Book Review - Tazmamart: 18 Years in Morocco’s Secret Prison

Tazmamart was an underground military prison in southeast Morocco where those considered enemies of the king were detained from 1972 to 1991. It was built after two failed coup d’états against Hassan II of Morocco. On 10 July 1971, around a thousand soldiers were driven to Skhirat palace, where the king was celebrating his birthday and when a shot was fired, panic ensued. Hassan survived the mayhem and those deemed responsible were rounded up and dispatched to Kenitra prison. Many of those detained were unwitting participants in the alleged coup and, like Aziz BineBine, a recent graduate of the Royal Military Academy, had not fired a shot. He was one of several army officers sent to Kenitra and later to Tazmamart.

Gradually news seeped out about this underground desert prison. After the publication of French journalist Gilles Perrault’s Notre Ami le Roi (Our Friend the King) in 1991, and the tireless work of Christine Daure-Serfaty, wife of imprisoned dissident, Abraham Serfaty, the pressure increased on Hassan II to close down Tazmamart. In 1992, the few remaining detainees were released.

BineBine’s account of the eighteen years he spent in Morocco’s secret prison, sensitively translated by Lulu Norman, is a must read for anyone interested in human rights and Morocco’s hidden past. At times, it’s comparable to Greek tragedy. The prisoners were housed in cramped underground cells, so they could not distinguish between night and day. They were offered little in the way of food and no protection from the summer heat and winter cold. Not surprisingly, over half of those incarcerated in Tazmamart died from starvation, disease, gangrene and despair.

BineBine attempts to give his fellow inmates a voice: “I want to pay homage to those men, to the ones not here to tell their suffering, their joy, their hopes and regrets. I want to relate as honestly as possible how they lived and how they died, report it as I lived it, as I felt it. For their families and for everyone who feels on their own cheek the slap that someone else receives.” In short chapters he describes their backgrounds and how they perished. He relates in detail the men’s privations - the cockroaches, scorpions and snakes that invaded their cells - the appalling lack of humanity shown by the guards as well as the small successes – the acquisition of a battery run radio, for example. In one chilling passage he describes a shrunken corpse being carried off: “Haifi was now only a few dozen inches long: his legs, bent double, were stuck to his chest, he had hardly an ounce of flesh left on him and what flesh there was, the maggots had started on. One of the guards picked him up in one hand like a bag and took him to his last bath – of quicklime.”

Most of the men, like BineBine, turned to religion. He believes his faith contributed to his survival. They also grew more superstitious. BineBine was convinced that his dreams and the appearance of an owl were “harbingers of death”. One of the saddest stories is that of BineBine’s friend and confidante, Boujemâa Azendour, a poor Berber who, as a child, was abandoned by his father and sent to live with his grandfather. The old man abused him and married off his sister when she was twelve. Boujemâa fought to get an education. He succeeded, won a scholarship and went on to become an officer. “In Tazmamart, Boujemâa lived as he always had, with dignity and courage... He fell ill, but we never knew what from. He didn’t complain; his death was almost a surprise. Had the barefoot shepherd boy’s determination deserted him?”

Those who survived, emerged from their dark prison physical wrecks, some bent double or unable to walk unaided. BineBine’s poignant account makes perfect lockdown reading. If you feel you’ve got it bad stuck at home, read and weep for the poor unfortunate men who ended up in Morocco’s “death pit”. 

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