Home >> Volume 8 (Spring 2008) >> The Shape of Resistance Literature >> Melanie Clouser on "The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco"

Melanie Clouser on "The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco"

Cover of "The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco": Simple Paint Drawing

Susan Slyomovics

The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005
271 pages

Reviewed by Melanie Clouser

Malika Oufkir’s account of her twenty-year imprisonment featured in both Oprah’s Book Club and the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Her original text La Prisonnière (1999) was an immediate bestseller, following in the path of many other French-language contributions to Moroccan testimonial literature. When the English translation Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail (2001) appeared, Oufkir was hosted on American television shows, radio stations, and university campuses. While French readers received the book with some familiarity, American audiences were scandalized by what, for most, was the first they had heard of the “years of lead” (zaman al-rasas / années de plomb), Morocco’s repressive post-independence period. Oufkir’s book became a sensation, at its worst providing bad press that painted Morocco as a barbaric nation and the monarchy as a despotic regime. At its best, Oufkir’s is one voice in a body of testimonial literature, exposing and reflecting on shared experiences. The context behind accounts such as Oufkir’s has been gathered into a useful book, The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco, which provides a very accessible introduction to the development of human rights in Morocco during its post-independence years.

Susan Slyomovics wrote Performance during the period of rapidly increasing freedom in public discourse that followed king Hassan II’s death in 1999. Her research took place from 1996 to 2004, as human rights violations came to light through a variety of public events and creative endeavors, termed collectively as “performances” by Slyomovics. She draws on a broad definition from Deborah Kapchan’s article “Performance” (1995): “esthetic practices—patterns of behavior, ways of speaking, manners of bodily comportment—whose repetitions situate actors in time and space, structuring individual and group identities.” With this understanding, Slyomovics investigates Moroccan performances that respond to human rights violations of the post-protectorate years, such as forcible disappearance, torture, and mass political trials. She acknowledges that repression has affected Moroccans “of every political persuasion”: Marxist, Islamist, nationalist, Sahrawi, feminist, and Amazigh/Berber. Numerous personal interviews and clandestine prison photographs evoke the atmosphere of fear that pervaded all levels of Moroccan society after official independence in 1956. 

Chapter 1 investigates the Moroccan legal system and its various sources (Amazigh/Berber legal custom, Islamic jurisprudence, and French colonial law), providing a legal frame of reference for the abuse of political prisoners and for various forms of resistance. French colonial policy sought to divide Arabs and Berbers, drawing on Moroccan customs and legal practices when they suited protectorate interests. Slyomovics shows how the post-independence government of Morocco retained colonial precedents, frequently sharpening security regulations. 

Chapter 2 explores the phenomenon and significance of forced disappearance. Slyomovics draws a useful comparison between the suffering of victims and families in Morocco and Argentina, though the comparison is not utilized to its utmost. Instead, she concentrates on the particularities of disappearance in Morocco, such as its effects on ties of kinship. 

Chapter 3 traces the development of prisons and torture practices in Morocco, developed most systematically during the French protectorate, and describes rites of secret detention. It traces the development of Morocco’s prison system to its prototypical ancestors in the United States and Western Europe. The chapter includes descriptions and illustrations by prisoners of Moroccan prisons and detention centers. 

Chapter 4 examines the ritual of the mock trial in the aftermath of the 1981 Casablanca uprising. It begins by introducing Moroccan personal status laws, raising questions about state control of citizens through official forms of identification. In this chapter especially, Slyomovics’s work relates to recent discussions regarding identity and the formation of the modern nation state, as modern notions such as citizenship, equality, and constitutions have accompanied more systematic violations of human rights. Investigating legal proceedings and state violence following the uprising, the chapter documents grievances and testimony. 

Chapter 5 dedicates attention to women political prisoners and their testimony, treating issues of gender in Moroccan prison culture. Slyomovics explores the experiences of women in close confinement, such as the development of silent modes of communication. She also includes testimony of women affected by the arrest, torture, and disappearance of family members, including an increasingly active movement of prisoners’ mothers.

Chapter 6 focuses on Islamist political prisoners, offering timely insights into the most recent developments in Moroccan arrests, many resulting from post-9/11 antiterrorism laws. Slyomovics describes the prisoners’ loose-knit organization outside of prison and the ways in which prisoners came to rely on one another in their shared resistance to political authorities. She also treats several aspects of prisoners’ lives after release, including trials, activism, indemnities, and the difficult encounters of former prisoners with their torturers.

Throughout the book, Slyomovics describes the role of non-governmental organizations, as well as the reconciliation commission founded by Mohammed VI, in investigations, indemnities, reparations, education, and public events. Though survivors’ perspectives vary, Moroccans by and large prioritize raising awareness of past human rights violations over prosecuting perpetrators in order to prevent their recurrence. Slyomovics is careful to state that the disparate voices of survivors and other informants are not entirely favorable of freedom as it is known in western democracies; rather, Moroccans are more likely to emphasize the culturally familiar principle of insaf, “equality” or “equity.” She furthermore does not shy from pointing out the enduring ironies and contradictions of truth and justice in present-day Morocco, as the monarchy attempts to make itself more transparent without becoming weak, attempting to utilize notions of universal human rights to bolster its own legitimacy. While documenting and explaining the state of human rights in Morocco, Slyomovics gives voice to her informants’ calls for reparations, for an independent truth commission, for the release of all incarcerated political prisoners, and for the location of all those disappeared.

Kapchan’s flexible notion of performance allows for a wide range of subjects in Slyomovics’s study: oral and written testimony, comic books, poetry, letters, prisoners’ hand-drawn maps, sit-ins, nighttime vigils, mock trials, political rallies, conferences, protest songs, and pilgrimages to sights of torture and imprisonment. Slyomovics’s attention to performances retains her subjects’ human dignity and agency. Though Performance presents a vast array of resistance activities, it does not attempt a comprehensive review of the Moroccan literature (such as novels) that address the torture, imprisonment, and repression of the “years of lead.” Instead, it provides the essential background of such literature, reviews related genres and performances, and provides an excellent introduction to related resources. Some of the themes of Performance, documenting and addressing human rights violations around the world, continue in the upcoming edited volume Waging War and Making Peace (2008) by Slyomovics and Barbara Rose Johnston.

An important strength of Performance is Slyomovics’s knowledge of Arabic, English, and French, which allows her to incorporate all major Moroccan performances. Performance introduces and contextualizes the Arabic and French contributions by Morocco’s postcolonial writers that have helped shape literary themes of testament and commitment throughout the global south. In addition, Slyomovics’s analysis benefits from her awareness of Moroccan oral traditions. She links Moroccans’ resistance activities to deep cultural traditions of storytelling, oral poetry (malhun), and the performance circle (halqa). This association is particularly appropriate to her investigation, since “all that happens in the police and prison system takes place orally.”

Slyomovics’s Performance brings together a host of disparate voices that testify to and resist the political repression of Morocco’s period of post-independence. Its historical investigations, personal interviews, and readings of resistance literature bring to light Moroccan performances of human rights. Slyomovics’s study provides a human rights framework through which scholars, legal professionals, and mainstream readers may understand Moroccan works such as Malika Oufkir’s as forming a persistent body of resistance literature.