Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Berber Warlords and Secret Prisons

I think I mentioned before that our site is full of old, crumbling Kasbahs. Other than the one that is supposedly haunted, the Kasbahs have mostly just become a really cool backdrop to our life in Morocco. Gradually, I even stopped really noticing them except for every once in a while when the lighting is really spectacular or something. But then, I happened to discover something pretty amazing about one particular Kasbah.

Sean and I were hanging out in the cyber checking our email when one of the guys who works there called Sean over to show him some picture montages he created. One of the montages was of this especially big and ornate Kasbahs in one of the douars (neighborhoods). Despite its decay, the interior and exterior decorations were pretty impressive. Plaster moldings were painted in a style he told us was from early 20th century. There was even a tiled bathroom complete with a bathtub. The craziest part was the prison in the lower level. Apparently, this was one of the many Glaoui Kasbahs that were all over southern Morocco. The Glaouis were a powerful Berber family of warlords that controlled southern Morocco from the 19th century until independence in 1956. They were infamous for their brutality and commonly tortured, killed, and/or imprisoned anyone who threatened their power. The French supported them financially during the colonial period in exchange for their cooperation. In addition to the money they received from the French, the Glaouis demanded “mandatory gifts” from the people under their control in exchange for “protection”. Of course, if anyone refused, they were put into one of their many prisons or publicly punished.

Our friend at the cyber offered to give us a tour of the Glaoui Kasbah, which we gladly accepted. It was amazing. We were trying to guess when it was built, but it is hard to say because it has many different additions. The main central section looks ancient, whereas the most recent area has fairly modern plasterwork and painting. We found a date carved into some of the plasterwork on the ceiling to be 1360 in the Islamic calendar, which translates to roughly 1940. It was inhabited up through independence in 1956 and all the way into the 1970s when it became too dangerously decrepit. The most chilling part was by far the prison, which was basically just a dark hole where they threw people. We didn’t get any good pictures of the prison because there were no windows for light. However, we got some amazing shots of some of the plaster work and the view from the top. Check my Picasa account to see them.

When we got back, we got to talking about how crazy it was that there was an old warlord prison in our site. That led to a discussion about all the other secret prisons that existed throughout the history of Morocco. During the reign of King Hassan II (1962-1999), secret prisons were fairly common. Political dissenters were kidnapped and then released into these places with no idea where they were or how they got there. Many were tortured and killed. If they were released, often years later, they usually never found out where they had been kept. One of the most famous of these secret prisons was actually underneath the famous square of D’Jamaa El Fna in Marrakech. Prisoners who were taken there could hear the noise and music from festivities above them and were later able to identify where they were taken. There is also an old secret prison on the road between Klaa and Errachidia. King Hassan II’s son and successor, Mohammed VI, has turned it and many others into memorials for the people who were abducted.

But Moroccans are not the only ones to have created and used secret prisons. There is a CIA blackout site in the middle of nowhere in eastern Morocco near the Algerian border between Outat el Haj and Guercif that was used to harbor suspected terrorists until 2006. Because it was conveniently located off US soil, many human rights laws were ignored. The site has been closed down, but it is scary reminder that the days of secret prisons are not as distant as history might make you think. Having an old secret prison in our own site is an even more insistent reminder of the past.

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