I recently finished reading Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence Of Light, a short novel that narrates the 1971 Shikrat coup d’état from the point of view of a prisoner detained in the secret prison of Tazmamart, where dissidents were held in conditions that violated the most basic human rights: locked in underground cells that barely allowed standing, in almost total absence of light, prisoners survived without clothes, fundamental nutrients nor communication with the external world.
Without digging into the political implications of the affair, Tahar Ben Jelloun lets the cruelty of imprisonment creep under our skin, by depicting the bodily humiliation and the spiraling insanity in which prisoners are thrown during their 18 years of permanence in jail.
At some point, prisoners are tortured by having scorpions released in their cells by the guards, which prevents each single man from sleeping or escaping to mysticism.
Driven by survival instinct, prisoners are taken away even the privilege of forgetting their own physical dimension. The ease provided by sleep and prayer is a luxury to be avoided, now that the poison of the scorpions threatens to add the burden of agony within the group of prisoners.
To counterbalance pages of intense physicality, there are pages of metaphysical purity.
A prisoner, Karim, becomes the guardian of time and closes himself in an impenetrable silence, aimed at measuring the passing of hours and days.
Salim, the protagonist, takes a spiritual journey from agnosticism to contemplation, recognizing divine images in the abstract beauty of words, which he generously gives to his companions in the form of stories, memories and dreams.
What elevates the prisoners to salvation, or plunges them into final perdition, is the ability to endlessly manipulate the narrative material acquired in a previous life – the life before imprisonment.
Accepting the incompatibility of two such conflicting experiences, at the moment of liberation (which coincides with the conclusion of the book) Salim prepares to be born a second time, clumsily navigating a world that has completely changed and reserves for him a new cognitive imprisonment, a new “blinding absence of light”.
Tahar Ben Jelloun (Arabic: طاهر بنجلون; Fès, December 1st, 1944) is a Moroccan writer, poet and essayist, who moved to France following the arabization of the cultural sector in Morocco.
After acquiring in France a PhD on Social Psychiatry, on top of his Moroccan degree in Philosophy, Ben Jelloun focused his research on the conditions of immigrants, their mental health and the racism present in suburban communities in France.