Islamic Hardliners Keep Tabs on Fight Club

The huge town square of Marrakech, the Djemaa el-Fna, is famous for not only its snake charmers and drummers but also for its boxers. However, Islamic hardliners consider boxing to be unworthy of an Islamic lifestyle. John Laurenson reports

The huge town square of Marrakech, the Djemaa el-Fna, is famous for not only its snake charmers and drummers but also for its boxers. However, Islamic hardliners consder boxing as unworthy of an Islamic lifestyle. John Laurenson reports

​​Steam wafts over from the stalls selling bowls of boiled snails as the sun sets on Djemaa el-Fna. The snake charmers bundle their cobras back into their baskets and, by the light of petrol lamps, crowds huddle around the acrobats and astrologers, story tellers and musicians.

Djemaa el-Fna - a magnet for travellers

Only a century ago this city was closed to Europeans. The heads of decapitated criminals were displayed at the city gates to ward away visitors. Today, Djemaa el-Fna - which means 'assembly of the dead' - teams with life.

It's a magnet for travellers, some of whom might see a glimpse of what their own town squares were like back in the days of itinerant dentists and bear baiting. Djemaa el-Fna has retained its exotic extremism and, like the roast goats brains you can eat here, it's sometimes a little rich for Western tastes.

Youssef, a tall, lean nineteen-year-old in a red baseball cap works the crowd for laughs and coins. He's a boxer and fight organiser but the two boxers he has pulling shadow punches, gearing themselves up for the fight, are barefooted boys of thirteen and fifteen. Sometimes they're as young as eight. Youssef says:

"If you want to box you've got to start young. I started when I was ten. My father was a good boxer. When I was very small I went to school but my family wasn't rich enough for me to stay there so I left to box. A boxer has a good physique, a disciplined life-style and can earn a bit of money. I earn fifty, maybe a hundred dihrams (five, ten dollars) a day organising these fights. I've been badly hurt three times. I got my nose broken fighting in the ring and once I was KO here in the square."

Morocco's fight club

Most of the time, no one gets hurt. Youssef and other fight organisers have been told by the police that they don't want organised bloodshed just a few metres from the central police station so, a bit like at the wrestling matches you can see in countries such as England and France, there's a lot of show, plenty of ducking and weaving, and few shattering upper cuts to the jaw - which is not to say the kids who box here don't take it seriously.

They do, like 15-year old Moroine: "I've been boxing at Djemaa el-Fna for five years," he says. "Boxing is a superb sport, a magnificent sport. I love it. I box three, five... sometimes ten times and earn ten or twenty dirhams (one or two dollars) in an evening. I come here every day after school. My parents want me to become world champion. My heroes are Mohammed Ali, Mike Tyson, Joe Frazer and Nassem Hamed... he's an Arab boxer!"

Boxing is a big deal in Morocco. It's the country's second biggest sport after football, and the Marrakech gym just down the road, whose trainer forbids his boxers to fight here on the square, was awarded with an Olympic medal for one of its fighters at the Sydney games.

No contradiction between Islam and boxing

Few people in this pious, Muslim country see any contradiction between Islam and boxing. After all, the most illustrious boxer the world has ever known was a Muslim convert.

But the Casablanca and Madrid bombings have exposed the existence of a militant, puritanical form of Islam that identifies more with the stern, Saudi-backed strictures of the Wahhabites than Morocco's Sufi traditions. The Islamists dislike boxing just as they frown on the rhythmic party music for which many Moroccans show an immoderate enthusiasm.

At twenty-five years old, Mustafa is a veteran on the Djemaa el-Fna boxing scene: "They say this isn't a good sport... that's it's not good to hit people that way. We think boxing is the best sport in the world but they only like karate. They say boxing is not good for your face and your face is the Koran."

Up until now, unlike in many other Muslim countries, Moroccans have been free to choose the degree to which Islam shapes their culture. You can, if you so desire, drink beer, wear a skirt, listen to rap music and get away with it. But the strictures of the Islamic radicals have had a new menace since the Madrid attacks were traced back to Moroccan nationals.

Perhaps the boy boxers of Marrakech, whether they are aware of it or not, are fighting for more than the love of their sport and a fist-full of dirhams a night.

John Laurenson