Recovering “Moroccan Other-Archives”: Reading Literature as a Space for Memory-Making

By Leonie Rau

In his new monograph Moroccan Other-Archives. History and Citizenship After State Violence, Brahim El Guabli explores the possibilities of recovering historical narratives in the absence of a formalized archive by looking to the literary and cultural production of a society faced with multiple losses.

Last month, Hoopoe Fiction released Alexander E. Elinson’s translation of Khadija Marouazi’s 2000 novel History of Ash, which is narrated in turns by two fictional political prisoners held during Morocco’s so-called “Years of Lead.” The period, which stretched between the 1970s and 1980s, was characterized by heavy state repression.

Marouazi’s novel forms part of what Moroccan scholar Brahim El Guabli terms an “other-archive”: “neither academic history nor firsthand memory, nor […] conventional archives,” but “loci at which the stories of those who were left out of history and traditional archives reside, from where they return to rewrite history.”

El Guabli builds his argument for an alternative way of doing history on three case studies. One is the “re-Amazighization” of Moroccan public space through the introduction of Tifinagh, the Amazigh alphabet. The other two focus on literature as a site of archiving, processing, and historicizing the substantial losses Moroccan society has incurred since independence in 1956, namely: the mass exodus of Moroccan Jews after the establishment of the Israeli state and the forced disappearance of political prisoners to the secret prison Tazmamart after the failed coup attempt in 1972. These events have proven fertile ground for various modes of “other-archiving” in literature, from novelistic reimaginings to autobiographical accounts and memoirs, analyzed by El Guabli as “mnemonic literature,” writing that “does not just fictionalize—it reinvents a history that, in the context of generalized fear during the Years of Lead, was considered taboo and too dangerous to uncover.”

Moroccan Other-Archives places a welcome focus on novels that are less well-known outside of Morocco (and perhaps France) and have not yet been translated into English. El Guabli’s analysis of the literary reinvention of Morocco’s Jewish past centers on El Hassane Aït Moh’s Le Captif de Mabrouka (Mabrouka’s Captive), Mohamed Ezzeddine Tazi’s أنا المنسي (I Am the Forgotten), Driss Miliani’s Casanfa, Hassan Aourid’s Cintra, Abdelkarim Jouiti’s زغاريد الموت (Ululations of Death), Ibrahim Hariri’s شامة أو شتريت (Shamma or Shtrit), and Kamal El Khamlichi’s حارث النسيان (Tiller of Forgetfulness), none of which have received much international attention.

When it comes to the “transnational literary phenomenon” of Tazmamart, however, the texts examined are part of a more or less established canon whose publication began after Hassan II’s death in 1999. By centering memoirs and novels, El Guabli skillfully traces the development of Tazmamart’s other-archives. Beginning with fragmented prisoner testimonies smuggled out of the death cells, the courageous insistence of the prisoners’ families on uncovering and publicizing the truth, and the participation of international human rights activists such as Christine Daure-Serfaty, a “scandalous other-archive” was built to make Tazmamart believable. Following their release, the formerly disappeared began speaking for themselves and a veritable flood of testimonial literature appeared after 1999, described as “embodied other-archives” by El Guabli. Among these he counts publications such as Mohamed Raiss’s من الصخيرات إلى تازمامارت – تذكرة ذهاب وإياب إلى الجحيم  (From Skhirat to Tazmamart: A Roundtrip Ticket to Hell), Ahmed Marzouki’s تزممارت: الزنزانة رقم 10 (Tazmamart: Cell Number 10), and Aziz BineBine’s Tazmamort: Dix-huit ans dans le bagne de Hassan II (Tazmamart – Eighteen Years in Morocco’s Secret Prison).

Finally, once the facts surrounding the horrendous secret prison and its inmates had been sufficiently established and its existence had become common knowledge, “fictionalized other-archives” such as Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Cette aveuglante absence de lumière (This Blinding Absence of Light), Youssef Fadel’s طائر أزرق نادر يحلق معي (A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me), Khadija Marouazi’s History of Ash, or even Egyptian author Radwa Ashour’s فرج (Blue Lorries) began to emerge. El Guabli theorizes that “writing into fiction stories and events that are already widely known endows them with a potent commemorative and historiographical force that both collectivizes and universalizes this local experience of enforced disappearance.”

Here, he takes the time to reiterate the quarrel between Ben Jelloun and Aziz BineBine about the former’s This Blinding Absence of Light—which was based largely on an interview with BineBine that Ben Jelloun allegedly made unauthorized use of—and approaches it as “a productive way to understand the complex process whereby fictionalized other-archives are created.” Ultimately, according to El Guabli, the main issue with Ben Jelloun’s in other ways prescient and important novel was its “untimely” appearance, “since it coincided with the publication of survivors’ embodied other-archives.”

As El Guabli shows, the black hole of the nonexistent and/or destroyed official archive attracts a mass of alternative narratives. Yet, unlike literal black holes in space, the absent archive does not absorb these histories only for them never to see the light of day again (as is far too often the case with traditional archives). Instead, the Archives du Maroc (established in 2007) have actively resisted the very narratives and perspectives explored in Moroccan Other-Archives. In an interview with the New Books Network about his book, El Guabli shares an anecdote of the time he asked the director of the Archives du Maroc what his vision was for all these sources—such as memoirs, autobiographies, and novels—only to be told, “You know, that’s not an archive.”

Despite, and maybe precisely because of such still-reigning paradigms, the book leaves its reader with the impression that maybe the absence of a formal archive is a good thing for Moroccan historiography: It allows for and possibly even demands a bottom-up approach to history, a focus on unconventional sources and attention to unlikely and often formerly silenced witnesses—a task El Guabli accomplishes with admirable diligence, astuteness, and respect for his material.


Also read:

On the occasion of the release of Khadija Marouazi’s History of Ash in English: “Writing Their Way Out: 16 Prison Narratives by Arab Women.”

From ALQ, “Songs for the Years of Lead,” a literary playlist to accompany Youssef Fadel’s trilogy, including A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me.

On teaching the Years of Lead through Arabic literature: “Once and Future Moroccos.”

Also listen:

The Tazmamart episode of Bulaq, in which M Lynx Qualey and Ursula Lindsey talk about the dispute between Aziz BineBine and Tahar Ben Jelloun and the literary production surrounding Tazmamart more generally.


Leonie Rau is ArabLit’s assistant editor. She received an MA in Islamic and Midde Eastern Studies from the University of Tübingen, Germany, and will be joining the Research School ‘Knowledge and its Resources’ at MPIWG Berlin as a PhD student in October 2023, where she will work on pre- and early modern Arabic recipe collections. In her spare time, she occasionally translates Arabic literature. Her essays and translations have appeared in ALQ and online with Guernica, The Recipes Project, and the Library of Arabic Literature’s blog. She can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.