The Story of the Fishmonger
A few weeks ago, the media carried the tragic story of a Moroccan fishmonger named Mouhcine Fikri, aged thirty-one, from the northern coastal town of al-Hoceima. Fikri was crushed to death by a rubbish compactor as he tried to retrieve a bundle of swordfish that had been callously tossed into the back of a garbage truck by sanitation workers, presumably acting under orders from some higher, unseen authority. Fikri was planning to sell the fish in the market. Swordfish is a delicacy in Morocco and commands a high price; in this instance, Fikri’s catch was reportedly worth more than $11,000. But it is also a protected species by European Union standards, and these particular fish were caught out of season. The drama of the garbage truck was posted on YouTube and popular outrage soon turned into a nation-wide protest, as news of Fikri’s atrocious death coursed quickly though the capillaries of social media. It was widely interpreted as yet another lamentable example of state-imposed injustice, or “hogra,” as it is popularly known in the Moroccan dialect.
International news organizations framed the story in a manner that drew parallels between Fikri and Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution of 2011. The use of imagery derived from the "Arab Spring"--shouting youth and swarming crowds-- has now become a signifier for the violent nature of politics in the Muslim world. Protests and public actions get written off as just another example of Arab volatility and political immaturity, and the true meaning of these demonstrations gets lost on those who do not understand that street manifestations are one of the very few options people have for expressing their political will.
The al-Hoceima protest can be read various ways, each pointing to a different line of interpretation. Since 2011, and even before, Moroccans have been engaging with questions of politics, power, self-representation, identity, modernity, and especially, and above all, their relationship to their own history, in new ways. Our subject here is history and memory, and why they matter in the complex mix of strategies that are reshaping public discourse in Morocco today. To make this point at the outset, let’s return to the story of the fishmonger, and how it was reported in the media. A very thoughtful piece in Al-Jazeera by writer Aida Alami is a good starting point for discussion.
Aida Alami understood the significance of place, always a critical factor in Morocco, where the political and historical context shifts abruptly from one locale to another, even when actual physical distances are small. The city of al-Hoceima is in the north of Morocco in the Rif region, whose population has a long history of alienation from the central power. This is due to a constellation of factors, including their distance from the imperial center along the Casablanca-Rabat-Fez axis. Moreover, Riffians feel a cultural distance because of their particular speech and traditions. But what really sets them apart more than any other factor is their historical memory; that is, a very local conception of the past that is quite different from that of the rest of Morocco. Embedded in their shared historical memory is strong sense of having been violently oppressed by the central government, whether it was the French colonial authority that brutally crushed an uprising in the Rif in the years 1921-1925, or the independent Moroccan state that came into being after 1956 when the French departed. In the years 1958 and 1959, a second wave of oppression swept over the Rif due to separatist issues. It, too was brutally put down, this time by the newly constituted Moroccan National army under then Crown Prince Hassan, soon to be King Hassan II. This uprising, too, ended in a sea of blood.
It is a well known fact that during his thirty-eight year reign, King Hassan II purposely neglected the northern region, investing little there in the way of time or funds for development. It was not until his son--the present King Mohammed VI--came to the throne in 1999 that something was done to return the Rif to the national fold. Yet the past could not be completely erased and memories of earlier repressions are still vivid in the minds of Rifis. The new king’s concerted efforts to change the dynamic made only limited impact in this chronically depressed region. Moroccan filmmaker Tarik El-Idrissi has captured the lingering trauma of the 58-59 Rif rebellion in a compelling video of interviews with former victims. The message of his film, Briser le silence/Break thesilence is how the victimization of the Rifis in the fifties was never properly documented or publicly acknowledged, to the point where even the survivors refused to speak of it, guarding their secret within the family. Hidden histories of this type are not unusual in Morocco, but most have not yet found their voice or the means to express them. Professor Abdesslam Maghraoui, a political scientist at Duke University and a close observer of the Moroccan scene, has put it most succinctly: “The Rif has been structurally and symbolically severed from the rest of ... Morocco... Language, geography and the quest for some political autonomy has a lot to do with it...King Mohammed VI’s more personal and conciliatory touch didn’t change the deep structural problems. Today’s tensions [in the Rif] reflect this heavy legacy.”
Why Silences Matter...
The Rif is not the only place where unspoken traumas obscure access to Morocco’s past. There are many black holes in recent national memory, spaces where the fabric of society has been torn and not yet been mended, where the solidarity of the nation has been deliberately undermined, where silences have impeded the building of a cohesive and well-informed public opinion. We shall try to answer the question of why these silences matter, proposing examples of how they are being filled and the mechanisms being used to fill them, while noting the impact of this “recovery operation” on the public sphere. Three thematic topics concern us:
- The question of national archives and why they have become a subject of political controversy.
- The question of what constitutes “popular” history and who has the right to ownership over it.
- The question of historiography and its relationship to human rights, and how these two epistemes are mutually constitutive.
Talking about the Archives
We begin with archives, that basic tool for historical research, and the role of historians in exploiting them. In Morocco, until very recently, both the creation of archives and the formation of historians to work in them have been flawed processes. To fully understand this, we have to step back and take a long view. Moroccan historian Maati Monjib has written about the situation of the intellectual elite under King Hassan II in the period 1961-1999, arguing that the King always believed that his hold on power was tied to his ability to control the intellectual class. After the devastating Casablanca riots of 1965 in which hundreds were killed, the King accused teachers of acting as agents provocateurs and fomenting the uprising, since many of the demonstrators were high school students. Thereafter, he generalized his anger to all intellectuals, branding them as “useless social parasites,” and the label stuck. The intellectual class, such as it was, was stigmatized, depoliticized, terrorized, and put into a deep freezer, where they remained for decades.
Abdelahad Sebti is a Moroccan historian who has written extensively about the evolution of the intellectual elite in Morocco. He has described the deplorable situation for historians under Hassan II as follows: “there was a censorship of certain works, both Moroccan and foreign. But what really predominated was an auto-censure, especially when it came to recent political history. Still, while they may have avoided certain topics of a political nature, the majority of our professional historians were not ready to play the game of [writing] official history. Instead, they carried out research...on the political, cultural, and social history of the periods before the 20th century.” Sebti wrote these words in 2010, but it was clear to those of us working in Moroccan archives in the 1970s and 80s that contemporary history, including the period of the Protectorate after 1912, was simply off limits for research. Even the nineteenth century material had restrictions on access. I often found myself sitting alone on the freezing cold benches of the Royal Archives, with no Moroccan colleagues in sight. They were simply not allowed to enter. I made the terrifying discovery that as a foreigner, I had better access to the Moroccan historical patrimony than did Moroccans themselves.
The riddle of the Protectorate archives, that is, documents relating to the period 1912-1956, was soon solved. After making unwanted inquiries, I learned that a part of the Protectorate archives were still in Rabat, but sequestered beyond reach, even to privileged foreigners like myself. After endless asking, I was escorted by the conservateur, a very kindly medieval historian, to a large warehouse whose top floor was filled with bundles of documents wrapped in brown paper. In 1956, the departing French left behind the so-called archives de gestion that dealt with the day-to-day management of governmental affairs, as opposed to the archives de conception that referred to political matters and were “safely” returned to France. However, the division between these two types of documentation was often arbitrary, and there was plenty of political material left behind. During my visit, I noticed that the windows of the archives had been left wide open, turning the vast storage area into an aviary for pigeons who left their calling cards everywhere. A few years later, in the late nineteen nineties, Professor Ahmed Toufiq (now Minister of Islamic Affairs) returned from a year at Harvard and took over the direction of the National Library and the archives. For the first time and under his direction, the Moroccan portion of the Protectorate archives were organized and made available for research.
Creating an Official Archive
This solved the mystery of the pre-1956 archives, but the whereabouts of government archives for the post-1956 period remained a conundrum. This is a story of a wholly different nature, in which the Moroccan government deliberately obscured the documentary record by either burying it or by simply throwing it away. How that hidden past is slowly being brought to light, by whom, and for what purposes, is what we shall consider next. What happened to the records of those “lost years” in which the independent Moroccan state failed to protect and conserve its own history?
The lack of records relating to the period of decolonization and state building is not a problem unique to Morocco. Achille Mbebe, a Cameroonian philosopher and public intellectual has spoken about the “chronophagy” of the post-colonial state, and how it has “eaten up” its past, either by hiding or destroying documentation, and by disciplining historians in subtle and not so subtle ways. The lack of reliable documents essential for unraveling the complexities of the state-in-the making is a problem across the post-colonial world. As a consequence, scholars have had to find creative ways of bringing to light subjugated forms of knowledge.
In Morocco, deliberate destruction of archives is less the culprit than a long history of neglect. I remember once buying a cone of peanuts in the suq, and to my amazement, finding that they were neatly wrapped in a document from the Ministry of the Interior. Another problem is that government documents are often considered as private papers. This dates back to the pre-modern era, when makhzan officials regularly kept their official correspondence as a personal archive after leaving office. A general disdain for the “paper trail” as we know it, as opposed to word of mouth as the means of conducting government affairs, is another practice not conducive to preserving an official archive. Outmoded and archaic practices, fear of retribution for past errors, and general paranoia about the written word, have militated against developing a sense of archival responsibility.
Historian Jamaa Baïda, now Director of the Moroccan National Archives, has rightly claimed that the creation a national archive has to be an act of political will. It took the drama of the war with the Polisario in 1975 and the need to present a dossier to the International Court of Justice upholding its right to the disputed territory for Morocco to begin the process of institutionalizing the preservation of state papers. Moroccan professional historians forced the issue by forming an “association” and demanding that the government take a more active role, but the foot-dragging continued until the establishment of the Instance Equité etRéconciliation, or IER, the Moroccan Truth Commission in 2004. The IER was tasked with cleaning up the ugly remnants of the “years of lead,” the long period of political repression that took place in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s under King Hassan II. Its multi-faceted mission included the order to “investigate and gather information, to consult official archives and to collect...facts useful in revealing the truth” about official actions during those years. The commission met over a two-year period, during which it accumulated thousands of dossiers relating to the grim politics in the period, including documents, videos, and voice recordings of victims.
In the end, the IER had to confront the fact that there was no permanent home for this material. In a report handed to King Mohammad VI in 2006, the commission called for the establishment of an “Archives of Morocco.” But the delays continued, making it clear that building a national archive was still an unnerving step for the regime. Finally, in 2009, through a combination of internal and external pressure, the national archives of Morocco were born, and in 2010, Professor Baïda was named as its head. He tried to articulate the value of this new institution for “a country in democratic transition:” “There is no modern and democratic state that does not have a modern and transparent management of its archives,” he said, and immediately called for a “National Archives Day” to induce people to contribute their privately-held documents to the project. But optimism dimmed when the archives administration was placed not under the Prime Minister, but rather under the notoriously weak and underfunded Minister of Culture, who gave Baida a measly $60,000 as his first annual budget.
Problems continue to assail this project. The physical plant is old, outmoded, and too small, and the goal of recuperating copies of colonial archives from France and Spain has yet to be realized. If the archives project is to genuinely succeed, two things must happen: first of all, it must be more generously funded by the state, and second, it has to attract greater public support. Baida encourages public attention by searching in his collections for stories that attract a popular audience and by mounting public exhibitions that make generous use of visual images, an astute strategy since at least a third of the Moroccan public is still illiterate. Yet the archives project still has a distance to go to achieve the full transparency desired by Professor Baïda. A recent exhibition entitled « Le Maroc est dans son Sahara, le Sahara est dans son Maroc », (“Morocco is in its Sahara, the Sahara is in its Morocco”) detoured around the complexities of the issue. As a tentacle of the state apparatus, it may be unrealistic to expect that the archives project will deviate widely from the official line anytime soon.
The Role of the Popular Press
Another lively platform for “filling the historical void” is the popular press. The monthly history magazine Zamane is an independent venture that has captured public attention. Zamane is a glossy monthly historical revue sold in kiosks across the country. It meets the need of Morocco’s growing literate class for historical information in a user-friendly form. The articles in Zamane are generally three to four pages long, and amply illustrated. Topics range from pre-history to yesterday, and the editors--who include some of Morocco’s most distinguished historians--do not shy away from controversial subjects. Moreover, Zamane appears in both French and Arabic editions, each with totally different content, an editorial feat of no small achievement.
Zamane shares certain qualities with Souffles/Anfas, the leading Moroccan intellectual journal of the 1960s and 1970s that was shut down by the regime in 1972. Both are anti-establishment, left-leaning, both celebrate Morocco’s “diversity,” both depend on public subscription, both represent a liberal point of view. Both gathered under their respective roofs a group of diverse and highly talented writers, including thinkers one does not ordinarily associate with the radical left or the popular press. But there are also important differences between the two revues. Zamane focuses almost exclusively on historical topics in a way that Souffles did not; in the words of one of its contributors, Mostafa Bouaziz, it is “a media specializing in History.” Moreover, while Souffles directed its firepower at the lingering evils of colonialism and took off its gloves when confronting Hassan II, Zamane takes more careful aim. It is highly critical of the first forty years of Moroccan independence, but it is much less critical of the last fifteen. The present king is off limits, as are the really powerful organs of government and the security services. Despite claims to the contrary, Zamane seems to be very conscious of where the red line has to be drawn.
But that is not to say that Zamane is a mouthpiece for the regime---not at all. It regularly raises topics that some would rather leave at rest--such as the assassination of leftist leader Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, or the coups and counterplots of 1971 and 1972, or the origins of the February 20 anti-government youth movement. It gives generous coverage to Islamist topics, though it is clearly a magazine of the secular left. It also questions the truth of certain sacred narratives about the leadership of the nationalist movement by calling into question claims based on memory but not supported by the documentation, and it unpacks controversial concepts like “bled siba” and places them in their historical context. It also receives heated and critical letters from disgruntled readers that it publishes on its editorial page. While Zamane is far from a perfect platform for civic activism, it goes a long way toward demystifying the past, it gives opposing voices a chance to speak, and it raises painful issues that have been buried for far too long. From its beginnings, it has promoted a populist, pro-feminist view that resonates with problems in Morocco today.
Another novel feature of Zamane is its emphasis on the diversity of the Moroccan body politic, a subject that was once off limits. In its very first issue, indeed, in its very first article entitled “Comment le Maroc s’est vidé de ses Juifs” (How Morocco was emptied of its Jews), it attacks long-held myths about the Moroccan Jewish minority and its relationship to the Muslim majority. Even more daring is its inquiry into the massive departure of Morocco’s 250,000 Jews after independence. The shock of this exodus is one that Muslim Moroccans are only beginning to explore. Month after month, in issue after issue, articles appeared in Zamane on various aspects of Moroccan Jewish history, such as family life, political affiliations, Zionism, the Shoah, Moroccan-Israel relations--a veritable outpouring of information that was previously confined to rarified academic circles.
Zamane’s enthusiasm for the “Jewish question” is perplexing, especially since Morocco’s present Jewish population numbers between three and four thousand--less than one-tenth of one percent of the total population. Theories abound about this dramatic turnaround from dead silence to hyperactive exposure. Is it to promote tourism? To improve Morocco’s relations with the West, and especially with the United States? Is it to lure ex-Moroccan Jews (who, the government now claims, have never ceased to be Moroccan) back to their former homeland? All of the above, and perhaps more. Meanwhile, the popular press, recent Moroccan cinema, the university crowd, and the Ministry of Tourism, have all joined the chorus, making old Jewish leftists like Sion Assidon, who spent years in Moroccan jails for his anti-government views, to cry out, “Enough.” To say that the palace has approved of this wave of nostalgia for Morocco’s lost Jews is an understatement. The 2011 constitution, promulgated in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring," mentions for the first time in its preamble the “Hebrew” component of the Moroccan people as one of the elements that has watered Moroccan cultural soil. Noted historians have fallen into line and provided documentary material for a revisionist understanding of the Jewish role in Morocco’s recent past. And at the end of 2016, the journal Hespéris, the flagship revue of Morocco’s historical establishment, will publish for the first time an entire issue dedicated to Moroccan Jewry.
Some have attributed this tsunami of interest in Morocco’s Jews to a more open society in the aftermath of 2011. But whether this is a trend that can be sustained, whether it has seeped into the popular mind, whether it is a bellwether for serving up more conversations about marginalized groups that are not currently on the regime’s plate--such as the displaced Sahrawis or the subaltern haratin--the Black Berbers of Morocco’s south--remains to be seen. For the present, we may conclude that Zamane has helped to promote a new awareness of the multi-layered composition of Moroccan society and history, both with the support of the regime and perhaps even in resistance to it.
Historiography and Human Rights
Finally, we must address the question of the conjuncture between human rights and the historical profession in Morocco. Morocco’s transition from a major abuser of human rights during the "years of lead” to a model among Arab states for promoting human rights is the story of a dramatic shift in countenance. The word “democratization” has often been used in connection with these changes, but to say that Morocco has begun to follow a “democratic” path along Western lines is a distortion of reality, for in fact, the authoritarian nature of the monarchy has not changed much in the new century. What King Hassan II did was to put in place certain mechanisms that allowed civil society to spring to life. Among them was the first Association for the Defense of Human Rights founded in Paris in 1984. In 1990 the government created its own human rights agency, the Consultative Council for Human Rights (CCDH) to serve as the official vehicle for a new policy of amnesty and reconciliation following the years of lead, or as Abdallah Laroui has put it, to start “its own democratic apprenticeship.” But the regime did not go far or fast enough. Criticism that the CCDH was slow in responding to the new mood led directly to the formation of the IER, Morocco’s truth commission, in 2004. The IER, as we have already mentioned, took important steps to place history at the center of the human rights issue, by calling for the preservation of victims’ testimonies in a public archive and by supporting further research into Morocco’s recent past.
The National Council of Human Rights, (the CNDH), successor to the CCDH is today the regime’s main vehicle for taking action on human rights. This agency is headed by Driss El Yazami, a seasoned human rights lawyer who spent years in exile in France. While the CNDH works within the framework of the state and receives public funds, El Yazami is no apparatchik from the inner courtyards of the palace. Working with a generous grant from the European Commission of over eight million euros, El Yazami regularly funnels money into various high profile commemorative projects. In a recent interview in Zamane, he said it is “important to pass from memory to history...we are confronting today an inflation of memory, and suffer from a deficit of history.” Comments like this mask an ongoing Kulturkampf between an “old guard” that insists on the importance of memory and verbal testimony, and a “new guard” of researchers who depend on documentary evidence. In Morocco, the tension between these two approaches agitates the intellectual scene.
El Yazami walks a careful line between the two, advocating for historical research in the archives without ignoring the populist side of the argument. He is the force behind an ambitious program to create regional museums of what he calls “historical memory,” and he is also promoting the idea of identifying “sites of memory,” or lieux de mémoire, that will serve as public reminders that speak with special force to those who do not read but remember historical events as lived experience. These are places where memory and history come together, surmounting tensions between the active memories of the victim and the fixed representations of the chronicler. By turning them into what historian Pierre Nora calls “historical capital,” they can be readily mobilized to have a bearing on the present. An astute politician, El Yazami knows that such commemorative sites are an ideal places to bring together opposing political factions, secure and well-defined spaces where Islamists and secular leftists can meet and literally share common ground.
A new lieu de memoire was created by the CNDH in September 2016 in Casablanca, where a memorial to the victims of the 1981 riots was dedicated in a moving public ceremony. In 1981, a precipitous rise in the price of basic foodstuffs brought thousands of workers and students into the streets to be confronted by state security forces; firing at random, they killed many protesters while dragging others to secret sites where they were shot and dumped into an unmarked common grave. Officially declared as “disappeared,” the identity of the victims was erased and their families never knew their fate. Moreover, their deaths were never acknowledged by the IER that handed out compensation to other families of victims of state oppression. The CNDH joined with grass roots civic organizations to win recognition for their loss. As an outcome of this alliance, bodies were exhumed, identified, and reburied “with dignity” in one of Casablanca’s largest cemeteries in a special section designated as Chouhada koumira, “the bread martyrs,” laying to rest a painful memory of injustice that cut across party and class lines.
Strategies of historical recovery--the building of a national archives, the appearance of historical topics in the popular press, the promotion of a human rights dimension--all contribute to restoring vitality to a renascent civil society. It is generally acknowledged that these transformations are having a profound effect, opening doors, creating linkages among disparate political and social groups, bringing about social renewal and promoting a wave of activism that is unprecedented. How those in power will react to this tectonic change is still unclear; whether they will fear it and try to smother it, or rather see it as the way forward that will insulate Morocco from the convulsions of the rest of the Arab World. No doubt there is ambivalence in the inner circles of power over this issue. But with over ninety thousand civic associations registered in Morocco, and more than sixty thousand engaging in some level of activity, according to informal estimates, it seems that the genie is out of the bottle.
The most pressing question emerging from this groundswell of activity is the following: what sort of knowledge and understanding will emerge from the various efforts of historical recovery? Will they serve progressive or regressive interests, will they promote greater openness, or its opposite, more repression? What lessons are ordinary Moroccans absorbing from having new insight into their collective past? And to what extent will this information be used to reflect on individual values, on plans for organized action, and on visions for the future? And finally, when will Moroccans find readily at their fingertips a clear and unfettered history of Morocco as a whole--not a history of the monarchy, or of the holy lineages, or of the brotherhoods, or of its cities, or its Jews or Berbers, or the nationalist parties, or of a particular region, but rather a synthetic history of all its people, of the Moroccan nation?
 Al-Jazeera, 1 November 2016. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/11/morocco-al-hoceima-protests-reflect-heavy-legacy-161101061913733.html, accessed 10 November 2016.
 See the interview “Dialogue avec Abdelahab Sebti, historien du temps présent,” in Fadma Ait Mous and Driss Ksikes, eds., Le métier d’intellectuel ; Dialogues avec quinze penseurs du Maroc (Casablanca, HEM, 2014): 185-203.
 Colonial archives taken to France were hardly more accessible than those left behind in Morocco. French historian Daniel Rivet described the Protectorate archives at Nantes (les archives de conception) as “an impenetrable bunker where the documents filtered out, drop by drop.” “Archives coloniales et écriture de l’histoire du Protectorat.” In Recherches sur l’histoire du Maroc: esquisse de bilan ( Rabat: Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines. 1989), pp. 25–33
 Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” in Refiguring the Archive, Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid & Razia Saleh, eds. (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002), pp. 19-26. My thanks to Omnia El Shakry for directing me to this source.
 Jamaa Baïda "Quelle organisation des archives pour un Maroc en transition démocratique ?" In l.es archives, la societe et les sciences humaines, Actes du colloque, Tunis 22-24 February 2010, H. El-Annabi K. Bendana-Kchir, H. Belaid, et al. eds., (Tunis: 2010): 65-71.
 For example, an article by Abdelahad Sebti on the meaning of the word “siba,” usually translated as “dissidence” ; Sebti points out that the term is really about “how the Makhzanian system functions in its physical and psychological space,” oscillating between chronic absence and an abusive presence; as an instrument of arbitration; and as a space for the cooptation of elites. This complexity was rarely captured by colonial historians who saw “siba” as a form of transgression and an affront to the central power. Zamane, No. 42, May 2014, p. 22.
 Jamaa Baïda, La (ré)appropriation de la dimension juive comme composante de l’identité nationale marocaine,” in Juifs Au Maghreb: Mélanges à la mémoire de Jacques Taïeb, A. Danan and C. Nataf, eds, ( Paris: Eclat, 2013), pp. 200-208, and especially p. 204.