The hardest and most unbearable silence was that of light. A powerful and manifold silence. There was the silence of the night, always the same, and then there was the silence of the light. A long and endless absence.
Outside, not only over our pit but above all far away from it, there was life. You could not think too much about it, but I liked to imagine it so as not to die of forgetfulness. Imagine, and not remember. Life, the real one, not that dirty rag blowing across the ground, no, life in its exquisite beauty, I mean in its simplicity, its marvelous banality: a child smiling after tears: eyes blinking in too bright a light; a women trying on a dress: a man sleeping in the grass…page 51/52
In 10 July 1971, disaffected student Salim took part in a failed coup to oust King Hassan II of Morocco. With sixty others he was incarcerated in a secret prison complex in the Moroccan desert, Tazmamart; they were to remain there for nearly 20 years.
So these prisoners live in the most horrific conditions of the five by ten foot cells (not tall enough to stand upright) and left to die. For 18 years and 6663 days Salim and the others live in subterranean dungeons with blinding darkness. Salvaging every possible resources of a metal tip of the broom to cut their hairs, the extra clothing from a dead inmates to keep them from the cold, living on starchy food and dry bread, scorpions that stings some inmates to death, fever, rheumatism etc. the physical and mental deprivation the prisoners suffered are multiple, only with unbelievable will and endurance that kept a few of them alive.
Faith is not fear. suicide is not a solution. An ordeal is a challenge. Resistance is a duty, not an obligation. Keeping one’s dignity is an absolute necessity. That’s it: dignity is what I have left. Each of us does what he can to preserve his dignity. That is my mission. To remain on my feet, be a man, never a wretch, a dishrag, a mistake.
Working closely with one of the survivors Ben Jelloun, in starkly eloquent, beautiful prose, Tahar Ben Jelloun relates the prisoner’s experiences as they struggle to survive. Salim, the son of a witty, feckless courtier who disowns him, Salim tells stories to inmates to keep them sane. Salim remembered his mother, at times taking an out of body journey of the mind to wander and escape his present reality.
We had two assets: our bodies and our minds. I quickly decided to use all possible means to save my brain. I protect my conscience and intellect. The body belongs to our captors, was in their power. They tortured without touching it, amputating a limb or two simply by denying us medical care. But my thoughts had to remain out of reach: my real survival, freedom, my refuge, my escape.
I cleaned out the vomit and the shit. I was there adn elsewhere at the same time. I hummer as though I were happy. I had decided to renounce sadness and hatred, just as I had renounced memory.
Salim bears no hatred. As he spent 20 years in a desert goal of Tazmamart, he pray against hatred and revenge:
I pray to the infinite. I pray to God so that I can withdraw from the world. But the world comes down to so very, very little, as you know. I am struggling not against the world, but against the feelings that prowl around us, trying to pull us toward the well of hatred. I don’t pray for, but with. I don’t pray in hopes of something, but against the weariness of survival. I pray against the lassitude that threatens to strangle us. So, my dear Rushdie, prayer is completely gratuitous.
I had to move beyond the idea of revenge once and for all, become impervious to its torments, because revenge smelled strongly of death and did not solve any problems. Search as I might, I found no one to detest. This meant I had returned to a state of mind I love above all others: I was a free man.
In October 29, 1991, with the help of AmnestyInternational campaigning for years and increasing worldly items of little comfort such as shaving cream and toothbrushes are distributed to inmates, Salim is freed and he had just been born. His ribcage was deformed, his lung capacity diminished. He dragged his right leg when he walked. The words he spoke had been winnowed. He admire his home faucets for a long time, he looked at them and not dare use them. He slept on the hard bed instead of a mattress even months after his release. For 20 years I had not lived, and the man who had existed before July 10, 1971, was dead and buried somewhere on a mountain or a verdant plain.
Although the book deal with a grim topic, it is a inspiring and delightful read. It is filled with wry humour and hilarious anecdotes. The pure mention of djellaba, babouches, kelb, riad,Jamaa El Fna, kaaba and medina and all things Moroccan add a personal touch and what is familiar to me.
If you want to read a book that transform your life, this might be it. The novel is a heart wrenching yet exquisite celebration of the human spirit and it determination to survive.
Sept 2, 1991, the prison was bulldozed. It was destroyed of any evidence that it ever exists.
But the stories of the inmates exist, and one that lingers so long in my mind after I have finished the book. Whenever I feel like I can’t go on with tough challenges in my life, I think back of this book and I am inspired to live on.
This is undoubtedly the best book I have ever read this year.
Tahar Ben Jelloun studied philosophy in Rabat and psychology in Paris.
He attends to lectures in social psychology and works as psychotherapist. He writes in French although his first language is Arabic. He writes for diverse reviews and in particular for Le Monde. His novel La Nuit Sacrée won the Prix Goncourt in 1987. In 2004 he was awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (Prize award of Euro 100k) for This Blinding Absence of Light (translated from the French by Linda Coverdale).
In September 2006, Tahar Ben Jelloun was awarded a special prize for “peace and friendship between people” at Lazio between Europe and the Mediterranean Festival. On 1 February 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy awarded him the Cross of Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur. In his novel, Leaving Tangier, Ben Jelloun writes about a Moroccan brother and sister who leave their impoverished home in search of better lives in Spain.
Ben Jelloun is married and father of 4 children. He lives in Paris.
Another Tazmamart Prison story, this time by daughter of General Oufkir, Malika Oufkir, incarcerated for 20 years after her father’s coup d’etat and an assassination attempt on King Hassan II’s life, read La Prisonniere by Malika Oufkir.