"No Man's Land: Voices From 'Deep Morocco'" by Khalid Amine
No Man’s Land remains one of the most important plays in the Moroccan artistic repertoire after independence. The play is considered a historical document that portrays the socio-political conditions in Morocco during the years following independence. It is about the traumatic conditions of prisoners of conscience in Morocco during the 1960s, 1970s, and through the 1980s. For decades, Moroccan authorities have routinely practiced a regime of garde à vue detention (inherited from the French colonial administration), whereby political prisoners are utterly cut off from the outside world. Such a system of indefinite incommunicated detention, according to Amnesty International Report of 20 March 1991, “disregards the most basic safeguards of detainees against torture.”
No Man’s Land is partly informed by the prison experience of the political activist Kamal Al-Habib, a prisoner of conscience who spent five years in Morocco’s most cruel detention centers. The play was written during the peak of what was called “the years of lead”, between the years 1980 and 1984. This fact explains why Mohammed Kaouti resorted to using Sufi symbolic dimensions and the rhetoric of ambiguity, for it was not an easy task to write about imprisonment during these days without running the risk of being jailed. Using artistic conceit of anti-utopia as a spine, Kaouti attempts to highlight the seemingly irreconcilable struggle between political necessity and creative imagination, performance and the body politics, censorship and the performative turn in postcolonial Morocco.
No Man’s Land exemplifies the full-fledged counterculture that was highly sensitive to Pan-Arabism that emerged as a painful process of renewal that grew out of attribution and contention, a postcolonial struggle affected by sometimes violently conflicting aspirations for a better future. Theatre in Morocco, especially the amateur theatre movement, has been at the heart of this counterculture. It strictly defined itself as the theatre that thinks for the emerging Moroccan nation—and by extension, the Arab world—though some theatre practitioners have capitulated to the regime, accepting to preserve a hypocritical facade behind which the wheels of a despotic machine keep turning, since the amateur theatre movement was very much dependent on the state to survive. Subsidized by the Ministry of Youth and hosted in youth centers all over the country, this movement was affected by politically overriding objectives. Selected performances began to go each year to the National Festival of Amateur Theatre, a real platform for a theatre movement in the making. No Man’s Land is still recognized among the best performances of amateur theatre in Morocco.
Political satire became a favorite motif in this amateur theatre, a break-through in both subject matter and style. This subversive tendency pushed audiences not only to laugh at that which is unhappy (the mirthless laugh in Samuel Beckett’s terms), but also it prompted them to act. Conflicts were highlighted in order to force the audiences to make decisions, and not only to laugh at their miserable conditions. Generally, the moderate and redemptive tendency is manifested in popular theatre that deploys situations of conflict in order to simulate contradictions by laughing at them. This strategy suggests Brecht, whose political theatre was introduced in Morocco during the politically difficult times of the 1970s and early 1980s. While the European stage was experiencing a certain “Brecht fatigue,” Brechtian aesthetics became highly influential on the Moroccan stage. In order to evade various forms of censorship, most influential amateur theatre practitioners distanced their dramas in the past, or in allegorical frames. Scripts borrowed from past Islamic traditions provided a politically symbolic variation on the present situation. The tendency to distance the drama in theatrical parables is clear in Kaouti’s No Man’s Land and others including: Mohammed Kaouti, Adafadie Al-Kahla (The Black Turtles) by Mohammed Sharamane, Les Tortus (Turtles), by Nabil Lahlou, Le Rhinoceros by Driss Tadili, A-Zawiya by Abdelkrim Berrchid, Assatir Muassira (Contemporary Myths) by Mohammed Kaghat, and Urss Al-Dib (The Wolf’s Wedding) by Mohammed Timoud.
No Man’s Land has been largely performed and debated among scholars in Morocco. The play has also been acclaimed and celebrated by more than one national prize. It sheds light on important chapters of Moroccan political history leading to what can be called now “The Arab Spring”. Following the logic of the metaphor of “deep Morocco”, deepness is manifest in No Man’s Land in the intense overlapping between moments of crisis and tragic sublimity, and the dream of utopia. Such overlapping is best illustrated in terms of essentialist claims over certain historical past, territories, or cultural memory. Moroccan playwright Mohammed Kaouti stages the ambivalent state of repression, which characterized Morocco in the near past that was fueled by taxonomic violence and conflicting aspirations long before the “Arab Spring”. The ensuing violence of the state and political opposition during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s seems to leave simplistic bipolar Manicheasms open to different interpretations today. After all, the revolutionary spirit of the “20 February Movement” today is no more than a continuation of the struggle that was initiated right after independence.