How do you write about a group women murdered by a serial killer in 1906 Morocco, when history saw fit to only record that there were 36 of them? No names, ages, personal circumstances, just a staggeringly high number – literally a body count, and no more.
That was the question I found myself facing one quiet afternoon as I surreptitiously went down an Internet rabbit hole. I was searching for a ranking of countries by serial killers. Essentially, I wanted to know which countries had the most prolific serial killers. It was a quiet day at the office.
I soon found myself reading a newspaper clipping from the Times in 1906 detailing the crimes of a serial killer in Marrakesh and the discovery of the remains of 36 women. The newspaper reports were calling him the Moorish Jack the Ripper. This particular serial killer stood out to me.
To explain, I am British of Moroccan heritage and when my parents decided to uproot their lives and move to the UK sometime in the late 1960s, they chose Whitechapel as their preferred place to settle. It doesn’t take much to appreciate why a British Moroccan woman, raised on the same streets where Jack the Ripper committed his crimes, might be gripped by the story of a Moroccan serial killer committing similar crimes 15 years later.
Trawling the Internet, visits to the British Library, the National Archives, archives in Morocco and history books all failed to answer that simple question.
So I travelled to Marrakesh, thinking if these women’s lives weren’t worthy of being recorded in the annals of his story then perhaps they existed in the oral history of the city itself. I asked people if they had heard of the Moorish Jack the Ripper and who his victims might have been. Much like the alleyways of Marrakesh, I kept hitting dead ends. The presumption was repeated: they must have been prostitutes.
So how do I write the lives of 36 women murdered by a serial killer, disregarded by history and blamed by society? As a woman I felt tempted to defy the norms sitting behind the violence, silence and commendation inflicted on them. As a writer I felt a strong desire to retain some authenticity of the times in which they lived and their place in them. The same question churned as I began the writing. Who were these women?
In the end, where our records and collective memory failed them, empathy prevailed. I realised the one thing it was safe to assume, was those 36 women were no different to me, and every woman I have ever known. The fact they lived over 100 years ago was no reason to assume they were not people in their own right, in possession of their own feelings and thoughts. But, like many of us even today, they too lived under and had to navigate patriarchy, some failing to achieve their potential because of it.
I realised I would be doing a disservice to those 36 unknown female victims if I tried to write them into our stories as empowered and independent. If I did not speak to their place in society how could I possibly be authentic in the telling of their story? In her Reith Lectures, Dame Hilary Mantel explained the dilemma female writers of historical fiction face when she said: 'If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?'
I believe when you set out to write the stories of women in history a conflict will arise for the writer. The conflict exists in the difference between who these women were and what society expected of them. If, as writers, we gloss over the difference by failing to tell the impacts of those expectations we run the risk of losing a sense of how much progress has been made and how much still needs to happen, while also muffling what it meant to be them.
Eventually, I came to the realisation that the place of these 36 women did not diminish their strength, only their ability to assert it in the world. I realised I would be serving them and us more if I embraced the conflict, sat in the difference and wrote from that place.
Saeida Rouass is the author of Eighteen Days of Spring and Assembly of the Dead, a fictional telling of the crimes of the Moorish Jack the Ripper. She is currently writing the sequel to Assembly of the Dead, titled Library of Untruths. Follow her on Twitter here.