Coming to Terms with the Past

    Looking Back to the Future
    Morocco Struggles to Clarify its Post-Colonial Self-Image

    History does not have to be rewritten, but it is one of the most important bases for the restructuring of state and society after the Arab revolutions – as is the case in Morocco, where the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission has initiated the process of coming to terms with the past from the top down.

    The debate about memory and history, which now also involves elements of civil society, is determining the future of Morocco and is unique in the Arab world. There is as yet no museum for the recent history of Morocco, but in October 2012 the country’s leading historians met under the leadership of Professor Mohammed Kenbib to work on a concept. The future Musée National d’Histoire du Maroc sees itself as one in a series of follow-on projects by the Moroccan Truth Commission, which is tasked not only with resolving injustices and deciding on compensation, but also with acquainting the Moroccans with their own history.

    Methods of coming to terms with the dictatorship

    In 2004, after being pressurised for many years by the victims of despotism and injustice, Mohammed VI appointed the Justice and Reconciliation Commission (Instance Equité et Réconciliation – IER – or hay’at al-insaf wa-l-musalaha) to investigate human rights abuses that took place between 1956 and 1999. In the 1970s and 1980s in particular, his father, Hassan II, systematically persecuted any opposition, both from Marxist underground groups and within the military. After two attempted coups by army factions in 1971 and 1972, officers and political activists vanished into prisons and secret camps, some for more than twenty years. The majority of applications for compensation submitted to the IER also relate to this period. The IER’s mandate covered the resolution of serious human rights abuses, and establishing the level of damages or compensation claimed by victims and their families, as well as preparing suggestions for reform in order to prevent such abuses occurring in the future. The late human rights activist Driss Benzekri was president of the IER. Benzekri was himself arrested in 1974 at the age of twenty-four for being a member of the underground group Ilal Amam [‘Forward’], and was only freed in 1991 as the political system started to open up.

    Right from the beginning historians were involved in the work of the IER, or actively accompanied the IER in various work groups and publications. Ibrahim Boutaleb, emeritus professor of contemporary history, was one of the sixteen members of the commission. In the IER’s concluding report he explicitly details the need for a reform in the academic approach to Moroccan contemporary history. One important aim of the Truth Commission was for the so-called ‘leaden years’ to be included in the educational canon. In addition, many young academics became involved in the documentation and archiving of the hearings. Today, historians are playing a central role in implementing the IER’s recommendations, as evaluating the country’s post-colonial history is more political than ever and thus encounters resistance from various quarters. Dealing with the past in Morocco is also made more difficult by the fact that there has been no regime change. In every dictatorship, issues of access to and dealing with source material touch upon the internal mechanics of the exercise of power. Archives are seldom kept, and records are often kept badly. While making a film and a book about the Hay Mohammadi area of Casablanca, Fatna el-Bouih had to obtain authorisation from seventeen communal facilities, including the hygiene service and the Saada Cinema, in order to gain access to source material.

    Memorial culture

    In 2010 the journalists Youssef Chimrou and Souleiman Bencheikh founded the first and so far only popular academic magazine on the history of Morocco. Bencheikh is one of the most important investigative journalists in the country, and over the past ten years has been involved in various independent media start-ups. He also writes a widely-read blog, http://sbencheikh.blogspot.de.

    The first edition of Zamane – L’Histoire du Maroc was published in November 2010. With a print run of 15,000 per month the journal has since built up a solid francophone readership. Zamane addresses a wide variety of important socio-political topics, such as the history of the occupation of the Western Sahara, the genesis of religiosity in the country, editions of draft constitutions from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, etc. The first edition looked at, among other things, the ‘Unknown Story of the Moroccan “Fascists”’, and ‘Why and How Morocco Lost Its Jews’, as well as ‘A History of Regicide’. It conveys the way in which looking back always also means looking to the future. Zamane is part of a wider Moroccan ‘culture of remembrance from the bottom up’. Along with commemorative events and visits to various places of significance under the dictatorship (prisons, prison camps, police stations, mass graves), there are numerous examples of individual literary and artistic works dealing with the events of that time. In autobiographies, films, comics, poems and novels former political prisoners bear witness to their time in captivity. Some of them were in fact planning to overthrow the monarchy; some were just distributing leaflets at the wrong time in the wrong place; others were arrested and deported with their entire family – including young children.

    Two of the best-known of the authors to be imprisoned were Abraham Serfaty, the head of the Marxist-Leninist group Ilal Amam, who was in jail from 1974 until 1991, and Malika Oufkir, the daughter of the former minister of the interior, Mohamed Oufkir. Oufkir was shot in 1972 after the second assassination attempt on Hassan II by members of the military; his wife and six children were held captive for twenty years. Malika Oufkir’s memoir, The Prisoner: A Life in Morocco, is a gripping record of a jeunesse dorée in the palace entourage in the 1960s and her subsequent odyssey through a series of prisons from 1972 to 1991.

    Material compensation and immunity from prosecution

    Around 22,000 victims and their families lodged claims with the IER in 2004. Almost 10,000 of these were eventually approved. The claimants received various different forms of compensation, including medical assistance and financial damages. A total of 85 million US dollars was paid out. 742 cases of disappeared people were solved. The IER’s 700-page final report was published in Arabic, Fremch, English and Spanish. Independent human rights organisations still criticise the fact that the commission’s mandate excluded the possibility of prosecution. The perpetrators’ names could not be used in the public hearings, even when, as happened on occasion, they were spotted as guards in the courtroom. To this day they still enjoy immunity from prosecution.

    Entitled ‘Truth, Justice and Reconciliation’, the final report calls for a large number of reforms. Alongside safeguarding human rights in constitutional law, these were: the ratification and enforcement of international conventions, the independence of the judiciary, a reform of penal law, human rights education in schools, and collective reparations. The implementation of the recommendations is now known as IER 2 and has just begun. The chapter on ‘Research’ calls for the reworking of curricula for the teaching of history and the foundation of an academic institute, as well as for the national archive to be safeguarded and made accessible. However, as with the majority of the IER’s recommendations, this Institute for Contemporary History [tarih ar-rahin] has still not yet been founded. In 2010 a master’s degree programme in Contemporary History was set up at the Mohammed V. University in Rabat under Professor Mohammed Kenbib. The initial plan was to train a sufficient number of potential academic employees. Then in June 2012 the president of the National Council for Human Rights, Driss El Yazami, announced that the Institut marocain du temps présent would be set up that same year.

    At times there were up to 350 people working on the collation, examination and archiving of the files. The IER applications and hearings resulted in the creation of a valuable archive of contemporary Moroccan history, but to date it is still not accessible to interested members of the public. Both Moroccan and international scholars are champing at the bit, waiting to analyse the documents in the IER archive. In 2008 the renowned historian Jamaâ Baida opened a conference in Hamburg with a lecture on ‘Morocco’s Truth Commission (2004-2005) from a Historian’s Point of View: New Perspectives in Writing Contemporary History’. Only now, Baida said, could Moroccan historiography address the period following the end of the French colonial rule. He describes the activities of the IER as an ‘autopsy on the reign of Hassan II’. Baida is now the head of the National Archive, which opened in 2011 and which also sees itself as having an institutional role to play in public efforts to come to terms with the past.

    Remembrance and compensation

    The Truth Commission strongly advocated the principle of collective reparations. One of the most important conclusions reached by the Commission was that communal and collective compensation should be made to neglected city districts, deliberately underdeveloped regions, and the forgotten places that were the prison camps. So far, eleven towns and regions should have benefited from projects from the programme of collective reparations started in 2008. According to the ethnologist Susan Slymovics, this kind of compensation, in the form of infrastructure and development projects, underlines the significance of the victims’ narratives for the transformation of the society. Memories should be kept alive not only through witness statements, museums and archives, but also through town planning, geographical restructuring and the development of poor and rural areas. In this way subjective memories acquire more than just individual significance but also a societal, economic, cultural and possibly also an ecological dimension.

    Opinion on the work of the IER is very divided. Because the perpetrators were not brought to justice and there has been no explicit apology from the monarchy, many consider the IER to have been a farce. In their view, the IER has reduced the issue of their suffering to one of material compensation. For others, despite official statements to the contrary, in setting up the commission the monarchy has implicitly acknowledged its actions, and – far more importantly – has rehabilitated the victims within society. For the first time a state body – the IER – is looking into the torture centres in the country, the attacks by the security forces, the blatant perversion of justice, and the disappeared, all of which were repeatedly denied under Hassan II. There is a famous interview with Hassan II conducted by Anne Sinclair in 1993 in which she asks him about the prison camps of Tazmamart and Kalaât M’Gouna, which had been documented by the United Nations. Unmoved, the monarch replies: ‘Kalaât M'Gouna, c'est la capitale des roses. Vous connaissez mal la géographie du Maroc.’ [‘Kalaât M’Gouna is the capital of roses. Your knowledge of the geography of Morocco is poor.’] Smiling broadly, Hassan II denies the existence of prison camps in the region. Against this background, the IER was a milestone for the political culture of the country.

    Nearly ten years after this interview with Hassan II, Fatna el Bouih published her prison diaries under the title Une femme nommée Rachid (Arabic title: hadith al-atama), as in the former police station Derb Moulay Cherif in Casablanca she was given the man’s name ‘Rachid No. 45’. While still at school she was already active in the national student body (Syndicat National des Elèves), and was arrested for the first time in 1974 for leading a strike by school pupils. In 1980, as a politically-active 22-year-old student, she was sentenced to five years in jail. Today she lives in Casablanca and works on projects in various different districts with the aim of keeping memory alive. In 2006 she and her husband Youssef Madad founded the Centre relais d’aide à la réinsertion des détenus (CRARD), to help former prisoners reintegrate into society. Fatna el Bouih is campaigning for Derb Moulay Cherif to be turned into a museum and made accessible to the public. However, families of the policemen are still living in the complex.

    Mistrust towards the official reappraisal of the past

    The individuals working on the official committees today are considered to be people of high integrity. However, some of the political opposition regards the various bodies and committees founded in the last twenty years as nothing more than an image campaign for the benefit of the international community. One anonymous blogger, speaking for many, wrote at the beginning of 2011: ‘The Justice and Reconciliation Committee (IER) which reconciles nothing. Created under the high patronage of HM Mohammed VI in 2004, this commission was supposed to reopen a painful chapter in the history of Morocco. Ultimately, it has had almost zero effect. The only effect it has had, if we are to believe the numerous witness statements and reports, is to have reopened the chapter, twisted the knife in the wound of the families and victims of the leaden years without responding to their questions, let alone their expectations. […] The victims file past, and their feelings with them. All of them are obliged to bare their souls, to relive what they experienced, after having to prove that they did go through this ordeal. All of them had to repeat their ordeal. And for what?’ 

    Leila Kilani, on the other hand, made a powerful documentary in 2009 about the work of the IER, called Nos lieux interdits [Our Forbidden Places]. The film focuses on the families of four victims and their controversial attempts to examine the question: how necessary, important, and helpful are memory and certainty? The director accompanies representatives of the IER on visits to the victims and their relatives. She shows the families receiving advice at the Commission headquarters, as well as scenes from the public hearings. Whereas some of the older generation, the parents and partners of the disappeared, are not seeking to know with absolute certainty what happened to their loved ones, the children and grandchildren – now in their twenties and thirties – of those who disappeared or were murdered are demanding detailed clarification of the fate of their (grand)mothers and fathers.

    In all the families this was a blank that needed to be filled in. For some, it was only through the work of the IER that they found out what happened to their relatives. In the ‘leaden’ years of the 1970s and 1980s the relatives of the disappeared changed their names and family histories in order to protect themselves. The children grew up in the belief that their father had left them, or that he was a deserter. One woman in the film vehemently accuses her grandmother of failing to ask enough questions about what had happened to her husband, and thus contributing to his being forgotten until the IER came along. The film sheds light on the situation of survivors of prison and torture who find themselves confronted with the accusation that they ruined the lives of their family members for the sake of a mistaken ideology. Some are only able to talk about it with one another. Many have got involved in the work of the IER.

    One scene in the film highlights the difference in how the different generations deal with the lack of certainty. A woman whose husband, a young military cadet, disappeared soon after their wedding is discussing with her son the possibility of going to visit the prison camp Tazmamart. Both have clearly been marked by the loss of their husband, or father. The mother doesn’t want to join in the journey of remembrance: ‘Today they tell us, “Come and see where they disappeared.” What for? To see what?’ Her adult son contradicts her, his voice barely audible. ‘I want to see with my own eyes - even just bones… I want to see the secret centre, to see the cells. To see the grave. I am picturing this in my mind, but my imagination cannot follow with it. I tried and tried to widen my imagination. I believe it will never grasp the reality of Tazmamart.’

    For the mother, the journey to Tazmamart means finally having to acknowledge that her husband is dead. Perhaps, too, she is afraid that if she goes there her subjective memory of him will fade: ‘For us, they are not dead. They are still alive in our hearts. In our minds and conscience. You really feel someone is dead when you see ... his grave.’ For the son, on the other hand, the journey is a step forward in his quest for rehabilitation. ‘I have always felt defeated. Since always I have these looks sticking to my skin: “Son of a traitor”.’ [Excerpt from Nos lieux interdits by Leila Kilani, 2009]

    2011: a historical caesura in the Arab world

    Achieving a common understanding of one’s own history is frequently the subject of bitter controversy in countries across the world. In Germany too there were many years of debate before it became possible to found the Deutsche Historische Museum (DHM) in Berlin in 1987. Critics saw no point in the federal government setting up a national museum of the history of Germany. After the fall of the Wall, the DHM was erected on a site in former East Berlin and became responsible for, among other things, mediating the history of the two German states.

    Many authors are critical of the ‘memory boom’ or ‘memory industry’ that has developed in recent years in response to the violent twentieth century. History is a ‘resource, to which an increasing number of stakeholders with various different aims and interests in a growing diversity of forms are competing for access’, as the historian Hans Günther Hockerts puts it. Recent history, he says, attracts particular interest, as contemporary witnesses are still alive, and the resonance of ‘coming to terms with the past’ as a medium of political reassessment continues to grow. In Morocco, academic historical analysis of the second half of the twentieth century is de facto a reassessment, and thus also an evaluation of the period of Hassan II’s rule from 1962 until his death in 1999. Professors and students of history must decide how they will classify the attempted coups, the occupation of the Western Sahara in 1975, the uprisings and revolts of the past forty years, the social development of the country after independence, the human rights abuses, and the hobbling of the opposition.
     
    The protests and upheavals in the Arab world since 2011 clearly signify the end of the post-colonial order. History does not have to be rewritten, but it is one of the most important resources for the models of state and society in the near future. Historians, even more than politicians, should provide an answer as to how, in view of what has happened in the last fifty years, the next twenty years should be shaped. The historical is what was possible – with the future, new possibilities appear.

    The key question for Morocco – currently the subject of a highly controversial debate – is whether and in what way it is possible to reform the monarchy in order to turn it into a parliamentary monarchy, or whether the announcements made and steps taken to date in the direction of reform are simply a continuation of the extremely skilful political balancing act that has kept the Alawite dynasty in power since 1664.

    So far the IER has not resulted in the prevention of fresh human rights abuses and tyranny in Morocco. Whether or not it has reconciled the Moroccans with their history is an open question. The idea that ‘telling the story’ can defuse political conflicts and reconcile societies – an idea strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud and concepts of the early twentieth century - should at least be subjected to critical scrutiny in the current transitional justice boom.

    Eight years on, implementation of the IER’s recommendations has still barely begun. Nonetheless, the IER is not worthless, nor does it simply serve a construction of history dictated from above. It may be that the IER is intended to create an image of Morocco on the international stage as a model Arab country. But at the same time the interaction of a governmental agency, non-governmental organisations, independent forums against forgetting, and the media opens up a public discussion that entails debate about the country’s ‘political memory’. Here, according to the Aachen-based political scientist Helmut König, ‘the foundations of the political order assume tangible form. Which historical events fill us with horror, and which events do we recognise as having been central ones, and for what reasons is this the case?’ Helmut König highlights two aspects of political memory: it requires material support (i.e. monuments, museums, rituals etc.), and it is intentional, i.e. all those involved are involved in the politics of memory. But this interest does not devalue the process of coming to terms with the past. On the contrary: the debate about remembrance and history, with all parties involved, will determine Morocco’s future.
    Sonja Hegasy
    is the Vice Director of the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to
    Mail Symbolkulturzeitschriften@goethe.de

    Related links

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Read Fikrun issue 98 “Coming to Terms with the Past” on your smart phone, BlackBerry or e-reader! Go to download...

    Order now

    Application form

    Institutions or people in Islamic countries who are employed in the journalism or culture sectors have the option to obtain a free subscription.
    To the application form ...

    Qantara.de – Dialogue with the Islamic World

    Politics, culture, social affairs: Information and discussions in German, Arabic and English

    Zenith Online

    Covering the Muslim world with a critical, resourceful, and balanced view