Saturday Benefit to aid Hendersonville man who escaped Morocco
Speaking in a trembly, low voice, Ali Bourequat recounts the interrogation and torture he endured during 19 years as a political prisoner in Morocco.
The last 10 years were the worst. Confined to an underground cell in nearly total darkness in Tazmamart, the infamous Moroccan prison dungeon, Bourequat didn’t see the sun for nearly a decade. “I feel like it was the will of God that I survived,” Bourequat said. “That is for sure.”
Now a Hendersonville resident, Bourequat, 70, will share his story during “Peace from Terror,” a benefit concert and tribute to mark 9/11 at the Skyland Performing Arts Center in downtown Hendersonville.
Bourequat is still more comfortable speaking French than English. As he tells his horrific tale, Bourequat becomes tentative with emotion. His distinguished-looking face belies the endless nightmare that is his past.
“Here’s a gentleman with a dramatic international story, right here in Hendersonville,” said Kate Brighton, artistic director of the Skyland Performing Arts Center and Absolute Theatre Company. “Ali’s family took part in the treaties and negotiations that shaped Morocco and the Middle East as it is today.”
Proceeds will help Bourequat establish himself in Hendersonville and pay for his wife to move here from France.
The event also will feature the music of Pam and Don McMahon, and the McMahons hope they will be able to help Bourequat.
“We know that music heals, and we are blessed to share our music to support a man who has risen above his challenges and chosen healing instead of any of the other options that are more negative in nature,” Pam McMahon said. “Ali is creating peace in his life before our very eyes, and he stands tall as an example for all of us.”
In 1973, Bourequat and his two brothers were captured by the Moroccan secret police. Never tried or formally charged, the three brothers were tortured and shut away in a prison known by the code name “Fixed Point 1” near the town of Rabat.
“They took everything,” Bourequat said of the police. “We were completely without anything.”
Moroccan authorities told Bourequat’s first wife and child he was dead. His wife eventually remarried.
To this day, Bourequat and his brothers still don’t know why they were imprisoned. But they do have theories.
One is that the new king, Hassan II, may have been angry about warnings of on-going threats of his assassination. Another theory is tied to their father’s association with former King Mohammed V. During the 1950s and 1960s, their father was involved in setting up a counter-espionage service for the late king.
In 1981, the brothers were transferred to the most oppressive prison yet, Tazmamart, hidden in the Atlas Mountains of southeastern Morocco. The jail’s dungeon-like conditions were even more inhumane.
“There were two buildings inside a military camp — built like a box,” Bourequat said. “There were double-iron doors and 18-inch thick concrete walls.”
Each of the brothers was put into an individual cell with concrete floors and no lights or windows. For nearly 10 years, the men were never let out of the cells. They only saw light once or twice a day, when prison guards opened the cell doors to deliver a barely edible gruel of uncooked chick peas and water. Weak from the near starvation diet, Bourequat said he never laid on the floor — for fear that he would not be able to get up again. He slept slumped against the wall. He feared for his life.
“We were just waiting to get out — to simply get outside,” Bourequat said.
To pass the time, inmates communicated by shouting at the top of their lungs. They started an on-going conversation about a fantasy Parisian holiday to stave off death.
“They created a world where they could go out of the prison in their minds,” Brighton said.
Bourequat worked for months to convince a guard to mail a letter for him. The guard finally helped him. Bourequat’s letter detailed his plight. It finally reached the hands of a contact in France with connections to the U.S. CIA.
Under pressure from Amnesty International and the U.S. government during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, the Moroccan government closed Tazmamart in 1991. Bourequat and his brothers prepared for their release. Moroccan officials took them to a hidden health facility to be “refurbished,” an attempt to hide the scars of their ordeal, Bourequat said. They were transported to France and transferred to real hospitals, where Bourequat spent a month and his brothers stayed six months, to heal.
Bourequat said he and his family members were unjustly imprisoned as innocent victims of radical Islam, comparable to the attacks on 9/11. “We were victims as well,” Bourequat said. “King Hassan II killed and terrorized many thousands more. I feel honored to be counted.”
After his release, Bourequat wrote a book about his years in Moroccan prisons, “In the Moroccan King’s Secret Garden.” It was published in France and the U.S. Bourequat traveled with Amnesty International, lecturing about his plight. He again feared for his life after accusing the French government of complacency about his political imprisonment. In 1995, he sought and was granted asylum in the U.S. from political persecution in France. He subsequently has testified at the U.S. State Department, at the U.N. headquarters, and in Geneva about his years in prison.
Bourequat looks forward to sharing his story with area residents at Saturday’s event. “Peace from Terror” is a multimedia program featuring the McMahon’s music, a native American flute performance by Michele Skeele and a slide show of Bourequat as a little boy listening to his mother read a letter.
“The whole idea for the program is that out of terror, we can bring peace,” Brighton said. People of all faiths who died in 9/11 will be honored, she said.
At a friend’s urging, Bourequat moved to Hendersonville from Witchita Falls, Texas, in January 2009. Despite all he has suffered, Bourequat has big dreams for the future.
He plans to write a book about the history of the end of the French occupation of Morocco.
“There’s a lot that the royal family would like to hide,” he said. “There are things that need to be told to the American people and to the rest of the world.”
He looks forward to setting up a household with his wife in Hendersonville and getting back into business. He hopes to find a partner and export American soft drinks to Europe or get into the mobile telecommunications business.
On Saturday night, he will take orders for copies of his first book, “In the Moroccan King’s Secret Garden,” about his years as a political prisoner.
Above all, Bourequat wants Brighton and other performers to know how grateful he is for the benefit and his life. He and his brothers saw so many prisoners die in the Moroccan prisons.
“We all got out alive when many of them didn’t,” he said.