CASABLANCA – “Teaching young people to dream again” is the vision of a Moroccan cultural centre in a rundown Casablanca district, once home to a group of suicide bombers who killed 33 people in 2003.
Based in a white building next to a tramline and opposite a mosque, the Stars Cultural Centre in Sidi Moumen regularly hosts more than 300 young people for classes in music and music theory, classical dance, hip-hop, English and French.
“When we tell young people that violence is not a means to express themselves, we must find them other means,” said filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, who co-founded the centre with artist Mahi Binebine.
Ayouch’s connection with the district began with his film “Horses of God”, which looked at how young people in the neighbourhood were becoming radicalised.
When he organised a screening of the film in Sidi Moumen, Ayouch realised something: “Even in an area without rights, there is the right to hope.”
That seed of an idea eventually led him to set up the centre in the district that was home to 12 suicide bombers, who carried out the May 2003 attacks in Casablanca.
Yacine, 14, is studying piano and music theory and hopes that one day he can become a concert musician and perform with an orchestra.
“The training is much better than at the Casablanca Conservatoire,” he said.
Students’ families pay for the lessons but those on limited means receive subsidised rates.
The centre offers free film screenings, hosts foreign artists and gives shows that attract spectators from far and wide.
– Conservative society –
“Back in 2014, there was nothing — no culture, no cinema,” said the centre’s assistant manager, Soumia Errahmani.
But funded by private donations and foreign cultural institutes, the centre has shown that “there are also stars and not only terrorists” in the district, she said.
The 24-year-old, her hair covered with an Islamic headscarf, said the project had taught her that “if you want, you can”.
She herself signed up for a class because she had “always dreamed of playing guitar and percussion”.
She put together a band, Africa Vibes, and stayed. Now she manages student registrations at the centre and works to “reassure parents”.
In Morocco’s conservative society, “the relationship with art in general, and with dance in particular, is very difficult,” she said.
But today, “parents come to see the shows, they are proud of their children,” she said. “Mothers, who were worried about seeing their daughters dancing, come to ask for advice, some borrow books.”
– ‘Invisible walls’ –
Performances and lessons at the centre take breaks around Muslim prayer times.
Ayouch, who grew up among the tower blocks of the working-class Paris suburb of Sarcelles, said the centre aims to break down the “invisible walls” both mental and geographical, which “confine culture to the city centre”.
In November, he opened a similar centre in the Beni Makada district of Tangiers, a neglected, over-crowded neighbourhood known for drug dealing and police raids.
Director Annafs Azzakia Ben Sbih said the centre aimed to “show that there are also young talents” and change the way people see a neighbourhood many would previously have avoided.
Further centres are planned in disadvantaged districts of Marrakesh and Fes.
Ayouch said the idea is to create “a network with similar programmes and shared programmes, with passionate teachers who are trained and rewarded, who can make openings for young people to jump into”, Ayouch said.
It was through the centre that Meriem, 21, became a rapper. She is working on a new record, “What belongs to girls,” and dreams of going on tour.
Her father opposes her hobby but her mother is supportive. “She encourages me and tells me ‘go ahead’,” she said.