By Brahim El Guabli
By Brahim El Guabli
Morocco World News
Philadelphia, June 17, 2012
One of the many long-term consequences of the Arab uprisings and the end of dictatorship, at least in its old forms, will be the publication of a massive body of literature documenting the atrocities perpetrated by the dictatorial regimes against their peoples in general, and against the political captives and dissidents in particular. Despite the already extant rich body of literature, produced in different parts of the Arab world, the prospective literary works, when they see the light of day, will shed more light on political imprisonment conditions in countries like Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain and many other places, where up-to-now political dissent was repressed, and jails were the ultimate abode of those who were audacious enough to defy dictatorship.
In addition to availing themselves of the existing narrative discourse techniques to convey their share of frustration, trauma, broken dreams and suffering for half a century, under the reign of dictatorship, prison writers will certainly develop new expressive tools to convey the unspeakable in their experience, particularly with the demise of the ill-cited years of censorship. Arab political activists have finally the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves through the “catharsis” of writing painful memoirs gleaned from these notorious “lieux of disappearance”.
Forced disappearance and torture of political dissidents became an industry under the Arab dictatorships. Each one of them administered its political prisons (mostly in remote desertic areas) and produced its own brand of punishment. This would not have happened without the luring incentives provided to torturers: 1) impunity; torturers were above the law and they feared no legal proceedings against them.
In this state of affairs, anyone can imagine the over-zealousness of empowered police officers and their subordinates in torturing their victims. 2) Social and professional promotion depended on how subservient the torturers were; they had every incentive to outdo each other in cruelly harming their victims. 3) Impunity and egoistic aspirations, coupled with poverty and the inability to rebel against one’s hierarchy, resulted in a systematic violation of human rights, and degradation of human dignity.
Dictatorship also denied the “disappeared” their right to a peaceful death. A rather ubiquitous practice in dictatorial states all over the world. Graves of victims of human rights can turn into shrines, and dictatorship cannot reconcile itself with the calamitous consequences of such an eventuality; hence, one can talk about the haunting power of the dead.
This latter continues to shake the foundations of dictatorship even long after the dissidents left the world of the living. The deliberate insistence on erasing their physical memory is, therefore, part of the process leading up to eliminating the possibility of political activists becoming symbols.
The danger represented by symbols stems usually from their crucial rallying role; a dictatorship, by its nature, cannot cohabit with other symbols that are likely to challenge its legitimacy. However, not all the “disappeared” passed away under torture and inhuman prison conditions, some of them survived and insisted on surviving to tell the story, and continue the fight through narration. Survivors understood the invaluable importance of their testimonies in keeping the memory of their companions alive and in debunking the state institutionalized torture in their countries.
If this was the case in the recent past, it must be said that imprisonment, and its literary by-product, prison writings, are not a new motif of Arabic narrative discourse. Examples abound of poets narrated their prison ordeals both in the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras. Poets, especially, were jailed for various “crimes” including, but not limited to, tribal feuds, political disobedience, satire of powerful people, love poetry (ghazal) and disrespect of the percepts of Islam.
In his extensive study of prison writings—mostly in poetry—in the above-mentioned periods, Dr. Wadih Al-Samad, found similarities between the types, the styles and the stages of torture depicted in poetry. He also found similarities in the detainees’ struggle to convey their torments, weaknesses, steadfastness, apprehensions as well as their dreams during incarceration (Wadih Al-Samad, p.268). It is worth mentioning that poets were not just literary figures; they were voices and defenders of their tribes’ glory; therefore, their individual humiliation, through incarceration, was tantamount to a collective humiliation of their tribes.
If the colonial period witnessed the publication of literary works in which the prison topos was prevalent, post-independence era had its share of abuses. National independence did not only bring hopes; it also brought myriads of internal conflicts. While colonial period unified citizens against a common enemy (the colonizer), post-independence was fraught with intestine fights which pitted former comrades in arms against each other.
During the early years of independence, the paths of the former friends diverged, and their interests conflicted. The ones who wielded power used it against their political enemies. This internal discord and appearance of opposition were seminal to the formation of modern Arabic prison literature. Imprisonment was “nationalized” and works written during this period achieved a higher level of maturity artistically.
One of the pioneers of prison writing in the post-independence era is Sonallah Ibrahim whose novel The Smell of It (Tilka Al-rra’i?a) “conveys a sense of alienation that at times is almost overpowering: the narrator who has been released from prison on parole, leads a humdrum existence, restlessly moving from place to place in Cairo, recording the minutiae of his daily life” (Starkey, p.141) A few years later, Abderrahman Munif wrote his epic novel, East of the Mediterranean (Sharq al-Mutawassi?) which depicts Rajab’s life.
Rajab, is an Arab leftist political activist, was portrayed inside his desertic jail and in his European exile, where he sought treatment, after failing to stay steadfast under torture. In this novel, political imprisonment is discovered in its wider implications for the family, friends and daily relationships. Activists themselves can be broken down into three categories: those who continue the fight, those who sell out, and those who are caught in limbo. Most of the Arab people before the uprisings belonged to this latter category.
The list of prison books is long but it is worth mentioning that Abdellatif Laabi, the Moroccan writer/poet and political activist, published Le Chemin des Ordalies (The Path of Ordeals) in 1982. Khalid Khalifeh’s “Madih Al Karahiyya” (In Praise of Hatred) and Nabil Suleiman’s Samar Allayali spearheaded this literary genre in Syria, one of the Arab countries where the Baath party perpetrated atrocious crimes against political dissidents. However, The Cocoon, Hasiba ‘Abdalrahman’s prison journal, published as a novel, is considered by many critics the milestone prison book of the late 1990s in Syria.
Moroccan prisons writings, however, are more prolific and diverse. When the late King Hassan II passed away in July 1999, a freedom atmosphere reigned over the country, and victims of what came to be known as the lead years dared to speak openly about their tribulations in Tazmamart and other disappearance places. The independent and partisan printed media played a major role in blazing the path for the Moroccan readers to discover prison writings. They also played a major role in unearthing human rights abuses during this period commonly known as the lead years.
In the year 2000, Al-Ittihad Al-Ichtiraki, the daily newspaper of the Popular Socialist Forces Party, serialized the memoirs of Mohamed Raiss; A Return Ticket to Hell. Rais was of fifty eight officers detained in Tazmamart between 1972 and 1991 in the aftermath of foiled coups d’états. He shared his memoirs with a Moroccan public avid to know in detail what happened during this dark past. While these serialized memoirs sent Al-Ittihad Al-Ichtiraki’s sales soaring, thanks to the popularity of Raiss’s narrative, Moroccan people were awestruck to discover these unreal(but real) and fictitious (but not really) accounts of brutality.
The political openness that characterized the first years of the new Moroccan Monarch, and his willingness to turn the page of the “disappeared” and “the missing/unaccounted for” established propitious conditions for the prosperity of prison writings. More captives of the lead years produced memoirs, novels, cartoons and diverse literary oeuvres to immortalize their experience. A Woman Named Rachid (Fatnah El Bouih), Memory of Ashes (Khadija Merouazi) and Cellule 10 (Ahmed Merzoqui), to name but a few, caught the Moroccan readers’ attention. These works depicted the essence of prison life (both in the narrow and wider meanings of prison) and played a seminal role in changing the Moroccan political discourse; they broke the taboo of silence.
The inhumanness depicted in these literary works did not only unbridle the tongues, the minds and pens of those who witnessed this dark period, but it also created an incubator of unprecedented free speech in the country. This gave rise to diverse literary and journalistic experiences that strove to defend the newly acquired spaces of freedom. Tazmamart, the black years, the lead years and “never this again” entered the Moroccan spoken language as synonyms of disappearance. The threat “I will send you to Tazmamart”, that used to be a sign of unlimited and unchecked power, shifted to become a source of embarrassment.
The rush to tear it down is nothing but a proof that Tazmamart ceased being a locus of power and instead it became a locus of shame. Flattening its walls was a symbolic burial of an embarrassing period in a country’s history. It signaled the willingness “to turn the page” and start on a somewhat clean slate. Yet, literature keeps the memory alive, and takes this experience from local to universal realms. Locations can be torn down but memories survive.
Creative writing is the air that people breathe whenever a shift happens in their individual and collective history. It did not take Sonallah Ibrahim, Abdulrahman Munif, Abdellatif Laabi and Hassiba Abderrahman a revolution to write their carceral experience. However, writing about it openly as it happened in Morocco, was a sign of political change.
In Egypt and Syria, it was more a sign of determination to breach the taboos surrounding political detention. Moreover, historical experience shows that wherever people were abducted, jailed and forcefully disappeared, literature was produced by the survivors to honor the memory of their companions in victimhood. The fight for memory cannot be dissociated from the fight for more democratic and socially responsible political and economic regimes.
Prison writings are the crucible of Arab people’s frustrations, hopes, broken promises and unflinching will to not overlook the atrocities committed under dictatorship. The wave has already started in post-revolution Tunisia where a dozen prison literary works, which would have been banned under Ben Ali’s regime, have been recently published. The Arab revolutions have expanded the potential of freedom of speech, and it is legitimate to hope that more and more victims of this period (and why not torturers too?) would share their insider’s knowledge of these lieux of anguish and memory.