A fascinating new book on the construction of memory and absence, and the possibilities of accountability for state violence through publicity
My episodic book review essays return this week with a look at a fascinating new book on Morocco by Brahim El Guabli. Before turning to that, I’d like to invite subscribers to the blog to consider submitting short essays (1000-1500 words) to a special issue of POMEPS Studies about how October 7 and Gaza have impacted the study of the Middle East. We are interested in accounts of the political climate in your country or your institution of higher education, and we are also interested in your thoughts on how scholarship might change in your discipline (i.e. the field of genocide studies has been quite roiled by arguments over what to term Israel’s war in Gaza, while “settler colonialism” has gone from a term of art to a concept systematicaly demonized by political actors). Please check out the call for proposals and send us your idea for a short piece via this Google Form — we hope to collect and publish a wide range of essays from diverse perspectives relatively quickly.
And now, on to the book!
Brahim El Guabli, moroccan other-archives: history and citizenship after state violence. Fordham University Press, 2023.
Over the last decade I have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about questions of the long term effects of state violence and impunity on politics and society in the Middle East. It’s one of the key themes of a book I’m writing this year, and it was a driving motivation for my research in Tunisia and elsewhere on transitional justice processes. I could not have been more delighted to stumble upon moroccan other-archives, published last year by Fordham, by Brahim El Guabli of Williams College. It’s an incredibly creative, thoughtful and illuminating reflection on how Moroccan writers, thinkers, activists and ordinary citizens have dealt with a series of critical absences from official public life: the Amizagh community, the Jews who departed after the creation of the state of Israel, and the victims of state violence and torture during the Years of Lead.
I recorded an absolutely fascinating conversation with El Guabli last week for the Middle East Political Science Podcast — listen here:
El Guabli’s analysis begins from an historian’s premise: how does one write the history of events or peoples for whom no official state archive exists - and, indeed, from which they have been intentionally excluded? Building on the work of others, El Guabli looks to the somewhat amorphous category of other-archives: literature, film, popular memories, all places where people creatively remember or provocatively push banished ideas into the public eye. I’m not trained as an historian, and I’m used to working in the Middle East where access to official documents isn’t the norm, so it didn’t take much to convince me that these were appropriate places to look for insights into the social and political impact of these absences. I was impressed by his demonstration of what could be done with such sources to vividly illuminate aspects of Morocco — in ways which easily translate to many of the other contexts and cases where I more often work.
Moroccan other-archives explores three cases, each of which brings out a distinctive dimension of the problems of absence and trauma. His first case is Amizagh activism which challenged the enforced Arabization of postcolonial Morocco. El Guabli then turns to the departure of much of Morocco’s large Jewish community after 1948, exploring the changed physical landscape and lost connections as well as the political implications of the loss of an important constituency. Both of those case studies will be richly rewarding for readers interested in not only the topic, but also the way El Guabli approaches diverse sources and evokes the physical sensations of loss and absence.
The case which most captivated me, though, was his study of the re-emergence of political prisoners disappeared into the notorious Tazmamart prison during the Years of Lead. El Guabli documents “the trajectory of Tazmamart’s eponymous prison from a site utterly denied to a transnational literary phenomenon” through the publicizing efforts of Paris-based activists, popular novels, and the firsthand accounts of survivors. The story of the emergence of the disappeared is an incredibly compelling story of transnational political activism, one in which literary accounts of the suffering of the prisoners and their smuggled personal testimonies substituted for official documentation or acknowledgement. Tazmamart was what El Guabli (following Michael Taussig) calls a “public secret” — generally known but not discussed; this, in relation to the activities of the mukhabarat and political prisons, is a phenomenon with which everyone who has studied Arab countries over the decades will be all too familiar.
El Guabli traces the emergence of a series of truth and reconciliation initiatives initiated by the monarchy under the pressure of publicity and sensational media coverage generated by activists, novelists, and the testimonies of the disappeared. He shows how these various actors and forms of publicity “spent ten years working to move Tazmamart from the realm of rumor to that of unimpeachable truth.” Over the course of these efforts, he shows, some novels became massive best sellers by Moroccan standards, while the public discourse completely changed to one where the once suppressed subject became the object of endless fascination and scandal. The publicity ultimately led King Mohammed VI to establish the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 to collect testimonies about state violence during the Years of Lead, in part as a way of rebranding Morocco under the young new King as democratic and moderate. The ERC generated a tremendous archive of testimonies about those abuses, which ironically would then be shuttered away by the state into an official archive closed to researchers and the public for decades to come.
Moroccan other-archives is one of those books that I love to read, one which examines topics that I've long been engaged with in a fresh way and opens up all kinds of avenues for new thinking. The juxtaposition of different forms of trauma and loss with keen reflections on the nature of the public — as well as the nature of the archive and the meaning of official history — generates sparkling insights. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Morocco, in postcolonial Arab politics more broadly, or in questions of truth and accountability for state violence.
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