This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun | Book Review

“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.”

‘This Blinding Absence of Light’ by a Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun narrates a story of political prisoners who took part in a failed coup against King Hassan II of Morocco in 1971. This story is based on real events and author’s interview with a former prisoner Aziz Binebine.

Following the attempt to oust the King, sixty people were incarcerated for eighteen years in a secret prison called Tazmamart which was located in the Sahara Desert. The conditions in that prison were horrid, atrocious. The prisoners were literally buried alive, kept in a complete darkness in a single underground cell of five foot high and nine foot long where they could not stand up nor sit up; scorpions and other insects occupied the cells with the prisoners, with one small hole for air and another hole in the ground used as a lavatory. They only received enough food to make it until next day. The only time they were allowed to go out was to bury other prisoners.

Through international campaigning, twenty eight prisoners were released in 1991. Others did not survive due to the appalling conditions.
.Although the book tells a story of a fictional character called Salim, the conditions described at Tazmamart are real, based on accounts of those who survived.

Salim, the main character, found the strength and the meaning in the religion, Islam. Although he was not religious prior to his incarceration. He also refused to hate the ones who put him in these conditions.

“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.”

Jelloun’s prose is beautiful; the book constitutes a celebration of the human spirit to survive in the most inhumane conditions.

‘This Blinding Absence of Light’ is one of the greatest books I have read about the incarceration. I truly believe that this should be read along with the books on the Soviet Gulags by Solzhenitsyn and by Herling-Grudzinski, death and concentration camps literature from WWII.

This is a difficult book, unsentimental but it is an important read as it shows us that there are places in this world where ‘The Hell’ does exist.

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  1. Sounds a grim but essential read. I have read another about life in this prison – In the Moroccan King’s Secret Garden and that reminds us that we have not moved very far from the gulags, concentration camps and secret prisons. Keep an eye out for Prisoner Without a Name – another painful read. Stay Well

    1. Oh, Thank you so much for your comment 💐 I will definitely check those two titles you mentioned. Sadly I don’t think there is much awareness about what happened in Morocco, at least in the anglophone world…. In the UK where I live there is also very little knowledge about the Gulags despite their enormity. My roots are Eastern European so this topic of camps, secret prisons, the Gulags is very close to my heart. I will read more about Morocco and will encourage everyone around me to read it too. Hope you stay well and thriving 🌺🙏🌺

      1. You are most welcome!
        Agreed, it’s sad but true that these things do not gain the currency that they deserve particularly compared to, say, the cult of celebrity etc. I am unsure whether it’s due to apathy or a quiet resigned acceptance that the world can be an ugly place and it’s best not to look into the dark corners too closely?

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