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An immediate and critically acclaimed bestseller in France, This Blinding Absence of Light is the latest work by internationally renowned author Tahar Ben Jelloun, the first North African winner of the Prix Goncourt and winner of the Prix Mahgreb. Crafting real life events into narrative fiction, Ben Jelloun reveals the horrific story of the desert concentration camps in which King Hassan II of Morocco held his political enemies in underground cells with no light and only enough food and water to keep them ...
An immediate and critically acclaimed bestseller in France, This Blinding Absence of Light is the latest work by internationally renowned author Tahar Ben Jelloun, the first North African winner of the Prix Goncourt and winner of the Prix Mahgreb. Crafting real life events into narrative fiction, Ben Jelloun reveals the horrific story of the desert concentration camps in which King Hassan II of Morocco held his political enemies in underground cells with no light and only enough food and water to keep them lingering on the edge of death. Working closely with one of the survivors, Ben Jelloun narrates the story in the simplest of language and delivers a shocking novel that explores both the limitlessness of inhumanity and the impossible endurance of the human will.
For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret. There it would be, lodging in my breast and nourishing my endless nights, there, in the depths of the humid earth, in that tomb smelling of man stripped of his humanity by shovel blows that flay him alive, snatching away his sight, his voice, and his reason.
But what good was reason there, in our graves? I mean where we had been laid in the earth, left with a hole so we could breathe, so we could live for enough time, for enough nights to pay for our mistake, left with death in the guise of a subtle slowness, a death that was to take its time, all the time men have—the men we were no longer, and those who still kept watch over us, and those who had completely forgotten us. Oh, slowness! It was the chief enemy, the one that enveloped our battered bodies, leaving our open wounds plenty of time before they began to scar over, this slowness that made our hearts beat to the peaceful rhythm of la petite mort, as though we were supposed to fade away, a candle flickering in the distance and burning itself out as calmly as happiness. I often thought about that candle, made not of wax but of some unknown substance that gave the illusion of an eternal flame, symbolic of our survival. And I used to think about a giant hourglass, inwhich each grain of sand was a speck of our skin, a drop of our blood, a tiny breath of oxygen lost to us as time descended toward the abyss where we lay.
But where were we? We had arrived there unable to see. Was it nighttime? Probably. Night would be our companion, our territory, our world, and our cemetery. That was the first thing I learned. My survival, my wretchedness, my agony were inscribed on the veil of night. I knew this right away. It was as if I had always known this. Ah, night! My blanket of frozen dust, my fingers crushed by the butt of an automatic pistol, my stand of black trees set shivering by an icy wind to make my legs ache.... Night did not fall, as the expression goes; night was there, everlastingly. Queen of our sufferings, she brought them to our attention, in case we had managed to stop feeling anything, the way some of us did by concentrating so intensely that we slipped free from our bodies, and thus from our pain. We abandoned our bodies to the torturers and went off to forget all that in prayer or in some secret corner of the heart.
Night clothed us. In another world, one would say that night waited on us hand and foot. Above all, no light. Never the slightest ray of light. But even though we had lost our sight, our eyes had adjusted to this. We saw in the dark, or thought we did. Our images were shadows shifting about in the gloom, bumping into one another, even knocking over the water jug, or moving the morsel of stale bread some of us saved to ward off stomach cramps.
Night was no longer night, since there were no more days, no more stars, no more moon, no more sky. We were the night. We had become nocturnal: our bodies, breathing, heartbeats, the fumbling of our hands moving effortlessly from one wall to another in a space shrunk to the dimensions of a tomb for the living, although whenever I say that word, I should use "surviving" instead, yet I really was a living being, enduring life in extreme deprivation, an ordeal that could end only in death but that seemed strangely like life.
We were not in just any night. Ours was dank, very dank, sticky, dirty, clammy, smelling of human and rat urine, a night that came to us on a gray horse followed by a pack of mad dogs. Night had thrown her cloak over our faces no longer astonished by anything, a cloak without even the tiniest moth holes, oh, no: it was a cloak of wet sand. Earth mixed with the excrement of all kinds of animals settled on our skin, as though our funeral were over. The wind blowing in the cloak did bring us a little air so we would not die right away, just enough air to keep us far from life and quite close to death. This cloak weighed tons. Invisible and yet tangible. My fingers were rubbed raw when I touched it. I hid my hands behind my back to avoid all contact with the night, protecting them like that, but many a time I was forced by the chill of the damp cement to change positions, to lie prone, face pressed against the floor, preferring an aching forehead to aching hands. So there were preferences between two pains. Well, not really. The entire body had to suffer, every part, without exception. The tomb was arranged (another of life's words, but one does have to keep borrowing little things from life) so that the body would experience all imaginable torments, endure them ever so slowly, and remain alive to undergo further agony.
Actually, the tomb was a cell just under ten feet long and half as wide. Most of all, it was low, only about five feet high. I could not stand up. There was a hole for pissing and crapping. A hole less than four inches in diameter. The hole was a part of our bodies. We had to forget our existence fast, stop smelling the shit and urine, stop smelling anything at all. We couldn't very well hold our noses, no, we had to keep them open without smelling a single thing. That was difficult, at first. It was an apprenticeship, a necessary madness, a test we absolutely had to pass. Being there without being there. Shutting down my five senses, directing them elsewhere, giving them another life, as though I had been thrown into that grave without them. That's what it was—acting as though I had left them at a baggage checkroom, tucked away in a small suitcase, carefully wrapped in cotton or silk, then set aside without the torturers' knowledge, without anyone's knowledge. Betting on the future.
I fell into the pit like a bag of sand, like a package that looked human, I fell and I experienced nothing, I felt nothing and did not hurt anywhere. No: that state—I reached it only after years of suffering. I even believe the pain helped me. Through misery, through anguish, I slowly managed to withdraw from my body and see myself fighting the scorpion in that grave. I was hovering overhead. I was on the other side of night. But before I got there, I had to trudge for centuries through the darkness of a tunnel without end.
We had no beds, not even a piece of foam rubber for a mattress, not even a bale of hay or the esparto grass that animals sleep on. Each of us received two gray blankets bearing the printed number 1936. Was it the year of their manufacture or a specific code for those condemned to a slow death? Sturdy and light, the blankets had a hospital smell. They must have been soaked in disinfectant. We had to get used to it. In the summer they were not really necessary, while in the winter they were inadequate. I folded one to make a very narrow mattress. I slept on my side. When I wanted to change sides, I got up so as not to undo the folds. And like clockwork, especially in the beginning, I hit my head against the ceiling.
I wrapped myself in the other blanket and breathed the disinfectant, which gave me strange headaches. They were poisoned blankets!
How many times did I convince myself that the earth was going to gape open and swallow me! Everything had been quite well planned. For instance, we were allowed five quarts of water a day. Who had specified this amount? Doctors, probably. Anyway, the water was not really drinkable. I would pour some into a plastic jug I had and let it sit for a whole day. At the bottom of the jug would be a deposit of silt and slimy filth.
Since they had provided for everything, perhaps they had laid the flooring in the cell so that it would tilt after a few months or years and hurl us into the mass grave already dug right under the building.
On the night of July 10, 1971, I became ageless. I have grown neither older nor younger. I have lost my age. You can no longer read it in my face. In fact, I am no longer here to give my age a face. I came to a standstill over in nothingness, where time is abolished, tossed back to the wind, handed over to that vast beach of white sheet rippling in a light breeze, given up to the sky drained of its stars, its images, the childhood dreams that found refuge there, emptied of everything, even God. I crossed over there to learn forgetfulness, but I never succeeded in being completely within nothingness, not even in thought.
Misfortune arrived like a gust of wind, plain as could be, one morning when the sky was blue, so blue that my dazzled eyes could not see for a few seconds, and I hung my head as though it were about to fall off. I knew that very day would be the day of blue stained with blood. I knew it so intimately that I performed my ablutions and prayed in a corner of the barrack room, where a stifling silence reigned. I even said an extra prayer of farewell to life, to springtime, family, friends, dreams, the living. On the hillside across the way, a donkey looked at me with the sad and desolate air of those animals that would like to sympathize with humans in their sorrow. I thought, "At least he has no blood to shed, and no idea that the sky is blue."
Who still remembers the white walls of the palace of Skhirate? Who remembers the blood on the tablecloths, the blood on the bright green lawn? There was a brutal confusion of colors. The blue was no longer in the sky, the red was no longer on the bodies, the sun was lapping up the blood with extraordinary speed, and we, we had tears in our eyes. Tears that flowed all by themselves and soaked our hands that could not hold a weapon anymore. We were elsewhere, perhaps in the beyond, where eyes roll all the way back into the head. Our eyes were white. We no longer saw sky or sea. A cool wind caressed our skin. The sound of gunfire went on and on into infinity. It was to haunt us for a long time. It would be the only thing we heard. Our ears were busy. I cannot remember anymore whether we surrendered to the royal guard, the one that hunted down rebels, or whether we were arrested and disarmed by officers who had switched sides when the tide turned. We had nothing to say. We were only soldiers, pawns, junior officers too unimportant to take initiatives. We were bodies that were cold in the heat of that summer. Hands tied behind our backs, we were pitched into trucks heaped with the dead and wounded. My head was jammed between two dead soldiers. Their blood was trickling into my eyes. It was hot. Shit and urine were oozing from both bodies. Did I still have the right to be nauseated? I vomited bile. What does a man think of when the blood of other men runs down his face? A flower, a donkey on a hill, a child playing at musketeers with a stick for a sword ... Perhaps he no longer thinks at all. He tries not to be there, tries to leave his body, to believe he is asleep and trapped in a terrible dream.
No, I knew it was not a dream. My mind was clear. I was shaking all over. I did not hold my nose. I breathed deeply of vomit and death. I wanted to die of suffocation. I tried to stick my head into a plastic bag lying near the bodies. I managed only to anger a soldier who knocked me out with a kick to the back of my head. Losing consciousness, I no longer smelled the stench of the corpses. I couldn't smell anything anymore. I was free. A rifle butt slamming into my shins brought me back to life.
Where were we? It was cold. Perhaps in the morgue of the military hospital in Rabat. The living had not yet been sorted from the dead. Some of the wounded were moaning, others were banging their heads against the wall, cursing fate, religion,
Excerpted from THIS BLINDING ABSENCE OF LIGHT by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Copyright © 2001 by Éditions du Seuil. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Like many books that bear witness to human cruelty, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light is propelled by a simple, powerful narrative. Its spare tone and lean style are reminiscent of other great books of life under totalitarianism. (Elie Wiesel’s Night and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s memoir The Gulag Archipelago spring immediately to mind.) Ben Jelloun’s book is in many ways all the more affecting in that it deals with evil of smaller scale than these works, but its message is similar: that autocratic government institutions act without mercy.
The book is not without ambiguity. Though the protagonist/narrator is jailed for his role in a revolutionary coup attempt in 1971, few readers would sympathize with the revolutionaries in question: The “revolt against the state” that the narrator has participated in may to some resemble little more than the massacre of attendants at a royal birthday celebration.
Whatever the narrator’s guilt or the merits of his cause, his arrest condemns him to twenty years in a subterranean jail cell too small to stand up in. There the protagonist is subject to horrific tortures. But just as challenging over time is the unchanging purgatory of prison life: the same stale bread and weak coffee, the same complaints from the inmate in the next cell, the same memories of laughter and sunlight before his incarceration. Self-control is the narrator’s defense. “If it is the child within us who awakens when we are afraid,” he tells us, “here it was the wise man and the lunatic in me who revealed themselves as ardent opponents, each striving to take me the farthest from myself.”
This thought sustains him as he endures each new cruelty and indignity. By denying himself and controlling his thoughts, he remains relatively healthy and sane. His compatriots do not adapt so successfully: one dies trying to relieve his constipation, another tries to commit a gruesome suicide in a grave of quicklime, while two prisoners are devoured by roaches (one from the inside out, the other from the outside in).
And yet the success of the protagonist is not a tale of monkish self-mastery à la Nelson Mandela. The narrator’s every magical thought, intellectual rationalization, and appeal to God eventually fail him. And as the narrator tells his own story through memory, his story becomes more and more complex and unclear. He understandably resents his father for abandoning his family for a life of royal brownnosing, but it is clear that the narrator joined the coup in part from a fascination with the image of gunning down his father. Likewise, the protagonist’s relationship with his mother changes as the book progresses, from a strong binding tie between family members into an almost incestuous obsession. Ben Jelloun does not allow us to rest with a simple view of “the suffering hero” who stoically bears all adversity due to the purity and righteousness of his cause. Such a luxury, he seems to be telling us, is out of place if we want to understand the world as it is.
And that, in the end, touches on an important message of the book: Morocco’s postcolonial society is still dominated by dysfunction, from its elites to its revolutionaries; the colonized do not instantly recover once the colonizer leaves. That the narrator is saved not by his fellow citizens but a European-based Human Rights campaign adds a further twist to the portrait of a Morocco that has not yet escaped the turmoil of its past. That we respect the narrator’s suffering regardless of his political leanings is Ben Jelloun’s humane rejoinder to those who suggest easy solutions to the realities of postcolonial life.
ABOUT TAHAR BEN JELLOUN
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in the Moroccan city of Fes in 1944, a city still closely connected with its history as one of North Africa’s preeminent Islamic cities. Ancient hamlets within the city are still protected by Troy-like defensive walls, and the city is dotted with some of the oldest mosques in Africa. Fes was the center of multiple kingdoms in the past millennium, but in the twentieth century, Morocco came under French control, and the French moved the capital from Fes to Rabat. Like many African countries, it emerged from colonial rule in the 1950s, becoming an independent yet authoritarian monarchy. “Independent but not free” describes the Morocco of This Blinding Absence of Light.
Young Ben Jelloun followed his fortunes away from archaic Fes to the modern independent capital of Rabat where he found his voice, publishing his first collection of poems, Hommes sous linceul de silence, in 1971. Notably, it was a work in French—as the bulk of Ben Jelloun’s subsequent work would be—though Ben Jelloun’s native tongue is Arabic. Critical arguments have been made for and against his linguistic decision, but one point is undeniable: Ben Jelloun would never have become one of the preeminent literary voices of North Africa if he had written purely in Arabic. French was a window to Europe, and from there to the world.
In 1971 that Ben Jelloun moved to France, where he earned a Ph.D. in social work. His studies opened a new literary avenue, the retelling of stories told to him. Ben Jelloun turned the plight of some of his patients into his second novel, La Reclusion solitaire. In 1987, the sequel to that book, titled La Nuit sacree won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious prize for literature. This Blinding Absence of Light (originally titled Cette aveuglante absence de lumière) takes this writing style and sharpens its political edge: based on the testimony of an inmate from Tazmamart prison, This Blinding Absence of Light is an explicit call to arms for Morocco’s civil society. In 2004, Linda Coverdale’s translation of the book won Ireland’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Posted July 20, 2008
Posted January 24, 2006
It was well worth taking a detour and reading something not so main stream. The portrayal of the men living in those desert dungeon will keep me thinking for a long time. Excellent.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 9, 2010
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