Obdurate Moroccan Memories: Abdelkrim’s Afterlife in a Graphic Novel

15 August, 2021

The legendary leader and Amazigh resistance fighter Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim El Khattabi (Abdelkrim).

The leg­endary leader and Amazigh resis­tance fight­er Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim El Khat­tabi (Abdelkrim).


Brahim El Guabli

Rarely has a per­son cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of his Moroc­can con­tem­po­raries and those of their descen­dants as Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim El Khat­tabi (Abdelkrim) has done. Like­wise, no world-class hero and free­dom fight­er has been less cel­e­brat­ed, or even active­ly erased, in Moroc­can post-colo­nial his­to­ry as Abdelkrim. The gap between offi­cial era­sure of Abdelkrim and his actu­al life in social and cul­tur­al mem­o­ry, out­side the purview of the state, point to an obdu­rate mem­o­ry that refus­es to dis­si­pate and, instead, con­tin­ues to rein­vent itself.

Emir Ben Abdelkrim by Mohamed Nadrani has been translated into Arabic and Dutch.
Emir Ben Abdelkrim by Mohamed Nad­rani has been trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic and Dutch.


Abdelkrim’s sto­ry is here to stay, and the best its oppo­nents could do is turn their atten­tion away from it. Because Abdelkrim, both the per­son and the myth, is immersed in ideals of lib­er­a­tion, inde­pen­dence, self-abne­ga­tion, transna­tion­al coop­er­a­tion, pan-Arab strug­gles against for­eign dom­i­na­tion, and class con­scious­ness — as a result, he stands for every­thing his oppo­nents can­not. A lib­er­a­tor who was bilked out of his well-deserved right to his­to­ry and mem­o­ry, and a hero who could poten­tial­ly over­shad­ow those who did not fight the col­o­niz­ers, wound up being in charge of inde­pen­dent Moroc­co. A pres­i­dent who estab­lished an inde­pen­dent repub­lic in the Rif, Abdelkrim was a man who refused until the last day of his life to return to a coun­try he con­sid­ered still un-inde­pen­dent.[1] As a result, Abdelkrim has become an object of adu­la­tion, remem­brance, and refusenik pol­i­tics. Most recent­ly, Abdelkrim’s mem­o­ry has become a sym­bol of con­tes­ta­tion and every­day resis­tance to neo-author­i­tar­i­an­ism and social exclu­sion as is evi­denced by the protests in the dif­fer­ent ḥirākāt (social move­ments and protests) in the country.

The obdu­ra­cy of Abdelkrim’s mem­o­ry has tak­en a nov­el turn in Mohammed Nadrani’s graph­ic nov­el L’Émir Ben Abdelkrim (Emir Ben Abdelkrim, 2008). A for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er, who was forcibly dis­ap­peared between April 12, 1976 and Decem­ber 31, 1984, Nad­rani learned how to draw while he was detained in the Kelâat M’Gouna secret prison, where he spent the last four years of his dis­ap­pear­ance between 1980 and 1984.[2] His first com­ic, which is enti­tled Les Sar­cophages du Com­plexe (The Sar­copha­gi of the Com­plex, 2005), is an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work in which he demon­strates “the real con­di­tions of enforced dis­ap­pear­ance” through images.[3]  In Nadrani’s opin­ion, draw­ing was an act of revenge against the jail­ers who sought to dis­em­pow­er him, and art is “a weapon to fight against injus­tice and amne­sia, and break silence and com­plic­i­ty.”[4] Nad­rani and Abdelkrim share their expe­ri­ence of a state-man­dat­ed ban­ish­ment, albeit in dif­fer­ent ways, thus fos­ter­ing a rich dia­logue between their dif­fer­ent experiences.

Abdelkrim hailed from a fam­i­ly of trib­al chief­tains and jurists edu­cat­ed in the Islam­ic tra­di­tion. Born and raised in Ajdir in the Aït Ourghail tribe in the Ori­en­tal Rif, Abdelkrim grad­u­at­ed from the Qarawiyyin mosque in Fes. Upon his return to Ajdir, he worked as a teacher, inter­preter, and jour­nal­ist in the Span­ish-con­trolled enclave of Melil­la. His life would be turned upside down by the Span­ish inva­sion of the north­ern part of Moroc­co as part of the colo­nial arrange­ments that emanat­ed from the con­fer­ence of Alge­ci­ras in 1906. Abdelkrim’s shift from being a civ­il ser­vant in the Span­ish admin­is­tra­tion to becom­ing a mil­i­tary com­man­der and pres­i­dent of a nascent repub­lic in the Berber/Amazigh Rif region found­ed his ever ‑myth. Not only did he defeat the Span­ish in the Bat­tles of Annu­al on July 22, 1921, but he con­tin­ued to resist them until both the French and the Span­ish armies joined forces, under the com­mand of the most impor­tant gen­er­als at the time, to force him to sur­ren­der in 1926.[5]

Comic from Mohammed Nadrani’s Emir Ben Abdelkrim.
Com­ic from Mohammed Nadrani’s Emir Ben Abdelkrim.



The col­lu­sion of the Moroc­can author­i­ties at the time with French and Span­ish col­o­niz­ers to end Abdelkrim’s resis­tance, and the reluc­tance of the post-inde­pen­dence state to request any inquiry into the use of chem­i­cal weapons, in what was believed to be the first chem­i­cal war in the world,[6] have since under­gird­ed the feel­ing of his­tor­i­cal injus­tice that befell Abdelkrim and his brand of resis­tant repub­li­can­ism. Even today, Moroc­cans won­der why Mao Zedong, Che Gue­vara, Ho Chi Minh, and Gamal Abdel Nass­er acknowl­edged Abdelkrim’s pio­neer­ing role as a leader of transna­tion­al lib­er­a­tion, where­as his per­fec­tion of gueril­la tac­tics are met with obliv­ion in his own coun­try. Dis­sim­i­lar­ly to his glob­al recog­ni­tion as a mas­ter of gueril­la war against impe­ri­al­is­tic states, the offi­cial non­cha­lance, if not proud igno­rance, dis­played vis-à-vis his mem­o­ry is indica­tive of an endeav­or to for­get that a region­al resis­tance move­ment was able to carve out a repub­lic in the north of the country.


For­get­ting Abdelkrim means for­get­ting about the exis­tence of his Repub­lic of the Rif (1922–1926) and the fact that it once enjoyed its own sov­er­eign­ty. The oppo­site is also true; com­mem­o­rat­ing Abdelkrim would cer­tain­ly mean that one has to grap­ple with the para­pher­na­lia and lega­cy of his short-lived repub­lic. The Repub­lic of the Rif, which evokes the Berber Bourghoua­ta state in Tam­sna (cur­rent Rabat), chal­lenges cher­ished visions of nation­al uni­ty and bol­sters argu­ments about the exis­tence of a dis­tinct­ly Amazigh polit­i­cal vision for state­hood in North Africa.


The obdu­ra­cy of Abdelkrim’s mem­o­ry is, how­ev­er, not mere­ly attrib­ut­able to his acts of resis­tance and the dynam­ic his­tor­i­cal research that focus­es on his life.[7] Abdelkrim is mythol­o­gized because he is pre­vent­ed from occu­py­ing his right­ful place in insti­tu­tion­al mem­o­ry. There­fore, cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, includ­ing film,[8] nov­el,[9] aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ry, and social media com­men­taries are the loci in which Abdelkrim is remem­bered the most. It is even pos­si­ble to argue that none has been as cel­e­brat­ed in film, nov­el, and his­to­ry as he is. How­ev­er, Nadrani’s graph­ic nov­el, L’Émir, is an effi­cient project, giv­en the com­ic medium’s fast-trav­el­ing nature and its leg­i­bil­i­ty for a large audi­ence. In a soci­ety in which illit­er­a­cy is still preva­lent, images, espe­cial­ly intense­ly polit­i­cal comics, have the pow­er to endure in the receivers’ minds. More­over, these images become objects of col­lec­tive dis­cus­sions, which expands their impact. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, graph­ic nov­els and comics, which, in the wit­ty words of Collin McK­in­ney and David F. Richter, were “[o]nce con­sid­ered a mere pas­time of school boys and social­ly-awk­ward men […] have now wedged them­selves firm­ly into both the main­stream lit­er­ary land­scape as well as seri­ous lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship.”[10] The recon­fig­ured lit­er­ary field in the 2000s has thrown the doors wide open for schol­ar­ship to grap­ple with the his­tor­i­cal, famil­ial, memo­r­i­al, mnemon­ic, geno­ci­dal, and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal dimen­sions of the com­ic inter-medi­al genre in which both writ­ing and draw­ing coa­lesce to gen­er­ate and con­vey mean­ing.[11]



Moroc­can com­ic artists are not any dif­fer­ent in using this medi­um to reflect on auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal top­ics. Before Nadrani’s pub­li­ca­tion of L’Émir, Abde­laz­iz Mouride (d. 2013), anoth­er for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er (1974–1984), had pub­lished On affame bien les rats (They real­ly starve the rats! Don’t they?) about his own expe­ri­ence of polit­i­cal impris­on­ment after the tri­al of the Fron­tistes in 1977. As Susan Sly­omovics has writ­ten, Mouride’s com­ic “chron­i­cles the Marx­ist polit­i­cal pris­on­ers’ emer­gence from years of enforced dis­ap­pear­ance, his own in Derb Moulay Cherif in 1974–1976, to their reap­pear­ance at Casablan­ca Civ­il Prison in prepa­ra­tion for tri­als.”[12] Mouride’s unfin­ished com­ic ver­sion of Mohammed Choukri masterpiece’s al-Khubz al-ḥāfī (trans­lat­ed in Eng­lish as For Bread Alone and in French as Le pain nu) was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 2015. Although sev­er­al for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­ers learned how to draw in jail, Mouride and Nad­rani are the pio­neers of the Moroc­can tes­ti­mo­ni­al carcer­al com­ic genre, which chron­i­cles and rep­re­sents the dai­ly life of pris­on­ers with­in both the legal and the ille­gal deten­tion system.


Nadrani’s approach to the mem­o­ry of Abdelkrim is informed by a con­vic­tion that art has a role to play in his­to­ry. First, Nad­rani believes that comics are inher­ent­ly biased towards just caus­es. Sec­ond, he is con­vinced that Abdelkrim’s true sto­ry has not been told. In one of his inter­views he declared that, “the His­to­ry of the hero of the Rif, which I hail from orig­i­nal­ly, has been hid­den for polit­i­cal rea­sons for almost a cen­tu­ry. For me, this part of the his­to­ry of our coun­try has been erased, fal­si­fied, and most of all dis­owned by the regime in place. They want­ed to make this his­to­ry dis­ap­pear. It is up to us to revive this his­to­ry in order to pre­serve the mem­o­ry of our peo­ple.” [13]


As Nadrani’s words con­vey, comics, for him, are not just an artis­tic tool for aes­thet­ic pro­duc­tion. Comics are a repar­a­tive medi­um that allows the artist to get the his­tor­i­cal record straight and put an end to the state of amne­sia and his­tor­i­cal injus­tice. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Nad­rani sees his own sto­ry, as a descen­dant of the Rif, in Abdelkrim’s. The same polit­i­cal regime that erased Abdelkrim and con­demned him to nation­al obliv­ion was respon­si­ble for send­ing Nad­rani to a nine-year enforced dis­ap­pear­ance with­out a tri­al. The dif­fer­ence, how­ev­er, is that Nad­rani was able to reemerge from his dis­ap­pear­ance and become an artist, where­as Abdelkrim’s remains are still in Egypt while the his­to­ry he stands for is “under embar­go.”[14]


L’Émir can be divid­ed into three moments that chron­i­cle and recon­struct in artis­tic terms: 1) the bru­tal onslaught on the poor Rif­fi­an pop­u­la­tion by the Span­ish army, 2) Abdelkrim’s orga­ni­za­tion of trib­al resis­tance against the invaders after absorb­ing the shock of their sur­prise attacks, and 3) depic­tions of a series of vic­to­ries by the Rif­fi­an resis­tance and the estab­lish­ment of the Repub­lic of the Riff in Ajdir. Through­out the com­ic, how­ev­er, Nadrani’s dis­tinc­tive style of draw­ing, which is char­ac­ter­ized by an inten­tion­al focus on char­ac­ters’ faces, is dri­ven by a dialec­ti­cal strug­gle between a deject­ed, Berber pop­u­la­tion and an impe­ri­al­is­tic army. The text facil­i­tates under­stand­ing the com­ic, espe­cial­ly in terms of dates and strat­e­gy, but the draw­ings speak for them­selves and con­vey the sig­nif­i­cance of the his­to­ry and the sto­ry Nad­rani retells in L’Émir.


The first part of the com­ic con­trasts a sim­ple, almost idyl­lic, life before the may­hem caused by the advent of  Span­ish troops. The sheep are plump and the grass very green, sym­bol­iz­ing self-suf­fi­cien­cy. The sheep­herder plays his flute, like in the old days, which indi­cates a care­free life. How­ev­er, this sim­ple and hap­py exis­tence is then turned upside down by the Span­ish bombs. The idyl­lic image is quick­ly replaced by gory scenes. Span­ish mod­ern artillery mur­ders women, men, chil­dren, sheep, and chick­ens. As the Span­ish occu­py the ter­ri­to­ry, they also become cen­tral to this sec­tion of the sto­ry, eclips­ing local pop­u­la­tions. When Rif­fi­ans appear, they are depict­ed as vic­tims, being shot, raped, and assas­si­nat­ed. Rif­fi­an fight­ers’ heads are bran­dished by Span­ish sol­ders as tro­phies. The grue­some nature of the Span­ish inva­sion seems to be designed to push pop­u­la­tions away from their land by caus­ing their displacement.


The sec­ond moment in the com­ic fore­grounds Rif­fi­an resis­tance. Abdelkrim finds him­self, almost prov­i­den­tial­ly, at the helm of a resis­tance move­ment that momen­tar­i­ly put aside all dis­agree­ments between its trib­al com­po­nents to uni­fy the fight against the Span­ish ene­my. The local, Amazigh motif is very present in this sec­tion of the com­ic. The men are depict­ed in short north­ern jellabas and skull cups (rẓẓā). Pure blood hors­es over­shad­ow Span­ish sol­diers glad in green uni­form and hold­ing their then ultra-mod­ern weapons. By focus­ing on the dis­par­i­ty between a well-clad, well-orga­nized, and much more armed Span­ish army and its Rif­fi­an oppo­nents, who had noth­ing but their legit­i­mate cause of lib­er­a­tion, Nad­rani sets the stage for the  bina­ry oppo­si­tion between the Span­ish evil and the Rif­fi­an good.

The last moment in the com­ic shows the preva­lence of the weak over the mighty.  Rif­fi­an fight­ers defeat the Span­ish army in the Bat­tle of Annu­al. The ene­my sol­diers, who bom­bas­ti­cal­ly mur­dered and dis­placed local pop­u­la­tions at the start of the com­ic, are now pay­ing back for their crimes at the hands of a humane and eth­i­cal resis­tance. In an a very expres­sive scene Abdelkrim orders that the corpse of a dead offi­cer be sent back home to his fam­i­ly with­out ran­som. He was “a brave and loy­al oppo­nent,” says Abdelkrim. The read­er finds out that the two men were col­leagues in the Office of Indige­nous Affairs in Melil­la when Abdelkrim worked as a civ­il ser­vant in Melil­la. These moments of human­i­ty in the bat­tle­field cre­ate a con­trast between Abdelkrim’s ethics and his adver­saries’ con­tra­ven­tion of the sim­ple prin­ci­ples of war. The fight­ers return home tri­umphant, and the Rif will nev­er be the same.



Fore­shad­ow­ing the trans­for­ma­tive nature of what just hap­pened in the Bat­tle of Annu­al, the last page of the com­ic starts with the image of an almond tree in full bloom. The com­men­tary accom­pa­ny­ing the image reads: “We are in 1922 in Ajdir. Spring will start soon and the first buds of almond trees are bloom­ing…. A new era was going to start.”[15] The new era was noth­ing but the procla­ma­tion of Abdelkrim as Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic of the Rif in Ajdir on Feb­ru­ary 1922. Ajdir has acquired a sym­bol­ic sig­nif­i­cance both as cra­dle of a resis­tance move­ment and a locus of an inde­pen­dent repub­lic in the north of Moroc­co. Because of this his­to­ry, Ajdir has rarely been spo­ken about. Even when King Mohammed VI announced the estab­lish­ment of the Roy­al Insti­tute for Amazigh Cul­ture (IRCAM) in 2001, the announce­ment was made in the Ajdir locat­ed in the gov­er­norate of Khenifra. One Ajdir fur­ther envelops the oth­er in amne­sia. The flag of the new repub­lic is repro­duced three times, once alone, anoth­er on top of the maḥka­ma build­ing, which served as a head­quar­ters for the Rif­fi­an gov­ern­ment, and final­ly in the back­ground behind Abdelkrim dur­ing an offi­cial meet­ing in his office. The red flag, which has a white dia­mond in whose cen­ter are dis­played a green cres­cent and pen­ta­gram, is a visu­al state­ment about the Repub­lic of the Rif. From uni­fy­ing the tribes to defeat­ing the Span­ish and estab­lish­ing a local sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, Rif­fi­ans are shown as being stu­dious and self-reliant. It is there­fore, not sur­pris­ing that the last scene of the com­ic presages a new era “of armed strug­gle for peo­ples’ enfran­chise­ment.”[16]


As we know by now, Abdelkrim became an icon for transna­tion­al gueril­la strug­gle against impe­ri­al­ism from Cuba to Viet­nam. Despite his defeat in 1926 and his 21-year exile in La Réu­nion, his leg­end had already been estab­lished and his larg­er-than-life mythol­o­gized per­sona has tak­en pan-Arab, pan-Islam­ic, and pan-Third-World dimen­sions that sur­passed any of the Moroc­can post­colo­nial leaders.


This mythol­o­giza­tion dri­ves L’Émir. The com­ic repro­duces knowl­edge that has been an object of oral trans­mis­sion for eight decades. Dur­ing one of his inter­views, Nad­rani declares that dur­ing his enforced dis­ap­pear­ance, he and his col­leagues were not allowed to read or write, but they strate­gized to fight against “ero­sion and for­get­ting.”[17] Abdelkrim’s sto­ry was one of the sto­ries Nad­rani reg­is­tered with­in this action against amne­sia. Abdelkrim’s arrest­ed mem­o­ry sus­tained Banou Hachim’s group resis­tance and informed Nadrani’s com­ic-based cel­e­bra­tion of his legacy.


In addi­tion to con­tin­u­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Abdelkrim as a hero who is unjust­ly for­got­ten by the post-inde­pen­dence state, Nadrani’s com­ic recov­ers and recen­ters his sto­ry with­in the larg­er his­to­ry of lib­er­a­tion in Moroc­co and beyond. His mem­o­ry and silenced glo­ry lend them­selves to mul­ti­ple forms of recu­per­a­tion local­ly and glob­al­ly. The proof is the mush­room­ing of Abdelkrim’s pic­tures, the recy­cling of his dia­tribes against colo­nial­ism in protest signs, and the bran­dish­ing of the flag of the Repub­lic of the Rif dur­ing major protests. His mem­o­ry is resig­ni­fied and rein­vent­ed indef­i­nite­ly to fight for social jus­tice, democ­ra­ti­za­tion, and free­dom. While all state means are put into action year-long to remind Moroc­cans of their three post-colo­nial mon­archs, Abdelkrim has attained a phoenix-like sta­tus in Moroc­can people’s col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. Abdelkrim’s is an obdu­rate mem­o­ry — that is an action dri­ven form of remem­ber­ing that seeks to shape how the past is ques­tioned and told.


For now, Abdelkrim has pre­vailed, even in com­ic form.



  • [1] ‘Abd al-Karīm Ghal­lāb . ‘Abd al-Karīm Ghal­lāb fī mud­hakkirāt siyāsiyya wa-ṣiḥāfīya (Rabat: Maṭba‘at al-Ma‘ārīf al-Jadī­da, 2010), 198.

  • [2] Mohammed Nad­rani, “Mohammed Nad­rani : le dessin ou la folie…,” Afri­cul­ture.

  • [3] Nad­rani, “ le dessin ou la folie.”

  • [4] Nad­rani, “ le dessin ou la folie.”

  • [5] Zakya Daoud. Abdelkrim: Une épopée d’or et de sang (Paris : Séguier, 1999), 16.

  • [6] See Mustapha Mroun. Al-Tārīkh al-sir­rī li-al-ḥarb al-kīmāwīyya diḍḍa minṭaqat al-rīf wa-jbāla (1921–1927) (Rabat: Dār al-Qalam, 2018)

  • [7] It is almost impos­si­ble to count the num­ber of stud­ies that have been done about him in Moroc­co and abroad.

  • [8] The script for “Alb­delkrim y la epopeya del Rif” was writ­ten by Juan Goyti­so­lo.

  • [9] Ahmed Bero­ho. Abdelkrim:Le lion du Rif (Tanger: Corail 2003)

  • [10] Collin McK­in­ney and David F. Richter, eds. Span­ish Graph­ic Narratives

  • Recent Devel­op­ments in Sequen­tial Art (New York: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2020), 3.

  • [11] See, for exam­ple, Lau­rike in ’t Veld. The Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Geno­cide in Graph­ic Nov­els Con­sid­er­ing the Role of Kitsch (New York: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2019); Mihaela Pre­cup. The Graph­ic Lives of Fathers: Mem­o­ry, Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and Father­hood in North Amer­i­can Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Comics (New York: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2020); Maa­heen Ahmed and Benoît Cru­ci­fix, eds. Comics Mem­o­ry

  • Archives and Styles (New York: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2018).

  • [12] Susan Sly­omovics. The Per­for­mance of Human Rights in Moroc­co (Philadel­phia: Uni­ver­si­ty Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2005), 158.

  • [13] Nad­rani, “ le dessin ou la folie.”

  • [14] Ali al-Idris­si. ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Khaṭṭābī: Al-tārīkh al-muḥāṣar (Casablan­ca: Maṭba‘at al-Ma‘ārif al-Jadī­da, 2007)

  • [15] Mohammed Nad­rani. L’Émir Ben Abdelkrim (Casablan­ca: Edi­tions AL AYAM, 2008), 64.

  • [16] Nad­rani, L’Émir, 64.

  • [17] Nad­rani, “ le dessin ou la folie.”

Amazigh cultureBerberFezgraphic novelsMelillaMohammed NadraniMorocco

Brahim El Guabli is an Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies and Comparative Literature at Williams College. His forthcoming book is entitled Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship after State Violence. He’s at work on a second book project entitled Saharan Imaginations: Between Saharanism and Ecocare. His journal articles have appeared in PMLA, Interventions, the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Arab Studies Journal, META, and the Journal of North African Studies, among others. He is co-editor of the two forthcoming volumes of Lamalif: A Critical Anthology of Societal Debates in Morocco During the “Years of Lead” (1966-1988) (Liverpool University Press) and Refiguring Loss: Jews in Maghrebi and Middle Eastern Cultural Production (Pennsylvania State University Press).


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