Down a set of burnt orange and charcoal-coloured stairs lies a dirt path flecked with rocks and puddles of water. This narrow passageway interconnects dozens of sparsely lit caves in al Hofra - the Hole - a neighbourhood located on the outskirts of Casablanca. Despite their prehistoric feel, you won't find details of these caves in any guidebook. That's because these mildewed caverns are inhabited by Moroccan families.
Conditions in al Hofra's dilapidated caves are similar to those in many slums in this sprawling city of four million. Such settlements are not only home to thousands of the city's most neglected residents, they also gave rise to the handful of suicide bombers who claimed the lives of nearly 50 people in downtown Casablanca in 2003 and 2007. In the years since those blasts, Moroccan authorities have claimed to have eradicated terrorism cells here. Yet the extreme poverty that may have helped give rise to that radicalisation remains. With unemployment in these areas at 32 per cent - and an illiteracy rate that is nearly double that figure - life in the slums continues to be an immense struggle.
The first time I visited al Hofra I was with Boubker Mazoz, a Moroccan of Berber descent who worked as a public affairs specialist for a division of the US State Department in Casablanca. He had been coming to the neighbourhood ever since the first suicide bombing in 2003. As we walked, residents emerged from the shadows, pulling us into their caves to lament the state of their splintered walls and musty floors. The cramped grottoes housed families of six or more.
Within weeks of the 2003 carnage, Mazoz began devising a kind of association that would keep the marginalised youth of al Hofra and Sidi Moumen, another poor neighbourhood, away from terrorism. He created Idmaj, an association designed train young community organisers to penetrate these impoverished neighbourhoods and lure vulnerable children away from drugs with extra-curricular academic activities. Instead of recruiting a privileged group of volunteers from far away, he was determined that his organisers should come straight from the ghettos he was targeting. As Mazoz put it: "No one can speak the language better." By creating role models that not only work but also live in the community, he explained, the programme's effects would endure.
His methods proved so successful - in the three years since launching he has attracted over 150 members - he became convinced he could shake the slum's reputation as a bastion of social deviance and instead transform it into a stronghold for Morocco's future leaders. "With Idmaj I want to teach these kids to initiate and not follow," said Mazoz. "I don't just want the few at the top to be the elite. We want the people from this neighbourhood to strive for it."
By 2006 Mazoz found a permanent home for Idmaj on the site of a former refuse dump. It was there that he built the split-level Sidi Moumen Cultural Institution, which not only serves as the association's base but also houses extensive multilingual libraries, computers and a theatre. That initial time I spent with Mazoz in al Hofra and Sidi Moumen was brief but moving. After I left Casablanca I sent Mazoz an e-mail asking if I could return to teach his students journalism. The logic behind my programme was simple; much has been written about the communities in Sidi Moumen and Ben M'sik (the area where al Hofra is located), especially since the bombings, but rarely have we heard the voices of the residents themselves. Mazoz wrote back within minutes saying I should consider it done.
I came back a few months later with a grant from the State Department. Together with my translator Hanan, I taught a group of 20 students between the ages of 11-22 how to write articles that would eventually be distributed in an electronic newsletter. On our first day together, I asked each of the students to tell me a story that had a beginning, middle and an end. Minutes later a bouquet of hands were raised in the air when I asked volunteers to read their essays.
Despite the smiles on their faces, the tales they told were fraught with fear and violence. Children, including the very youngest in the group, divulged stories of abuse and drug overdoses, while others spoke of impoverished Moroccans fleeing to the shores of Europe in the hope of finding prosperity. And although I was initially shocked to hear these tales from the depths of their imaginations, I wanted to encourage a non-judgemental atmosphere. So from the very beginning of the class I said, "No matter what you are thinking, no matter the subject, this is a place where we can be free." Within moments more children had raised their hands and told their stories.
After a few lessons, I asked the students to begin identifying what subjects they wanted to feature in our first newsletter. Much as on day one, the subjects were as grim as they were profound. They tossed around ideas for articles on prostitution, homelessness, drug abuse and corruption. No one considered writing about culture or the arts. Gradually, though, I encouraged them to look at their neighbourhoods differently - hoping that they might be able to write about the beauty around them, even if it wasn't obvious at first. As a result, one student, Noufisa, decided to write about a band that resides in al Hofra, while another, Ilham, chose to write about dressmakers in a local market.
Our only field trip was to the local TV station 2M. There, some of the station's top news anchors spoke to the students. With each anchor, the kids took out the digital voice recorders provided to them at the start of the course and recorded their discussions. I had never told them what to do or how to behave, but they naturally felt the need to interview everyone they met. They were impressively inquisitive - asking each interviewee what paths they recommended taking in order to become professional journalists.
The day before I left, I watched two of my students, Hassan and Marouane, interview Aïcha Ech Channa, a Casablanca woman who has devoted her life to undoing the centuries-old stigma attached to unmarried mothers. We met Channa at the offices of her Feminine Solidarity Association, which houses dozens of women and their newborns. Channa offers cooking, baking, accounting and hairdressing courses with the aim of training her residents to be self-sufficient. Marouane and Hassan flipped on the microphone and took turns speaking with Channa. Watching them move through their list of questions confidently and respectfully, I was filled with happy awe.
My final day of teaching coincided with my birthday. When I arrived Mazoz grabbed my hand and whisked me to my classroom. As I opened the door the students screamed "happy birthday" and sprinkled me with bags of confetti. When the singing was complete, Mazoz rushed downstairs where a group of women from Sidi Moumen were waiting to put me in a cherry red kaftan and cover my eyes in layers of charcoal. I returned to a room full of children gasping at my Moroccan makeover.
When the party began winding down, two of my students from al Hofra, Leila and Zainab, handed me presents. I was reluctant to take anything from them but knew I couldn't refuse. Underneath the supple wrapping paper was a scarf and a sweater - each of which had been previously worn by the girls. I pulled them both close, and whispered "thank you". Leila grabbed my arm and corrected me: "No, no. Thank you." She smiled as she placed her hands on my shoulders. "Thank you for coming here and giving us a voice."
Marisa Mazria Katz is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Financial Times, Monocle and The New Republic.