* Prices may differ from that shown
In 1971 a group of army officers staged an unsuccessful attempted coup d'etat against the Moroccan king Hassan II during his 42nd birthday party at one of his palaces. Over a hundred people died at the scene but the king escaped. Whilst I know little about the king, I spent some time in the mid 1980s with some Moroccan students in France who hated the man with a passion but were mostly reluctant to go into too much detail (not that my schoolgirl French would have helped me very much). As is shown by the abuse described in This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun, and has been clearly confirmed by revelations resulting from events in the Middle East and North Africa this year, acts of despotic behaviour by leaders in the region were not uncommon. Shamefully for our governments it's also clear that it's not a 'new' thing for the international community to cheerfully look the other way so long as it suited them to do so. Happily the current king, Mohammed VI, seems to be cut from a different cloth than his father but once you read about what happened to the men in this story, you'll probably feel as I do that there are a lot of questions that should be asked about this seemingly peaceful and stable country.
They say "All's fair in love and war" but there's nothing 'fair' about what happened after the coup. The officers who masterminded the plot (though it was so badly executed that the term 'masterminded' is perhaps the wrong one) were given the honour that their rank demanded - a firing squad and a fast clean death. For the men who followed them, many entirely unaware of what was going on, one of them only there because he was hitching a ride home to his village on the army truck - there was to be absolutely no mercy. Following a two year stint in the violent Kinetra prison, 60 of the men were transferred to a secret underground facility at Tazmamart in the Moroccan desert where they spent two decades incarcerated in tiny cells with ceilings too low to stand up in and with only a tiny air vent in the ceiling and a hole in the corner for a toilet. They were fed only the bare minimum of food necessary to keep them alive in order to prolong their suffering. Just a few cups of dirty water were provided each day to cover their drinking, cleaning and toilet needs. The intent was clear - they should die as slowly and painfully as possible until none would be left to tell their tale. 'This Blinding Absence of Light' is that tale - told through the memories of one man, Salim, who spent twenty years listening to most of the 30 men he went in with die the most inhumane of deaths as a result of disease, infestation, starvation and brutality. His survival is so much more than just a testament to the strength of the human spirit because he came out of the experiences with his faith, his dignity and his sense of 'self' still intact.
The slim book about Salim and his fellow prisoners serves as his personal story and his record of the lives and deaths of the men he suffered with, telling the world what happened to them so that they can never be entirely forgotten. Salim's testimony defies the intent of the men who sent them to die, who buried them to bury their stories. The book ensures they have not succeeded in wiping history clean of what happened out in the desert. The brutality goes beyond the worst imagination of the most graphic horror story writers and Salim calmly reports the unthinkable ways in which men died. The images will stay with you long after the book is finished and placed back on the shelf. Many went mad and that's entirely understandable. Others were eaten away by disease and in once case literally by cockroaches - for that man, Salim tells us it was a race between the gangrene and the cockroaches to see which would kill him first. The cockroaches won. There are many more such horrifying deaths but I don't want to disgust you so badly that you won't read the rest of my review but I do need to warn those who may want to read the book that it is one of the most explicitly horrible and horrifying true stories that I've ever read. You SHOULD read it - but I'd entirely understand if you chose not to.
~Kept in the Dark~
The men only ever saw daylight when they were dragged blinking out of their cells to help with the burial of their fellow prisoners. We naturally ask why Salim should have fared so much better than many of the men and there seem to have been some key things that kept him alive - an excellent memory and a phenomenal capacity to accept his lot and not give in to hatred are the two key factors I identified. He became the story teller of the group - a modern day male Scheherazade recreating for the other men stories he'd seen in films or read in books. His near photographic memory has him repeating poetry, long stretches of books and large chunks of the Koran as well as recreating scenes from 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and Camus' 'L'etranger'. One man becomes their time keeper - focusing all his energies on keeping track of the hours and minutes of every day until the task becomes too much and his inner clock runs down. Another specialises in inspirational passages of holy books. Together the men work to keep each other alive as long as they can bear, always understanding that not everyone can take as much as others and mourning the loss of each man whilst thanking God for his release from earthly suffering.
A lot of books come with flashes on the cover claiming 'This book will change your life' but this makes no such claims. For me though it would entirely deserve to say such things. I was deeply moved and inspired by some passages and found myself ringing troubled friends and reading the odd paragraph out of wonderment at the power of the words. I was reading this a couple of weeks ago, at a time when the media were incessantly rehashing the events of 9/11, stirring up hatred and blame and picking the scabs off unhealed wounds and I took enormous comfort from Tahar Ben Jelloun's words.
At the beginning of Chapter 9, Salim tells us of his fellow prisoners:
"Most of those who died did not die of hunger but of hatred. Feeling hatred diminishes you. It eats at you from within and attacks the immune system. When you have hatred inside you it always crushes you in the end".
This is such an interesting twist on the conventional altruistic message of 'forgive other people because it's the right or holy thing to do'. What Salim is telling us is that we should forgive and move on because it's the only healthy way for any of us to survive. Hatred - even small dislikes and annoyance we have with other people - are so much more destructive to us personally than they are to those who are the targets of those feelings. Forgive for selfish reasons - because it's the best way to protect yourself.
~Short but Powerful~
The book stretches to just 190 pages in the Penguin edition which I have and despite its immense power, I can't tell you that it's a compelling page turner. It's not an easy read and it's quite a task to keep going to the end. How can you spice up a story which basically covers 20 years sitting in the dark listening to people die around you? How can you differentiate between one horrible day and the next other than by recording the deaths and absuses along the way? But once you start reading you will have to keep going because to give up along the way would be disrespectful to the suffering of the dead. It's possibly not great literature if viewed only as the sum of the words on the page - but if you measure instead their impact, then it punches well above it's word count.
Often a book such as This Blinding Absence of Light would come with either a substantial foreword or a long afterword to give us additional info about the events that led to the coup, perhaps more information on the prison or the circumstances leading to the eventual release of the few surviving men. I would have appreciated perhaps some more information about the man, identified only once - on the cover - as Salim - whose story Tahar Ben Jelloun has reported in his book. But strangely, very strangely indeed, there is none of the background or explanation I expected. The words stand alone with only a short glossary of words or names that the author or his translator think may be unfamiliar to readers. There is no sugar coating, fluff or padding - it's just 190 pages of straight testimony. If you do want to know more - and I did - there's a lot of information about Tahar Ben Jelloun and his work on the internet though I found nothing about how he came to meet Salim and tell his story. I also found the book variously categorised as both fiction and non-fiction - in one case the ambiguous term 'non-fiction novel' was used. Somehow the uncertainty and mystery associated with the book are both acceptable and almost desirable and I actually liked the way the story has been pared down to nothing more than the testimony of Salim.
The final thought I would leave you with is that recent reports from Libya have said that there could be thousands of prisoners in underground jails in the country but nobody knows where they are. As you read this, spare a thought for the men - possibly women - who even today might be dying in the dark like Salim and his friends, abandoned by jailers who've gone to ground and left them there. And maybe spare a second thought for our politicians who used to cosy up to men like Gaddafi, Mubarek and Assad as recently as just a couple of years ago and consider why they've been allowed to get away with it.
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Published by Penguin Books