on his face. He’d growl at him, calling us every name under the sun. Under normal circumstances, a stone would have been sent flying through the air toward that creep. Hamid was a mean shot with his catapult. But he held off, so as not to make more trouble for Fuad.

So several months went by and the Stars were a bit lackluster. We continued with our brutal confrontations every Sunday, and the rest of the week we’d all go back to our normal lives. Nabil had joined the team and was doing pretty well. He’d finally built his shack, a humbler construction than originally planned, but we’d gotten used to it, since it was now our headquarters. All the Stars would meet there to work out match tactics. Nabil was happy he’d left his family home, though his mother still visited several times a week. She’d bring him a basket crammed with food that we’d all feast on. She wouldn’t stay long, since she knew her presence embarrassed him, especially if we were there. My brother Hamid had graciously donated a paraffin lamp and a radio-cassette player he’d unearthed in almost working order. We’d had it repaired for next to nothing, polished it, and placed it on an upturned crate in the middle of the room. What nights we’d spend in that shack, all huddled together, listening to Berber songs from the Middle atlas and the furious rhythms of Nass el Ghiwane. Smoking spliffs, dreaming up fantastic stories . . .

To our great joy, one fine Sunday in July, we spied Fuad on top of a mound of garbage in his soccer getup—meaning bare-chested, wearing plastic sandals—waving his bony arms: he was back, with no explanation, to reclaim his place as center forward, which no one was in any position to contest. It was only a week later that we found out about his father, who’d been struck down by a stroke that paralyzed his left side, invading his face to the point that he couldn’t speak—which is unfortunate for a muezzin. Fuad’s uncle had taken over the role straightaway. As the eldest male, Fuad quite naturally became head of the family. He wasn’t yet fourteen. But being head had significant advantages: he immediately stopped school, had a mobile stall built, and began to sell cakes made by his mother and his sister, Ghizlane. He’d grown up overnight, though his puny body hadn’t followed suit. Not much taller than a twelve-year-old, he had thin, bandy legs and an angular face that was swallowed up by his African features, and he always wore the somber expression of those who are born to be unhappy. Despite that, on a soccer field, it was as if no one else existed. We were proud to count him one of us. He and I were the pillars of the team; our combined talents warranted its glittering name.

We had many rivals; every slum had a team. The “Chichane” (which means Chechnya) shantytown had its Lions; “Tqalia” (guts) its eagles; “Toma”—named after a Frenchwoman who was said to have had coffee there once—had its Tomahawks; scariest of all were the players from the village of stones: the Serpents of Douar Lahjar, the only ones who had a hope against us. On Sundays we’d assemble at the dump for legendary matches that would usually end in gladiatorial combat: ruthless fights that left everyone pretty mashed up. Still, we couldn’t stop ourselves going back for more the following week. We needed to square up to each other, smash a ball, or someone’s face. It gave us relief. Truth to tell, my brother Hamid was often waiting nearby. He’d protect me with a bicycle chain he wore as a belt, which he’d whip out in a flash if there was any trouble. If it did kick off, I’d hide behind him and nothing bad could happen to me; I’d emerge unscathed, apart from a few scratches or a black eye at worst. Hamid used to collect scars on my account, because other boys were frustrated and jealous of the way I played. My genius for stopping impossible balls earned me thundering applause. Countless Serpents, eagles, and Tomahawks wanted me dead. Poor Fuad, though, had no one to defend him; he had nothing but his legs. He’d often get caught and seriously beaten up. Like Hamid, he’d amassed an impressive number of injuries. What he was most afraid of was the inevitable visit to the barber, who doubled as a bonesetter. That man was a nasty piece of work, who’d reset our bones with brute force. It was his way of punishing us. Most of the time we’d lose consciousness at some point. We could have wreaked revenge on that wild-eyed maniac, but we knew that sooner or later we’d be back in his dreaded grip . . . One day his shop was burnt to the ground; the culprit was never caught. Still, in Sidi Moumen, a hovel in flames isn’t exactly the end of the world. It gets rebuilt the same day and people rally round, offering the victim mats, blankets, clothes, and stuff for the kitchen. And life carries on as normal.

The only deliberate fire I was lucky enough to witness from beginning to end was the police-station fire. After the police had left a young dealer for dead, the decision was unanimous. Boys brought gas cans and set fire to the building. They were raging against “the Doberman,” a corrupt detective, a brute, a piece of filth washed up among us, who bullied people and sucked their blood. That scumbag lorded it over the anthill of small-time dealers and other thieves who made their living in Sidi Moumen. No van filled with hashish or smuggled goods could get inside the wall without his taking a cut. He also had an efficient network of informers, so nothing escaped him. He knew the innards of all the shacks and had detailed files on all of us. If some poor wretch attempted to complain, he’d confront him with the crimes of his closest friends or family, because most of Sidi Moumen’s inhabitants have skeletons in their cupboards. As the years went by, people’s resentment grew fiercer, swelling like the waters of a stream about to burst its banks. So, that night, in a surge of anger, the street caught fire like a powder keg. Omar the coalman’s son had got hold of the gas and the mob made its way to the police station, with Hamid my brother at its head: a procession of flaming torches snaked from the dump, chanting murderous threats, fulminating against “the Doberman.” Luckily for him, the creep was somewhere else and escaped the conflagration, which we danced round like demons in a trance. Some boys threw stones or spat blasphemies into the air, while others pulled out their dicks and pissed at the flames; the spectacle was never to be forgotten. The caretaker was spared, because he was a local kid. All the same, he was stripped naked and his uniform suspended from a stick, which we hoisted like a macabre flag, uttering cries of victory before flinging it on the fire. If he’d been there, “the Doberman” would have been lynched. We’d have ripped his stinking fat belly to shreds. We’d have smashed the jaw that spewed such bullshit, releasing the aggression built up over a decade. Still, the outcome was decisive, since we never saw that bastard’s sinister face again. Or, in fact, any uniforms at all. The police station never got rebuilt and no one was too bothered. From then on, differences between people were resolved either through the elders’ mediation or by a fistfight at the dump. And by and large, life in Sidi Moumen picked up and carried on its own sweet way.

All illustrations are original artwork by the author, Mahi Binebine.

Translator Lulu Norman lives in London. Working from French and Spanish, she has translated Ricardo Arrieta, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, and Serge Gainsbourg, and written for the Guardian, the Independent, and the London Review of Books. Her translation of Mahi Binebine's Welcome to Paradise was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 and Horses of God has just been awarded a 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation. Her most recent translations include Lebanese Cuisine by Andrée Maalouf and Karim Haïdar (Saqi Books, 2010) with Sophie Lewis, three stories in the Penguin Anthology of African Writing, Gods and Soldiers (Penguin Books 2009), Paris Noir (Serpents Tail, 2007), The Belly of the Atlantic by Fatou Diome (Serpents Tail, 2006), The Star of Algiers by Aziz Chouaki (Graywolf 2004, Serpents Tail 2006), all with Ros Schwartz, and The Demented Dance by Mounsi (Black Amber, 2003). She also works as a freelance editor and is an editorial assistant at Banipal, the journal of modern Arab literature.