From torture centers to museums


Susan Slyomovics

date de sortie



Histoire moderne

Difficult Heritage, Transitional Justice, and Communal Reparations: Transforming Moroccan Torture Centers into Museums

The right to erect museums, memorials, plaques, monuments, and cemetery headstones to mark the eradicated past participates in a growing body of research that has emerged around notions of historical justice in which communal reparations trace an alternate, sometimes parallel path. Unlike conventional courtroom-centered, criminal justice solutions, these remedies assume that the acts of recognizing and acknowledging historical truths are themselves a form of justice. Examples of internationally known museums that involve not only witness testimonies but also what is called “dark tourism” and “difficult heritage” to site-specific locations at historical places of incarceration are South Africa’s Robben Island Museum, Alcatraz Prison off San Francisco, the Russian Gulag Museum at Perm-36, and Argentina’s Navy Mechanics School Museum.


Acknowledging and demarcating the architectural imprint of the autocratic past is the latest phase of communal reparations in Morocco. This process began after the death of Morocco’s King Hassan II in 1999, whose reign of 38 years was characterized by repression, numerous uprisings, human rights abuses, networks of secret prisons, and a vast population of known political prisoners along side a dark and painful category of those forcibly disappeared whose existence and fate remained unknown. After remarkable pressure and organization, both internationally and domestically by Moroccan civil society, King Muhammed VI, the son and heir enthroned in 1999 on the death of his father, appointed Driss Benzekri on January 7, 2004 to head the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation commission (Hay’at al-Insaf wa-al-Musalaha in Arabic and in French, Instance Équité et Réconciliation, IER). Until his untimely death from cancer in 2007, Benzekri, himself a former political prisoner (1974-91) from the outlawed Marxist-Leninist group Ila al-Amam, presided over the commission along with 16 commissioners, eight drawn from the Consultative Council on Human Rights (in Arabic, al-Majlis al-Istishari li-Huquq al-Insan and in French, Conseil Consultative des Droits de l’Homme) plus eight nationally recognized experts in law, medicine and women’s rights. Among them were other former political prisoners and victims of torture and disappearance. According to the commission’s multilingual website1, its mandate to investigate human rights violations began with Morocco’s independence in 1956 and ended with the establishment of the 1999 Indemnity Commission, an earlier attempt to redress 43 years of the regime’s war against its own citizens. Both the 1999 Indemnity Commission and the 2004-5 truth commission accorded blanket immunity from criminal prosecution to perpetrators and victims alike. Therefore, the competence of these commissions was non-judicial (dhat ikhtisasat ghayr qada’iyya) and, as with other national truth commissions, Morocco circumscribed justice, eschewing punishment to concentrate on identifying, verifying and reporting the process of uncovering the truth about arbitrary detention and secret torture sites2.


Consequently, the story of forcible disappearance, torture and deaths during police custody or in secret prisons is told about the past from the perspective of the present and in the victims’ voices. By the filing deadline of February 13, 2004, over tens of thousands of individual requests for reparations had arrived at the commission’s headquarters in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. In keeping with the preferences of the majority of victims, polled through the Moroccan commission claim forms, financial indemnifications through one-time, lump sum payments to individuals were the first principal remedy chosen over court cases, tribunals, and memorializations. The enormous volume of these testimonies and depositions constitute an important resource and foundation for the country’s subsequent programs of individual and communal reparations. Moroccan reparations protocols that followed on the truth commission’s recommendations of 2005 tended to address existing templates, which quantify damages according to job or traffic accidents, thereby imposing insurance company remedies and economic formulas for noneconomic losses.


How could systems of torts and damages, some inherited from insurance law and others filtered through post-World War II German reparation protocols, deal with physical, social, emotional, psychological and material abuses and injuries3? The Moroccan truth commission’s responses were to recommend that intangible factors be taken into account in relation to the widespread forcible disappearances of their citizens. In addition to assessing the emotional loss of a family member whose whereabouts were or are unknown, and medical and psychological aid to individual survivors of disappearance, the commission believed that it was also imperative to acknowledge collective losses to specific regions by restoring and transforming secret detention centers into places open for public use. My case study is southeastern Morocco, targeted for punitive underdevelopment related to the presence of many secret prisons sited in the region. In addition to the example of Casablanca’s preeminent torture facility of Derb Moulay Cherif as a potential museum project, in southeastern Morocco, there are the sites at Tazmamart, Agdez and Kalaat M’Gouna. The priority is to create spaces that preserve historical memory through architectural restoration and to renovate detention centers as multipurpose places (some but not all as museums as well as cultural centers, social complexes, documentation and citizenship centers).


My research project while at the Collegium de Lyon is to look at the post-truth commissions proposals as they are implemented (or not) by the current oversight body, namely the National Council of Human Rights, successor in 2007 to Consultative Council of Human Rights. Specifically I research projects that seek to provide concrete, architectural materializations of absence and forced disappearance, ones explicitly linked to reconstructing the infrastructure of regionally deprived areas with architectural projects such as cemetery plaques and headstones, museums and memorials. I have conducted fieldwork in Agdez, the location of a fortress built by the Pasha Thami Glaoui (1879-1956), an ally of the French Protectorate rulers and despot over southeastern Morocco. He built Agdez on the model of the traditional monumental mud brick structure found at nearby Tamnougalt but with French-style building techniques that combined the use of local rammed earth (and native forced labor), but reinforced these earthworks with cement, an edifice readily transformed into a secret prison. Agdez Prison stands in the heart of the southeastern district hub of the town of Agdez. It is not hidden in an inaccessible guarded location as with the other regionally known prisons of Tagounit, Skoura, Kalaat M’Gouna and Tazmamart; rather, it represents a multilayered site of historical repressions —first as a seat of power for Thami El Glaoui wielding authority over the Draa Valley buttressed by French colonial military support, then as a site of repression Moroccanized in the post-independence era. Currently, Agdez Prison remains closed and falling into disrepair, a suppurating wound of secrecy and incarceration with which to maintain a state of fear among the population – emotionally in terms of memory, but also symbolically, historically, materially, and structurally.



 Website of the IER available in Arabic, French, Spanish and English at On Moroccan witness testimonies, my relevant publications are Susan Slyomovics, “Témoignages écrits et silences: L’Instance Équité et Réconciliation (IER) marocaine et la reparation,” Année du Maghreb (2008), Paris: CNRS Editions, 123-148 and “Fatna El Bouih and the Work of Memory, Gender, and Reparation in Morocco, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 8/1: 37-62.

 On the history and formation of the truth commission, see Slyomovics, “Morocco’s Justice and Reconciliation Commission, MERIP / Middle East Research and Information, April 4, 2005: and The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

 On reparations, my publications are Susan Slyomovics, “Morocco and Algeria: Financial Reparations, Blood Money, and Human Rights Witness Testimony,” in Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy, edited by Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 265-284; “Reparations in Morocco: The Symbolic Dirham.” in Waging War and Making Peace: The Anthropology of Reparations, edited by Barbara Rose Johnston and Susan Slyomovics (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 95-114; and How to Accept German Reparations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).


Susan Slyomovics is Professor of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1985. Her primary research interests are anthropology and folklore of the Middle East and North Africa, human rights, visual anthropology (documentary photography and film), gender studies, heritage and museum studies.


Anthropologie et ethnologie
17/09/2013 - 14/07/2014