Arts & Culture

Morocco’s Orwellian Era: Tazmamart Cellule 10

Book Review by Karima Rhanem

Tazmamart Cellule 10” is an autobiography written by Ahmed Marzouki, an officer cadet, who took part, “without intention”, in an abortive Coup d’Etat against King Hassan II of Morocco at his Royal Palace in Skhirat in 1971. The book describes the suffering of Ahmed Marzouki and his 58 colleagues during the 18 years they spent in a deadly detention prison called Tazmamart.

Two decades after his release, Marzouki decided to write his memories about his 18-year detention in Tazmamart prison, known as “Home of Death”. In his book, Ahmed Marzouki evokes everything about Tazmamart—18 years in the tiny concrete cell, the stifling heat and Siberian winters, the isolation and absence of light, the stench of disease and filth, scorpions and mosquitoes, miserable rations of bread, chickpeas and vermicelli, sadistic prison guards.

After highlighting the failure of the Skhirat coup attempt led by Lieutenant-Colonel M’hamed Ababou, Marzouki’s narrative really begins with his ensuing trial and imprisonment. At first, he was sent to the military prison at Kenitra, where he and his colleagues received reasonable treatment. However, in August 1973, after the second coup attempt (1972), led by General Mohammed Oufkir, former Minister of Defence, Marzouki and his fellows were taken, at two in the morning, in secret and without any warning, to the newly constructed penal colony of Tazmamart, in the Moroccan desert. There, they were put in dark, windowless cells measuring three metres by two metres.

The book makes you fly with your imagination through the various powerful emotional moments Marzouki and his fellows had in this dark and dirty prison. Even your imagination could be blocked in front of the Hitchcockian scenes of horror witnessed in Tazmamart.

Though the majority of the prisoners had received prison sentences between three and ten years (Marzouki received five), all were kept in these horrible conditions for 18 years. Their existence was denied by the State, and any communication with the outside world was impossible.

Of the 58 military officers and men implicated in the unsuccessful Coups d’Etat against the late King Hassan II, only Lt. Marzouki and 27 others survived Morocco’s notorious desert prison, which is now closed. The rest had died as a result of official neglect, madness, and the absence of even minimal standards of medical care. Marzouki and his colleagues were once again able to see daylight upon their eventual release in 1991.

“We spent more than 18 years locked up in the dark, each of us in a narrow cell. Twenty nine of us were in each of the two buildings. The food we were given by the guards three times a day was insufficient to survive; we had five litres of water a day as drinking water, for washing ourselves and for cleaning the hole in the floor we had to relieve ourselves in. Our hair, our beards and our nails grew like those of wild animals. We suffered terribly from the cold of the winter in these mountainous and landlocked areas, and from the suffocating heat in the three summer months,” said Marzouki in his book.

The book also describes some of the most touching moment in Tazmamart, especially when Marzouki’s friends began to die.

Marzouki wrote, ironically, about the “improvement of conditions in Tazmamart”. Of course, it was neither for him nor for many others. Improvements were in favour of one of the detainees, Lieutenant M’barek Touil, who was married to an American.

The book indicates that Touil had met his wife Nancy on a Moroccan army training course in the United States. Nancy Touil refused to accept official stonewalling, eventually causing the American ambassador to intervene on her husband’s behalf. More seriously, Marzouki is bitter at a system in which, he says, “the value of a Moroccan citizen compared to an American was similar to that of the dirham compared to the dollar.”
The book also describes some aspects of Marzouki’s life after his release: his meeting with his kids and relatives, especially his mother.
Marzouki translated his book into Arabic, adding more data as he had consulted several friends for more information. In this book, he describes Morocco’s darkest era, known as “Years of Lead”. This work remains among the country’s best sellers.

Title: Cellule 10

Author: Ahmed Marzouki

Language: French (also available in Arabic)

Categories: Arts & Culture

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