- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Every morning just before 7, Abdelhaq Ainane pulls on his jeans, a loose shirt and a navy blue cap and steps out the door of his tin-roof shack.

He follows a winding alley lined with hanging laundry, passes women lugging jugs of water from a communal tap, and trudges through a wasteland of dirt where cows, donkeys, dogs and goats feast on scattered piles of rotting trash.

The stink is overpowering, but Mr. Ainane, 27, is used to it. Besides, he has something else on his mind: His search for work, as he makes his daily 7-mile trek down a dirt road to a cluster of factories where workers weave cotton into cloth, machines weld metal and greasy repairmen fix automobiles.

Mr. Ainane knows in his heart that he will return empty-handed to the two-bedroom shack in Carriere Thomas — the name given to his part of the Sidi Moumen shantytown — that he shares with his five siblings, mother, uncle, aunt and cousin.

At the first factory, the doorman shakes his head and sends him away. Then he walks to the next factory and to the next and the next, only to face the same humiliation. It’s the same every day.

Mr. Ainane’s desperate search is repeated all over Morocco in the slums and shantytowns, where millions of undereducated and unemployed young men live on the fringes of big cities. A third of Morocco’s 31-million population is under 15, and half of those over 15 are illiterate.

Limited options

With little hope of finding jobs, poor young Moroccans have but three choices: turn to drugs to forget their misery, climb into rickety boats to make a dangerous, clandestine journey to Europe in search of work, or embrace Islamic extremism that promises a better life in heaven.

The Sidi Moumen shantytown lies a stone’s throw from the opulent villas outside Casablanca, Morocco’s legendary commercial capital.

On May 16, 2003, 13 men detonated explosive-laden backpacks at five targets in the city, killing themselves and 32 bystanders.

Eleven of those suicide bombers lived in Carriere Thomas.

The bombings on that night targeted a Jewish community center and cemetery, a hotel, a restaurant and a Spanish social club. It seemed to be a broad but ill-defined assault on Morocco’s small Jewish community, on foreigners in general, and on the tourism industry — a major source of revenue for the North African state.

Officials blamed a group they call Salafiya Jihadiya, the name used by the government to refer to extremist Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, but no claim of responsibility was ever made.

Moroccan security forces have been a heavy-handed presence among Sidi Moumen’s 50,000 people ever since, but there’s no certainty that a government crackdown and 3,000 arrests nationwide have immunized the slums against Islamic violence.

Elarbi Zahidi, a former resident of Sidi Moumen who returns there to work with its young people, said half of them adhere to Salafism, the puritanical ideology of the suicide bombers.

“The extremists are still there, but are silent,” said Boucheib Mhamka, a Sidi Moumen resident and social worker. “However, the slightest thing can provoke them.”

Time on their hands

The radicals are hidden among the 4 million impoverished Moroccans who live behind high walls in homes built of concrete, sheet metal and scraps — called “bidonvilles” — in the coastal belt that takes in Casablanca and the capital, Rabat, as well as on the Mediterranean coastline in Tangiers and at Oujda near the border with Algeria.

On a train ride, the shantytowns can be seen — hunks of metal and bricks hold down the corrugated metal roofs. Most have satellite dishes, bringing images of unattainable wealth, as well as the suffering of Palestinians and Iraqis. Anger mounts and is easily exploited by radical recruiters.

Unemployment in the shantytowns is said to be about 25 percent, far above the national average. Most who do work are shoeshiners, seamstresses and street vendors. Many take drugs; some youths sniff paint.”The young are gobbling drugs to forget their miseries,” explained Ahmed Gaba, 22, a ninth-grade dropout.

Mr. Ainane is back from his job search, dejected, by 11 a.m. and hangs out for awhile with his friends in the alleys of the shantytown. Then they all gather at the home of a friend, Khaled Takatre, 25.

Inside, the three-bedroom house that Mr. Takatre shares with his parents and unemployed 34-year-old brother is immaculate, like most homes in Morocco’s shantytowns, despite lack of water and plumbing. It’s a striking contrast to the dirt and mess outside.

A yellow rug covers the tiled floor of the small living room where a thin light filters through a tiny mesh window close to the ceiling. Long Moroccan sofas double as beds. The TV is showing an Egyptian soap opera.

All six friends are unemployed, and none has more than an elementary-school education except Mr. Ainane, who has a technical diploma. None of the others bothers to look for a job anymore because they say they will never find one.

“My dream is not big. It’s very small,” said Mr. Ainane.

As the young men discuss their lives, agents from the local government appear at the door, asking for a reporter’s credentials. The relaxed atmosphere grows tense.

“Now, we’re afraid to talk,” said Mr. Ainane.

Under scrutiny

Ever since the Casablanca blasts, which led to about 3,000 arrests nationwide, police have been keeping a close watch on young people, especially when they gather in numbers.

Outside Mr. Takatre’s home, children play beside a small, run-down green-and-white mosque with square minarets. It was there, it is said, that some of the bombers prayed.

The mosque has been shut since the attacks, but graffiti in white paint on a small rusty metal door say: “It will open tomorrow,” which in Arabic could also mean “soon.”

The conversation in Mr. Takatre’s living room turns to the Casablanca blasts, referred to in Morocco as the May 16 events. Some of the young men reject the tactic outright; others understand what drove the bombers to such behavior.

Mr. Ainane doesn’t want to talk about it: “It makes me uncomfortable.”

“What they did angered God — killing innocent people,” said Mr. Takatre. “They were poor, and those guys took advantage of them and played with their minds.”

“Maybe poverty drove them to it,” said Hamid Nasser, 27. At 1 p.m., a few of the men head to a mosque for Friday prayers. Mr. Ainane said he never prays.

Morocco’s ‘Kandahar’

In the Sidi Taibi shantytown, about 200 miles to the north on the Atlantic coast, few miss Friday prayers.

Moroccan media have dubbed one of its quarters “Kandahar,” a reference to the Afghan city that was once the stronghold of the Taliban. And the media mockingly refer to the mosque there as the “Beard Mosque,” apparently because it was used as a meeting place for radical Islamists before the Casablanca bombings.

According to police, 30 Sidi Taibi men have been detained since the 2003 attacks. Among them is Abdelkebir Goumarra, who is serving a life sentence, and who police say was one of the ringleaders — a charge he and his family deny.

Residents say police regularly make forays into the shantytown and pick up men that fit the Islamist stereotype.

“People are always going in and out of jail here,” said Hicham Bouchri, 29, who said he recognizes many of them when their pictures appear on television. “They all have beards,” he said.

Goumarra’s brother, Brahim, said he shaved his beard and switched to Western clothes after Goumarra was arrested.

But many of the men here have kept their beards and wear clothes similar to that of the Taliban — a white cap and flowing robe that falls short of the ankles.

Keeping hope alive

Sidi Taibi, with a population of 8,000, is not a typical shantytown. Most of its houses have two stories and are made of brick. But like the others, it has no electricity, plumbing or running water.

Abu Is’haq, wearing a black-and-white checkered robe and a U.S. Marine hat, said the hardship doesn’t bother him.

“It doesn’t matter where I live, because real wealth is in heaven. God said so,” he said. The Casablanca bombers only ruin Islam’s image, he added.

Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, has promised to eradicate the country’s shantytowns by 2010. But new housing and promised government improvements have been slow coming and are not entirely welcome.

Shantytown residents say the new housing of one or two-bedroom, high-rise apartments is too small even for their nuclear families, which typically consist of 10 members here.

Social worker Taher Chaibat said moving shantytown dwellers from shacks to towers doesn’t solve the underlying problems.

“We’re only transferring them from tin homes to concrete buildings,” said Mr. Chaibat. For the young men, the future remains bleak.

“I find Morocco too small — too tight,” said Mr. Gaba, the unemployed 22-year-old who lives in a two-bedroom home in Sidi Moumen with his parents and six siblings. “The only dream I have is to go to Europe to find work and then return with money to lift my family from this mess.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ainane continues making his seven-mile trek every morning in the futile search for work.

“As long as we are alive and there’s God above,” he said, “there’s hope.”

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