Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Remembering Torture Victims

Mustapha unconsciously taps his foot while listening to the Koranic verses sung out from a tabletop radio. Layla slowly and painfully stands up to get a glass of water from the sink. The nurse, Rabia, ushers Aziz in to Dr. Benhoussa’s office, and Najleh calls for the next victim to step up to her massage table. There is a new face in the waiting room today, staring curiously as if he recognizes me.

The Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of
Torture Victims (or AMRVT, its acronym in French) is busy this Wednesday morning, but practically silent, save for the suras sung in reverence to Allah the most gracious and compassionate. The patients calmly wait their turn. “I don’t mind waiting to be seen” Mustapha tells me. “If there is one lesson I learned in prison, it is this: patience."

Rabiaa works in the AMRVT's miniscule office.

As an American researcher looking into Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission, I deal daily with the matter of human rights and the abuse thereof. King Hassan II’s rule from 1961 to 1999 was characterized by the repression of human rights, including tactics such as arbitrary detention in secret prisons, forced disappearances, torture, and inhumane treatment against those who dared to oppose the regime. Consequently, many Moroccans lost faith in or grew to fear their own government, leading to a serious decline in civic involvement, and more recently, a shift towards religious fundamentalism as a form of popular participation.

After Hassan’s death in 1999, his son and successor, the current King Mohammed VI, mandated an Equity and Reconciliation Commission (popularly known as the IER) to investigate and make recommendations concerning the gross human rights violations that occurred in the previous four decades. In total, the Commission determined reparations for over 16,000 individual cases. Perhaps the most ambitious reparations program is the medical rehabilitation plan for former political prisoners and victims of torture, which provides care for over 12,000 individuals.

Though relatively un-publicized outside of Morocco, the IER is unbelievably important because it is the first and only truth and reconciliation commission ever established in a Muslim or Arab nation. It is the first commission ever established in a monarchy, and ever established without a regime change. Morocco’s commission is a model that could be exportable to other Arabo-Muslim nations in their own periods of transitional justice because it demonstrates that a country need not “democratize” in a Western sense, or even necessarily break from an established regime in order to improve human rights. Some form of healing and reconciliation is possible, even if regimes shy away from trials, as the current Moroccan regime chose to do. And, most relevant to the American experience, commissions such as the IER can be instruments in the “soft war” against terrorism, to reconnect state with society, and to bring about democratic reforms.

Why should Americans care about the AMRVT, a tiny rehab center in a land far away?
We have plenty of our own victims who need care.


Mustapha comes to the center once a week to receive physical therapy for the rheumatism that he contracted while sitting in a humid prison cell for six years. Today, Aziz gets a prescription for glasses. He suffers from vision problems which begun after having been sequestered in a dark cell and blindfolded for fiv
e years. But the glasses are only symbolic; Aziz is now almost blind.

I am especially glad to see Layla at the clinic. A slight woman with beautiful grey-streaked hair, Layla carries herself with a grace of a survivor, mixed with an air of Parisian chic. She spent twenty years in political exile in France, only to return to Morocco to find t
hat life had completely transformed without her. “Between conservative Moroccan society, and my stolen life in France, I will always live in the margin.” She tells me quietly that she comes to the Association for counseling.

Me and the lovely ladies of the AMRVT. They make the healing happen.

The AMRVT works with former torture vi
ctims to give medical and psychological care and social assistance. Extraordinary work is accomplished, with few resources and little outside support. Everything is free for the patients, paid for by grants from various donors including the European Union, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Medecins du Monde, and from Morocco’s Advisory Council for Human Rights (CCDH), which is in charge of overseeing the IER's reparations programs. However, the budget is always tight. As of last December, the staff has not been paid as they wait on a grant from the EU, their biggest supporter.

Christina plays her flute for the June 26th Celebration, surrounded by images of the dissapeared.

Dr. Abdelkarim Manouzi, director of the Association, explains to me that these medical services are available to any Moroccan who suffered torture for political reasons. Why should I care? Because a few of the patients at AMRVT were tortured under American policy at Guantanamo Bay. Meet Ahmed, the new face in the waiting room today.

Me and Dr. Manouzi, one of my heros.

I like to think of myself as an upstanding American citizen, far removed from my government’s negative policies, proud of its accomplishments. But because I love America, I must inherit the bad with the good. Perhaps it is my American Pragmatism which tells me that, in some small way, I could be part of a solution.

In Morocco and elsewhere, it is often small, personalized organizations, such as the AMRVT, which do the most effective work for victims of human rights abuse, as well as in curbing radicalism. Through social reinsertion programs, former detainees are given second chances at jobs and education, no matter their history. This (quite desperately) begs the question: How can we Americans be part of the healing process?

Artist Ayoub Arafa poses with one of his paintings. As the son of a torture victim, he uses his talents to help other victims with alternative methods of healing. He contributed by holding an art workshop for patients and their children. See, everyone can be part of the healing process.

Even if we are distanced from political problems, we can facilitate real, pragmatic solutions by supporting organizations abroad like the AMRVT, or local programs like The Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma or The Marjorie Kovler Center for Victims of Torture at Heartland Alliance. We need to emphasize to our leaders how important it is to be involved with international initiatives that strive toward healing survivors of human rights abuse, such as the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. Internationally, over 100 different rehab programs for torture victims depend on grants from this fund, including the AMRVT.

Healthy societies can combat systemic problems including collective mistrust of authority and radicalism. Healing may eventually lead to increased civic participation, and in effect, democratization. But it all begins with healing individuals. And this begins by paying our respects on June 26.

June 26 is the annual UN International Day for the Commemoration of Victims of Torture. I was oblivious to this day until I spoke with victims who told me they look forward to it every year. Even with their modest budget, the AMRVT managed to put on a special celebration this year, including speeches from human rights activists, a slideshow of the history of human rights in Morocco, art workshops for the children of victims, and musical performances. Most touching were the speeches from some of the patients, many of whom expressed their gratitude at having a second chance to live without fear.

“This should not just be a day of commemoration” AMRVT’s Social Worker Rabiaa El-Bouih explained. “This should be a day to celebrate the life that remains, to honor victims, and to bring some joy.”

Speeches at the celebration called on Morocco to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, and to support the opening of a Cultral Center of Healing for Victims of the Years of Lead.

When asked if we commemorate this day in America as well, I mumbled some abashed reply, “Well, maybe some Americans do…” As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared on the first commemoration day, "This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable." And as lessons like the Holocaust have taught us, memory is essential for healing and non-repetition.

The big day concluded with a Gnaoua performance! As if I hadn't had enough in Essaouira...

So what can you do? You can remember Mustapha and Aziz and Layla, waiting their turn to be seen at the AMRVT. Remember Ahmed, sitting quietly in the corner, staring as if he recognizes my American face. Think of the places where you can get involved, because almost every major city in America (and around the world) has a center for refugees or torture victims, and they are always looking for volunteer translators, medical staff, and administrative support. (Check out for more information.)

Most of all, please do not forget our roles as healers.

Where are they? Torture is a global issue, not so far away from our own backyards. ..especially for me here in Morocco...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Woodstock Morocco 2010: Totally Tagnouit, dude!

Summertime in Morocco means music festival season (keeping Kendra and Rod pretty busy). From the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, to Jazz au Chellah in Rabat, to Fnaire Hip Hop Festival in Casablanca to this past weekend’s Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira.

Gnaoua music is actually a repertoire of slave songs from central Africa up to Morocco. Each culture had its own songs and venerated saints. Much of the music is now in Arabic, with influences of various african languages. Gnaoua songs are traditionally sung in leilas, or spiritual ceremonies that include certain foods, colors, insence, dances, and trances to call on the seven venerated saints or spirits. A total sensory experience usually for a healing purpose.

Mid last-century, some Gnaoua masters, or Maalem, thought to emphasize the similarities between Gnaoua and American jazz music: same slave history, same improvisation techniques, same complex rhythms. Both heal the soul, right? That’s when Gnaoua Fusion was born and it became part of popular music. It is now quite controversial amongst serious gnaouis, because on the one hand, it gets kids listening to this esoteric form of music that might otherwise be lost as the Maalem die out. But on the other hand, there are all sorts of debates surrounding the tagnouit (authenticity) of the “sell-out” fusion artists.

Anyway, for a more complete description of Gnaoua music, see Rod’s blog. His MTV-Fulbright Grant has him playing drums and meeting Maalem across the country. This is one reason why some friends and I decided to rent a car and an apartment for the weekend and cross the country for the festival in Essa.

This year’s festival included 58 concerts and 5 conferences on Gnaoua music . There were famous Gnaoua Maalems, like Saïd and Mohammed Kouyou, international artists like Algerian Amazigh Kateb and Pakistani Faiz Ali Faiz, and seemingly random performances by Georgian Ballet dancers, the Armenian Navy Band and H-Kayne, Moroccan hip hop.

Our Gnaoui adventure began with an 8-hour road trip south to the breezy sea port town of Essaouira. Essaouira is normally a sleepy blue and white town, built mostly within the Kasbah walls. It’s actually one of my favorite Moroccan cities. It has a substantial traditional port and amazing windsurfing (unfortunately, no good surfing though, which I've picked up pretty seriously here, btw). Did you know that Jimi Hendrix had a house in Essa? For a fee (of course), you can take a horseback ride down the beach to the house, which is now a pile of ruins and hippie hangout. The hippies come out in full force, as does most of the rest of Morocco, during the 4-day music festival. Basically non-stop music, dancing, brawls, dreadlocks, fabulous sunsets, tan lines, peace and love. Think: Woodstock Morocco, with no alcohol, and a lot more fish.

With Mustapha at the wheel, cheerleaders Rod and Sam in the back seat, a Tupperware full of gluten-free cookies, plenty of techno music and Bryan Adams (of course, this is Africa!), we arrived Wednesday evening and met a few friends staying with us. The schedule of our Gnaoui vacation went something like this:

8:30 am- Cath wakes up. Tries to make GF toast quietly on a stove burner.

~12:30pm- the boys wake up. Breakfast in a café. Walk around the medina.

2:00pm- Head to the beach. The boys apply Bronzage spray liberally, hoping to look like Shebakkiya, or Moroccan pastries, at the end of the trip. Cath applies SPF90, hoping to retain her cheese-like blinding glow. Light summer beach reading includes: Obama’s biography The Bridge (for Rod), Guns, Germs and Steel (Sam), Tazmamart: Cellule 10 (Cath), Barriers to Democracy (Andrew).

America’s finest, y’all. Nerdy and unapologetic.

Mustapha, Morocco’s finest pro volleyball player, has fun wasting teenage boys at beach volleyball. And wasting us at the tanning competition.

5:30pm- “lunch” in a café. This is a shameless plug for Earth Café. Vegan, vegetarian, whole, natural, local, creative recipes. Reasonably-priced. SUPER friendly Moroccan-Australian owner who opened the café just for us. There are Earth Cafes in Marrakech, Australia, and Los Angeles…and the Essaouira café has just been open 6 months. Sample meal: warm goat cheese, pumpkin, tomato, and zucchini salad with saffron, argon oil and balsamic vinegar. With ginger-beetroot juice and mint tea. Yes please.

Walk around some more. Try not to get pooped on by seagulls.

6:30pm- naptime back at the dar

9:00pm- walk down the boardwalk and pick a concert to watch at one of the many stages.

11:30pm- some semblance of dinner in a tiny crowded sidewalk stand.

12:00am- walk down to the beach. Pick more music. Repeat, repeat.

SUCH a lovely vacation-- and well-needed after all this talk of torture and human rights abuse-- but all too short. I barely had time to get the clacking of the karakebs out of my ears when I had to take the early-morning bus to Casablanca to catch the conference for the UN International Day of Torture Victims. (More on this in a post to come!)

There are former detention centers in Essaouira too! Who knew?!

I’m hoping that, when I wake up tomorrow, my pink sunburn will have turned into a warm bronze glow.



Sam and I share a moment on the beach, with some camel. Watch out, Olson.