Book Number 17: This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
On July 10 1971, 1,000 Moroccan soldiers were herded into trucks and taken to the palace of Skhirat, where King Hassan II was celebrating his 42nd birthday. Upon arrival, their commanding officers instructed them to find and kill him. Almost 100 guests lost their lives in the ensuing bloodbath, but the king survived. Those deemed responsible were dispatched to Kenitra, a prison known for its harsh conditions. However, most of those imprisoned were unwitting and unwilling participants in the coup and many had not fired a shot. On a sultry August night two years later, 58 of them were again herded into trucks and taken to the remote desert hellhole of Tazmamart; here they were thrown into underground cells 10ft long and 5ft wide, with ceilings so low they were unable to stand, and with just enough food and water to keep them lingering on the edge of death for years. Each tomb had an air vent and a tiny hole in the floor that served as the lavatory. They were crawling with cockroaches and scorpions the men could hear but not see. There was no medical attention, no exercise, and no light. The only time they were allowed out was to bury one of their friends. Thirteen years would pass before the outside world found out that Tazmamart existed. It would take another five years of international campaigning to shut it down. There were only 28 survivors. By 1991, most had lost up to a foot in height. Survivors were warned not to talk to the western press, but in Tahar Ben Jelloun the authorities have an enemy more formidable than 1,000 foreign journalists. This Blinding Absence of Light is based on the testimony of a former inmate of Tazmamart.
I only discovered the above passage after finishing the novel. It lent a new depth to what I had read; for some reason, I believed the entire account to be fictional, and was unaware that Tazmamart had actually existed. There isn’t really anything I can say about this book that hasn’t been said or that won’t sound like a cliche. All I can say is that this is what it means to be a survivor. These are the things you never think you will have to endure and would not think anyone could endure. It is the stuff nightmares are made of. Melodramatic, I know, but it comes from me and does not exist in the book. There is acceptance and adaptation; no dwelling on how and why and when it will be over. Emotion must be banished in order to endure.
I wouldn’t call this ‘a joy to read’ as one Guardian reviewer did, but it certainly made me step back and evaluate some of the things I take for granted in my life. As James McCosh said, “The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.”