SALE, Morocco (Reuters) - It seems hard to object to Mohamed el-Assouni’s street theater school, set up on a patch of scrubland between a rail line and a huddle of slums on the outskirts of Morocco’s capital Rabat.
But the idea of young boys and girls gathering to learn somersaults, dancing and walking a tightrope was too much to bear for the radical Islamists living nearby, he said.
Assouni dug a 200-meter trench to bring water and power to the school’s tent.
“The bearded ones ripped out the pipe and cable in the night,” he said. “Yes sir, we are in conflict with those people. We don’t deliberately disturb them, but they say we corrupt the local children.”
Judging by the numbers thronging the tent on a recent Sunday, the Islamists seem to be losing the argument.
Learning to trampoline, make puppets and take part in street parades is a big draw for the children, many of whom already work to supplement their parents’ meager income, leaving little time for play. More than 260 have enrolled but not all turn up.
Pupils who rebel against the workshop’s quiet discipline are sent away and frustrations can boil over. Boys have thrown stones at the tent and one slashed it with a knife.
“Even when the school is shut you’ll see lots of the kids nearby, practicing their dance moves or stilt walking,” said 25-year-old dance instructor Khalid Haissi, who turned down a circus job in Europe to join the school.
Assouni and his wife Soumia founded their Nomad Theater Association in 2006 and set up their workshop with help from Morocco’s National Human Development Initiative (INDH), Germany’s Goethe Institut and the French government.
He says the self-control and talent of the workshop’s young trainers, all from poor backgrounds, make them powerful role models for the children -- and will hopefully encourage more of them to return to school.
“Our school headmaster always ordered me and the other lazy boys to pick up rubbish, so I fled,” said 14-year-old Said Mustapha Khalfi. “Here they encourage us. I feel like an artist and I have something to show.”
Morocco has one of the worst school drop-out rates in the Arab world, with only one child in 10 completing their education, according to UNICEF.
A 2007 World Bank report ranked Morocco 11th in the region in terms of access, equality, effectiveness and quality of its education, above only Yemen, Iraq and Djibouti.
The government designated the last 10 years the decade of education and training. Now it has embarked on an “Emergency Programme for the Reform of Education,” lasting to 2012.
The reforms need to start working if the kingdom is to find enough trained graduates to compete in world markets and overcome the youth unemployment that breeds despair and makes it easier for violent Islamist groups to recruit new members.
Assouni points to a boy queuing up to learn cartwheels.
“You see that boy? Each weekend I have to go to the cafe where he works as a waiter to bring him down here. That other boy with the red soccer shirt doesn’t go to school. He goes around with a donkey and cart collecting plastic for recycling.”
The workshop is set in the neighborhood of Douar Mika -- Plastic Village -- so named because families who arrived over the years from the poverty-stricken countryside covered their makeshift shelters with sheets of polythene.
For Assouni, the local children are already walking a tightrope, in danger of falling for Western evils such as alcohol and drug abuse on one hand and religious fundamentalism imported from the Middle East on the other.
“I tell myself that if I save four or five of these children with every residence we do, that’s enough,” he said. “Save? Yes, I mean that. They are at risk of being lost to the streets.”