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The Moroccan Non-Exception: A Conversation with Ahmed Marzouki, Former Tazmamart Detainee

[An image of the Tazmamart prison. Image from kapitalis] [An image of the Tazmamart prison. Image from kapitalis]

[The following is the first installment in "The Moroccan Non-Exception" Jadaliyya roundtable. Read the introduction here.]

Twenty-five years ago, Morocco seemed to embark on a serious effort to confront past human rights violations and uphold the rule of law. King Hassan II made a solemn pledge to turn the page on the “Years of Lead,” as the period of political repression is called in Morocco, and uplift the country to international human rights standards. In the early 1990s, the authorities released political prisoners, closed down the notorious Tazmamart secret detention center, and held public hearings on forty years of flagrant rights abuses. But the sudden change increasingly reflects the monarchy’s vulnerability to Western pressure after the fall of the Berlin Wall rather than a principled commitment to the rule of law. The bottom line is that Moroccans are treated as subjects of the king unless the powerful West decides otherwise. To wit, none of the officials responsible for torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings have faced trials. Not all victims of violations were adequately compensated, if at all. After suffering the wrath of the monarchy for more than eighteen years in detainment, Tazmamart survivors, for example, were set “free” with no apology, no explanation, no fitting compensation, and no structure for social and professional reintegration or psychological support. 

The Moroccan monarchy took advantage of the change of mind in the West about the universal priority of human rights. Western publics and governments became more preoccupied with the threat of terrorism than with the abuses of friendly partners vowing to fight terrorism. Since 2001, draconian anti-terrorism laws were passed and new secret detention centers were opened in Morocco. Numerous, but less internationally publicized, cases of tortures unrelated to terrorism were reported. And new forms of intimidation and repression daily target human rights activists, independent journalists, defiant judges and lawyers, rebellious rappers, and caricaturists. To entrap dissidents, the authorities resort to an abundant reservoir of laws that penalize sex outside of marriage, alcohol consumption, or criticism of the king. In other words, anything can be used to muzzle civil society. Today, Moroccan democrats worry that a new but no less vicious version of the “Years of Lead” is creeping into Moroccan social and political life.  

What follows is a conversation with Ahmed Marzouki, a former prisoner at Tazmamart, a clandestine detainment center situated in a no-man’s land between Morocco and Algeria. Marzouki was an army officer who disappeared with fifty-seven other military men following two failed military coups in 1971 and 1972. After eighteen years in secret detainment and total isolation (7 August 1973 – 15 September 1991), thirty-two out of the fifty-eight original detainees eventually perished under the squalid conditions. If not for international pressure, none of the detainees were supposed to survive and tell the world about their living nightmare. For 6,550 days, detainees saw light only three times a day when guards turned the switch in a dark hall to serve the daily “meals.” Marzouki occupied prison cell number ten, which became the title of his prison memoirs: Tazmamart: Cellule 10 (Paris Méditerranée: 2000). In this conversation, translated from French into English, he recounts his personal experience in Tazmamart. The exchange brings up Marzouki’s subjective perspective to explore the structural and symbolic dimensions of violence. The overlap between the structural and the symbolic explains the magnificent collapse of the state’s harshest and most secretive penitentiary system in the face of human agency and emotional intelligence. 

Abdeslam Maghraoui (AM): You spent more than eighteen years of confinement under the most inhuman conditions, what is your recollection of how it all began? What thoughts, images, and sounds come to your mind in that situation of looming danger and utter powerlessness? 

Ahmed Marzouki (AhM): It is a horrible nightmare that I live through each time I remember the tragic events of that fatal night, the night of 7 August 1973. We were kept in the isolation ward of Kenitra’s detention center[1] when we heard hard bangs on the doors around two in the morning. Loud voices shouted “Wake up! Leave all your belongings there and come out.” We had no idea what was going on, but we were all confused and terrified. Is it a transfer to an unknown prison? Are they going to execute us? These are the questions that come instinctively to your mind under such circumstances. Glancing through the wired window of our cell, we could catch a glimpse of dozens of policemen lurking in the corridor like madmen, with submachine guns in their hands. They were shouting orders to the detainees and to each other, causing a terrifying row … My cell door opened suddenly with no time to pick up anything. I had just enough time to put on the summer jail outfit: a simple shirt and pants, black and white with vertical stripes, and sandals made of Michelin tires like those the shepherds wear in remote rural Morocco. Nothing else.

We were divided into small groups and led to the outer court of the penitentiary. Countless policemen, guards, squad leaders, and deputy leaders with harsh faces and determined gestures were barking orders. They looked distraught and overwhelmed. The rumor of a possible transfer to a less crowded prison had been circulating for some time. But at the sight of Lieutenant Feddoul, a notorious secret service officer, our hope was dashed. Everybody knew that wherever this nocturnal owl preys, death follows … We were quickly handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed hastily into military trucks waiting with their engines on in front of the main gate of the prison. 

Our captors drove us for half an hour in the military trucks to Kenitra’s air force base. Although we were blindfolded, we could glimpse two C-134s on the tarmac waiting for us. The pilots turned the engines on. An ear-piercing noise surrounded us and seemed to engulf the whole base. Blindfolded and handcuffed, we were seated on benches inside the planes. A horrible panic suffocated us after a guard whispered to a captive, “Do you know, dirty scoundrel, what we are going to do with you? We are going to drop all of you in the ocean…” This terrifying revelation spread like wildfire by word of mouth among detainees. A dive into the emptiness … the crushing of the body against the gigantic ocean waves … the horrible and long drowning … the sharks ripping apart our arms and legs … As I began to imagine that fateful moment, my heart began beating wildly. Does the Qur’an not say that agony is worse than death?

During much of the flight we remained in the grip of this terrifying image. Around five in the morning, we landed in the town of Ksar Essouk.[2] They made us get out of the planes quickly, loaded us abruptly into military trucks packed on top of each other like cattle, and then drove off fast to an unknown destination. The trip was long and excruciating because the bumpy road was putting a great strain on the shock absorbers of the trucks, which were swinging violently because of the numerous curves in the road. We were thrown against each other in a cloud of dust mixed with the smell of our own cold sweat. They unloaded us quickly, ordered us to stand in one row and then to walk in front of some officers who were seated behind tables with piles of folders. It was an ominous sign: It seemed like our civil status, our very existence as human beings has reached a dead end.

AM: When blindfolded, disoriented, and under the imminent threat of violence, how does one gather basic information about physical space and surroundings? What senses, norms, or systems of memorization, and communication are at work in a situation of total surrender? 

AhM: Initially, you still depend on normal visual capacity. Before being thrown in our dark cells, we were able to catch glimpses of where we were by making disjointed movements. We quickly gathered that we were in front of two buildings of around fifty meters of length each, separated by a narrow, open extension. The two buildings were probably ten meters wide and four meters high. There was an enclosure wall of around six meters in height with sentry boxes at each of the four corners, making any escape attempt impossible. The courtyard, made of dirt, rocks and sand, was fairly steep and for that reason we could see that block two seemed much higher than the other one. This detail held great importance because the inmates who were held in block two, although living in the same horrible conditions as all the others in block one, experienced hotter summers and colder winters. We were first searched thoroughly in the corridors of the two blocks into which we had been randomly divided. Our handcuffs and blindfolds were removed and each one of us was shoved into a cell. One of the prisoners who was near-sighted begged the guards to let him keep his spectacles. “Do not worry buddy, you will never need them again!” one of the guards answered with sarcasm. When the heavy cell door was shut and locked behind each one of us, we felt our blood freeze in our veins. A panic seizure overtook the inmates when we realized the extent of our isolation and helplessness.

For a good moment, we were devastated and prostrate, unable to assess or express the exact tragedy that had struck us. When our vision adjusted slightly to the darkness, we discovered through a thin ray of light coming from a hole in the ceiling that the cell measured about three meters long and two and a half meters wide, with a height of four meters. On the left or the right of the cell (depending on the arrangement of that cell) there was a simple, narrow hole, directly on the floor. This served as a toilet. Above, at a height that was at the edge of the roof over our heads, there were three rows of holes for ventilation. On the wall opposite to the door, a big slab of cement had been cast, measuring one meter in height and width. It was on this cold and hard surface that we spent 6,550 nights with two worn bedcovers that smelled like cattle or donkey, a plastic plate, and a carafe of water. In winter, temperatures were often below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit (zero degrees Celsius), and the cold season lasted at least eight months. Summer, which lasted three months, followed abruptly and brought oppressive, suffocating heat, and all sorts of predatory animals, including roaches, scorpions, and even snakes. We could hear the sound they made when they fell from a wall or the ceiling, but we couldn’t see them in the darkness. Strangely, only one or two detainees were ever bitten. Our bodies were so repulsive, not even scorpions dared approach us. There were fifteen rotating guards, human robots, illiterate and cruel, who were strictly instructed never to speak with us. 

As total darkness impaired our normal visual function, we only had our voices to escape from the profound anxiety of isolation and emptiness. Very quickly we realized that the key to survival in Tazmamart was to communicate regularly with our comrades. However, the only way to do that was to shout our lungs out. Because we were all shouting at the same time, all we could hear was a constant, debilitating commotion of undecipherable human voices. We realized early on that it was imperative to establish some internal rules and regulations to overcome the chaos. Also significant, realizing that our detention could last a long, long time was key. In our building, we were lucky to have a handful of lucid and realistic detainees, who quickly understood that possibility and advised us to be prepared. But many were convinced that we would be released shortly. After one month of tough negotiations among the detainees, we reached a compromise during the winter of 1973/1974. Ironically, the first thing we needed to conquer to reestablish our humanity was time. In total darkness day and night, time was our worst enemy. We agreed on a simple program: 

We woke up as soon as any faint glow of light appears through the holes in the ceiling. At that moment, the inmate on duty (we took turns) would start to recite out loud some verses from the Holy Qur’an. That was also a sign that we were free to talk to our immediate neighbor until the arrival of the guards at around 7:30. After breakfast, there was another moment for free talk that lasted about thirty minutes. Immediately after “breakfast,” we started the daily session of reading and discussing the Qur’an. The sessions lasted about one and a half hours. This was followed by a moment of free discussion, “lunch,” the call for noon prayer, and an hour of complete, mandatory silence. This allowed all detainees to take a nap and rest quietly. The rest of the day was likewise divided between quite conversation, prayer, open discussion, and moments of silence until nightfall. We stuck to this program with military discipline until our release in 1991. In the second building, they failed to organize; chaos and disorder reigned. This may explain why so many died in the second building.[3]  

AM: Let us talk for a moment about the difference between building one where you were detained and building two where the great majority of inmates perished. The immediate question that comes to mind is, why so few survivors in building two? If the detainment conditions were similar, why did some detainees survive while others did not?

AhM: The harsh conditions of detainment were virtually identical, and we equally endured our lot of physical decay and psychological torment. The first winter was dreadful for us. Despite our youth and tough military training, the glacial temperature of winter in Tazmamart drained our strength. Nobody inquired about our detainment conditions, and there were no incarceration rules or regulations. We were there to die a slow, painful, and humiliating death. We were locked in separate cells twenty-four hours a day. We were not allowed to take even a short walk in the courtyard, not allowed to catch a glimpse of the sun. We had access to no medical care whatsoever, not even the most basic hygiene. We were convinced that our cells would be our graves. Yet we strangely resorted to all kinds of self-deceptive scenarios and justifications to avoid the bitter truth. Who could have imagined that at the end of the twentieth century, in a country fourteen kilometers from Europe, a country proud to be ruled by a “commander of the faithful” (the Moroccan King’s religious title), could bury its children alive, irrespective of all human and divine law?

If we could scale the horror, the first five years were the worst because the guards’ treatment was very harsh and we had not yet been able to bribe them to communicate our plight to the outside world. At the same time, detainment conditions began to have a severe impact on our health. We caught various intestinal infections, tonsillitis, laryngitis, and bronchitis that triggered infernal fevers. Our teeth became very weak and wobbly because of the lack of hygiene and good food. Dental caries and tooth abscesses caused every detainee unbearable pain for months and months, until our teeth fell out or we swallowed them with our food. As years went by, all forms of headaches, eye damage, conjunctiva, irritation, loss of smell, rheumatism, and body stiffness became the norm. With no sun, we developed atrophied muscles and anemic skin. Constant humming and ringing in our ears due to excessive stress and general physical deterioration was another nightmare. It drove many of our comrades to madness.  

AM: Yet, under similar harsh conditions three times more detainees perished in building two than building one.  

AhM: Indeed, it was in the second building that death hit first. Sixth months after our arrival, one of the detainees in the second building, Lieutenant Mohamed Chemsi, a strong and impressively built pilot, entered a permanent delirium until he completely lost his mind. One morning the prison guards found him stone dead, his head leaning on his cell door. This first tragic loss sounded like a death knell for all of us. By the time we lost our first building comrade, Mohamed Saji, in the summer of 1974, we had learned that six others had already died in the second building. It was a terrible, depressing shock. From that day on, we became hopeless people who, on a daily basis, had to deal with the idea that death was watching us from every corner and crack in our cells. Some detainees were so shaken by the deaths that they lost their minds soon after.

Although fewer detainees died in our building, we were no less terrified. The case of our comrade Mimoune Fagouri was traumatizing. The victim of endless hallucinations, he made us endure the most difficult and cruel moment of our long detention. For days and nights, he banged nonstop with a stone on his cell door causing a deafening roar, which almost drove all us to the brink of madness. It was nearly impossible to sleep, talk, meditate, or have a moment of quietness. Gradually, after losing all of his strength, he calmed down to suddenly sink into total silence that was interrupted only by terrifying instances of loud deliriums and ghostly, hysterical laughs. One grim morning, the guards found him hanged: his bulging eyes were staring at a squirt of blood that shot from his nose onto the wall …. 

In the second building, the situation was even worse. On one awful day, two comrades died within hours of each other: Abdessadki (known as Manollo) in the morning, and Mahjoub Lyakidi in the evening. There are simply no adequate words that can fully capture and describe what we endured. That was how eighteen years grindingly passed by for us. Detainees were vanishing one after another, always silently but with dignity. Death, like a mad lottery, was striking us blindly and each of us was tormented daily by the belief that he might be the next victim.  

AM: You were dying alone, but silently and with dignity…How does one keep faith, hope, and the will to survive, when death is lurking in the corner? What does your experience in Tazmamart tell us about the human condition? 

AhM: Yes, despair killed many, but we never gave up. After repeated attempts at sympathizing or paying off our guards to contact the outside world, we succeeded in corrupting three or four of them. Some detainees managed to establish contact with their families, which allowed us to have access to limited goods and valuable information. Unfortunately, when money and medicine were smuggled into the building, dissensions and disunity started, group cohesion evaporated, and relations among the detainees soured quickly. The problem was how to strike a balance between equitable access to medicine and communication with the detainees’ families and safeguarding the secrecy of our contacts. It was a huge risk for all of us and for the guards we managed to entice. At the same time, it was hard to convince detainees who never heard from their families to be patient. But thanks to a few wise detainees who knew how to handle conflict, we managed to reach a reasonable agreement. Without them, the guards not involved in the scheme would have realized what was going on, and the consequences would have been fatal for all of us. After a few intermittent contacts, the outside world learned about our ordeal and domestic and international human rights organizations started to mobilize. The Moroccan authorities first denied everything outright, and King Hassan II stated with stunning self-assurance that Tazmamart existed only in the sick imagination of the enemies of his democracy. A mass grave was in fact prepared in the center of the courtyard to exterminate all of us and remove all evidence of our existence. However, precise information about our affliction and detainment conditions was already out in the world. A few months later, under strong pressure from Western countries, the king was forced to face up to the problem. The authorities started to loosen conditions during the last three or four weeks of our detention, and we were finally released on 15 September 1991.

AM: Do you retrospectively recall any breakthrough moments, difficult decisions, specific individual or collective acts, which saved detainees from a sure death?

AhM: Despite our apprehension about the guards’ harsh behavior, some savvy officers reminded us that our salvation depended on immediate contact with the outside world, and the only way to establish that contact was still through the guards. There was simply no other way. A long process was set in motion then, and every detainee had to cooperate and to continue to work together, despite all sorts of equity and access issues. The plan was to pay careful attention to the guards’ interactions, conversations, and possible weaknesses in order to detect who might be most susceptible to corruption. It was a question of life and death, but some detainees had reached a psychotic stage and were not fully aware of what they said. We were anxious that someone would inadvertently repeat the name of the targeted guard or reveal something that would jeopardize the plan. This made collective deliberation and decision difficult.

In the end, however, only two detainees succeeded in establishing contact with the outside world. In 1979 Captain Salah Hachad, an experienced air force pilot who comes from a wealthy family, and Lieutenant M’barek Touil, another elite air force pilot, managed to contact their wives. Hachad’s wife was a well-known pharmacist in the city of Kenitra. She played a critical role cataloguing our health problems, delivering medicine, and establishing family contacts. All of this was done secretly through guards we managed to lure. The actual exchange of goods, money, medicine, or information could take several months to a year depending on a guard’s vacation permit and predisposition.

Touil’s wife was an American citizen who taught at the then-American air force base in Kenitra. After leaving Morocco, Mrs. Touil was instrumental in establishing contacts with senators and senior State Department officials. The chain of events leading to the relaxation of Touil’s confinement was breathtaking. For a decade now, we had been literally buried in our cells day and night, with no contact, no fresh air, and no light. On an extraordinary day in November of 1984, four guards and the camp director, who had never set foot in the building since the day of our detention, opened the door of cell number fifteen where Lieutenant Touil was held. Two guards took the skeleton that the robustly built Touil had become and helped him walk for an hour in the prison courtyard. The next days, he was allowed to walk outside for long hours. Then all sorts of medical tests and special treatment followed. We later learned that a medical caravan was set up in the courtyard for Touil and that he was flown in a helicopter to meet with American officials at the US Embassy in Rabat. Thanks to Touil’s wife’s American citizenship and activism, a senior official in the Reagan administration discreetly brought up the case of Touil. Later on, a State Department officer managed to slip the case of Touil and Tazmamart on president George H. W. Bush’s talking points during an encounter with King Hassan II. The word on Tazmamart was now out. 

When we were released in 1991, we were more dead than alive. The deceased had nothing to envy us for. Just like them, we looked like exhumed skeletons. Despite all the talk about Morocco’s justice and equity commission, the tragedy of what happened in Tazmamart is still unknown, and the lessons not fully comprehended. We received embarrassingly trivial compensations from the government, and on the basis of bizarre criteria. The authorities still refuse to grant us a pension just to survive, as it has done with other civilian detainees. In other words, most of us were sentenced to prison terms from three to five years, and yet we were illegally and arbitrarily detained for more than twenty years under the worst conditions possible. The regime simply hopes that the biological clock will chip away slowly, day by day, at survivors. As of today (March 2015), six of the detainees who had survived Tazmamart have passed away: Ahmed Rijali, Abdelkrim Chaoui, Abdelkrim Saoudi, Driss Dghoughi, Mohamed Raiss, and Bouchaib Skiba. This is why it is important for Moroccans and the world to never forget.

AM: One last question, what role did religious faith play? I understand that praying and reciting the Qur’an out loud helped you assert your humanity when your jailers were doing everything possible to deny it. But was there any moment of existential doubt? 

AhM: We were all Muslims by birth and faith, but even those who were practicing Muslims did so moderately. Obviously we did not have a deep knowledge of Islam and most of us were, despite our unwavering faith in God, enjoying all the pleasures of life. However, in Tazmamart some young detainees were praying diligently and we all began to learn Hadiths and entire chapters of the Qur’an. Those who knew more about Islam and Islamic traditions taught us. Then a guard secretly gave us a copy of the Qur’an. In the emptiness, the anguish, and despair we were living in, that faith, which was dormant and well hidden in the depths of ourselves, suddenly resurfaced when everyone was trying to hold on to something. That thing was God. I remember a comrade taking pride in being a convinced communist to the core (he never stopped talking about Marx and Lenin), who changed radically and embraced Islam after a long period of meditation. All of us began to learn the Qur’an. It was our unique salvation as we were scared to die and be punished for all the sins we had committed before our incarceration. Some thought that what was happening to them was a divine punishment that came just in time to redeem themselves. After learning the Qur’an, we began to interpret its verses. Each one had a personal interpretation, and we had very different ones.

Were there moments of doubt in God because of what we were enduring? Speaking for myself, never! I interpreted the ordeal as an inevitable fate, a destiny I could not avoid or do anything to change. However, just like most of us, I have never given up trying to find a way that would lead to salvation. Those who lost hope, died very quickly. So I kept my hope alive and my faith strong even in the bleakest moments. I convinced myself that those who were torturing us did not possess the future, and that the next day the sun would rise with an unexpected deliverance (a regime change, a natural disaster, an extraordinary escape, or something…). But with time passing by, we also accepted the unacceptable, imminent death, but with dignity. As the good Lord says in the Holy Qur’an: "Every soul shall taste death. And we test you with evil and with good as a trial; and to us you will be returned." We knew it was better to die as a victim than as a torturer. 

[1] Kenitra is a small city twenty-two miles north of Morocco’s capital, Rabat.

[2] Named later Rachidia to honor the youngest son of King Hassan, Rachid. Ksar Souk is 350 miles southeast of Kenitra. 

[3] After more than eighteen years of solitary detention, of the fifty-eight original detainees twenty-one out of twenty-nine in building one survived, but only seven out of the twenty-nine captives in building two emerged alive.

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