Moroccan Colonial Soldiers: Between Selective Memory and Collective Memory

Article excerpt


Over the last decade, there has been an increasing interest in colonialism as a subject of scholarly inquiry. Whether in the field of anthropology, literary criticism, Feminist studies, or cultural studies, there has been a significant amount of "rethinking" about the colonial past and the politics of colonialism and empires. A new set of concepts such as "post-orientalist," "subaltern," and "post-colonial" which are now in vogue have been more closely associated with the work of the Subaltern Studies Group on colonial India. An interdisciplinary organization of South Asian scholars, the Subaltern Studies Group focused on the histories of the "Subaltern" which Ranajit Guha identifies "as a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, and office or in any other way."(1) For the historian to "rethink" may be understood as to challenge accepted paradigms and engage historical research in new directions by using new methodological tools. This has been very much the goal of the Subaltern Study Group: a challenge not only to the orientalist discourse, but also to the nationalist and Marxist conceptualization of colonial India.(2)

Historians of North Africa have been equally concerned with the impact of colonial expansion on the colonized and its influence on the social and economic organization of indigenous peoples. The colonial history of the Maghrib and the Middle East in general has certainly seen similar challenges and witnessed its own "decolonization" and reevaluation, but not to the same extent and with more theoretical basis, and institutional organization as has been the case in India. French colonialism has often been explained in abstract terms and without close analysis of the agency of those who were at the receiving end of colonial rule. My interest in the "Moroccan colonial soldiers" is partly a modest attempt to look at the history of a "subaltern" group that has been written out of history. The French military was one of the most fundamental forms of colonial control in Morocco. It depended primarily on indigenous soldiers who were at the same time coerced and instrumental in the implementation of French colonial policies. It is this condition of subalternity within the Moroccan society that I seek to investigate.

In this essay, I write about the way "Moroccan colonial soldiers," which might include Goums, Tirailleurs, and Spahis were represented in a colonial discourse which sought to appropriate them, and how they were excluded from a nationalist discourse which chose to silence them. My ultimate goal is to use the oral accounts of some of these soldiers as narratives of contestation, both to nationalist and colonial discourses, in order to legitimate their own place in history. The colonial history of Morocco in its official and codified version stands in contrast to memory in its personal and collective remembrance of the past. Oral history, which is the link between these two versions of history, allows the meaning of prior colonial experiences to be negotiated. To fully understand the histories of the Moroccan colonial soldiers, we must situate them in their local and communal context. In another but related way, this article is about the way the history of these soldiers has been forgotten or selectively remembered. These terms in themselves are clear insinuations to the notion of "memory." Of course memory should not be taken here in its clinical psychological terminology, but in what might be referred to as "historical" and "autobiographical" memories. Historical memory reaches social actors through written records, photographs, commemoration, festive enactment and films. It is scholarly and theoretically constructed in a certain body of historical knowledge. Historical memory is also about institutionalization and the representation of memory whether in public museums or in the school curriculum and media for the education of citizens. …