Friday, June 11, 2010

The Sounds of Weddings Above/The Sounds of Torture Below

In a previous post (yikes, so long ago!) I described some of the Communal Reparations programs happening in the southern region of Ouarzazate. These specific programs are meant to improve the infrastructure of very rural areas. However, remote villages were not the only locations of secret prisons and detention centers. As I have found out, even the major cities housed clandestine torture centers, where prisoners were detained sometimes for years as the city bustled in the streets below…or above.

Hay Mohammedi is an urban neighborhood not far outside of Casablanca. It used to be a booming industrial center, with cement and sugar factories along the rail line. However, as industry began to change, so did the quality of life in the quarter. On top of that add the years of neglect and abuse by state apparatuses because of political activity in the bidonvilles, and you get what is now Casa’s poorest neighborhood, with over 556,000 inhabitants. In Hay Mohammedi you find extreme poverty and the highest crime rates in the country.

You also find one of the most famous former secret prisons: Derb Moulay Cherif.

From the outside, Derb Moulay Cherif looks like a run-down housing project. It is actually a four-story apartment complex in the center of the Hay (which means “neighborhood” in darija). It matches the surroundings: grey, busted, neglected. Nothing special. In fact, once my guides took me there, I realized that I had walked right past it on the way to our meeting.

In the basement below lies a network of halls and rooms used as prison cells and torture spaces. Originally it was supposed to be a place for short-term detentions, but as the government cracked down on opposition, the prisons became overcrowded and the prisoners neglected.

Representatives from Forum Hay Mohammedi et Saada-- in charge of planning and overseeing the reparations projects-- explained that about 1300 detainees were shuffled through the prison, some being kept for up to three years. As I walked around the structure with these volunteer political activists, a young man not much older than myself came out and asked us suspiciously what we were doing. Monsieur Samhiri explained that I am a researcher wanting to know what happened at this location.

“Oh yeah, I know everything” the young man replied. “I was born and raised right in this building.”

“Oh?” This man’s memories were like gold to me. “Is is much different than before?”

“Yes, much different. We used to be able to hear the screams of people being tortured in the basement. There is only silence now.” He explained matter-of-factly.

Samhiri, himself a former detainee at Derb Molay Cherif, turned to me, “And we used to be able to hear the sounds of weddings and celebrations coming from the apartments above. We could even hear the sheep during the Eid, baaa-ing above our heads.”

Despite the social problems and lack of faith in the State, there is something else you can find in Hay Mohammedi. It can be found in the laughter of children reciting funny-sounding English words at the after-school program (“worm” and “warm”, hilarious!). It is found in the violets that grow between the crumbling sidewalk cracks. It is found in the murals painted on the walls surrounding Derb Moulay Cherif. It is found in the sad Gnawa songs of the activists who sat in the lot of Derb Moulay Cherif for days, holding photos of prisoners, refusing to move until the government acknowledged the location as worthy of reparation. In Hay Mohammedi, I find hope like no other.

I think this is because citizens have taken the prise-en-charge of their own development. Writer and Hay Mohammedi native, Hassan Naraiss explains the strong bond that residents of this Hay have, because of what they have experienced:

“The difficulty of the people of Hay Mohammadi is to confirm their identity as a Moroccan. They consider themselves first as the son of Hay before belonging to a nation. This is part of the collective imagination of Hay, from their unconscious, even.

In some cases, they are not even waiting on funds from the CCDH Communal Reparations Programs. They have found creative ways to generate income and install well-managed initiatives. These initiatives include:

-Reconstruction of the Cinéma Saâda, a famous location of political rallies and meetings, since fallen into disrepair.

-Dar Chebab, the country’s first and largest youth center, will be remodeled. It was disturbing to walk around and see how depressing the center was, much more like a prison than anywhere I’d go to have fun.

-Constructing Dar Al Ghiwane, a space for music and cultural events, as an homage to Nass Al Ghiwane, Morocco’s most beloved Gnawa music group, whose members all hail from Hay Mohammedi. (I might add, they were all very politically active and seem to be the biggest inspiration to the youth of the Hay today, much like a famous rapper or pop singer would be in America. Think: the Moroccan U2).

-Initiative Urbain, a grassroots organization founded by ex-police officer Abdeljalil Bakkar [such an interesting life story!] and some of his friends, has opened a youth center that provides constructive activities for kids in the Hay including: languages classes (English, French, Spanish), computer classes, a cyber café, tutoring, sports events, cultural events (especially with gnawa music), debates on religion and politics, and [drum roll please] capoeira classes! When I was visiting, Bakkar and I had to shout over the sounds of the kids rehearsing a hip hop version of Romeo and Juliet, in Arabic. Why are you so cool, Hay Mohammedi?

IU is also specifically working on a Communal Reparations project (financed by the CCDH) entitled Memoire et Dignite (« Memory and Dignity »). The youth of the center are interviewing members of the community, taking photos, and doing archival research to eventually publish a book about the history of the Hay and its notable figures. One girl told me that she had no idea what went on before she was born, but now she understands why her neighborhood is how it is.

- Another org which mostly deals with the preservation and restoration of patrimonial architecture called Casamemoire, is working with two projects of memory. The first is to install placards around Hay Mohammedi in buildings and public spaces that are integral to its political history. People will eventually be able to take walking tours and learn about the Years of Lead. It reminds me, actually, of the preservation of Civil Rights history in Atlanta and Birmingham. The other project is to write a booklet to accompany the placards, describing the history of the Hay.

-The largest (and most controversial) project is the transformation of Derb Moulay Cherif into a museum, including an archives, library, conference rooms, and a walk-through museum in the cells, which preserve the instruments of torture within. All the residents above (and yes, there are a few hundred people still going about their daily lives above these haunting memoiries) will have to be relocated to an undetermined location. Samhiri explained that they’ve been held up by government bureaucracy, because there are some ex-guards (torturers?) who hold high positions and do not want their stories told.

"From the outside, the building seemed like a simple municipal district, but inside the place contained a jail where they secretly threw political opponents secretly for months and years” describes Hassan Naraiss. “As children in the 1970s, we played soccer with innocence, on a terrace transformed into a field, on the same building which housed the police station, and we had no idea that human beings like corpses lay there day and night. This station is an insult to Hay Mohammadi, it is time to erase it.”*

This sentiment is one side of the Collective Memory debate: we must erase the monuments of past evils and start fresh. The other side, represented by associations like Forum Hay Mohammedi and Casamemoire, argues that the past should be preserved, the good with the bad, in order to ensure nonrepetition, and to encourage community action especially amongst youth, and bon voisinage (literally, “good neighborhoodship”).

In Morocco’s case, transitional justice scholar Pierre Hazan explains, “Most of the human rights violations were committed between 1965 and 1985, some 20 years before the creation of the IER. In a country where more than half the society is under 20 years of age, an important part of the population does not have direct memories of the Years of Lead. It is thus difficult to mobilize action for memory that seems distant. The priority of youth, including well-educated but jobless graduates, is on more immediate problems.”** However, as experiences like the Holocaust have taught us, memory is essential for non-repetition and healing. Morocco is navigating those waters now.

* « Hay Mohammadi, mémoire d’un quartier mythique » Jaouad Mdidech. La Vie Eco. 11 mars 2008 15:01.

** Pierre Hazan. Juger la guerre, juger l'histoire. Pp. 189-190.

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