Tahar Ben Jelloun “This Blinding Absence of Light” (2001)

Tahar Ben Jelloum, This Blinding Absence of Light (2001) [2005]

 Trans. (fr. to eng.): Linda Coverdale

After a long pause, I come back to the literature reviews that I so much enjoy! In this case I also add some reflections on the role of literature in the defense of human rights and the formation of public sphere.

This Blinding Absence of Light is the based on a true story of Aziz Binebine, in the book named Selim, who, being a lieutenant in the Moroccan army in 1971, participated in a failed coup d’ètat against Hussain II without being aware of it. The unexpected consequences became an issue of global concern 20 years later, after the world found out that there were some human beings, or so they were before they were imprisoned, living a wretched slowly death. After some years in a regular jail, they disappear from all documentation and any contact with the world was prevented from them. They were being sent to a prison-like hell named Tazmamart, a place that was supposed to be the end of their long lives.


Buried alive in darkness they spent their daily eternities in prayers, storytelling, language exchanges, and forgetfulness, each of them from their own meager individual cell communicating across the corridor. The life we take for granted did not exist in Tazmamart; the life itself did not exist in there, nothing but their own conscience where Selim so hardly took refuge:

 “We were to lose a little of our health with each passing day until the end, until extinction. I quickly decided to use all possible means to save my brain. I began to protect my conscience and my intellect. The body was exposed; in a way, it belonged to our captors, was in their power. They tortured it without touching, amputating a limb or two simply denying us medical care. But my thoughts had to remain out of reach: that was my real survival, my freedom, my refuge, my escape. To stay alive my mind needed training, gymnastics. I had removed and even erased memories that could drag me towards the abyss; in the same way, I decided to exercise my intellect by being lucid, absolutely and ferociously lucid.” (46)

 blinding 2Tahar Ben Jelloun remarkably reconstructs Tazmamart around the reader and every word he writes makes you feel imprisoned. He really brings you right next to the Salim to suffer hunger and to find in darkness the refuge of oblivion. And it is right there, down in the hole of hell, when every little sound that you read makes you cry. His prose is so poetic that the reading has been a painful joy. I needed to space out the chapter breathing to allow myself the time to swallow what somebody else suffered.

Debate: Human Rights, Literature and the “Public Sphere”

The prison literature in Morocco has been a considerable field of research of which I would like to recommend The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (Susan Slyomovics, University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia, 2005). In this text we find a complete and in-depth analysis of the great variety of novels, poetry, drawings, and testimonies that prisoners of conscience wrote after they survived torture and imprisonment. This book also is a very detailed account of the practices of resistance inside prison carried out by women and Islamist activists defending their rights to be treated as human beings. The author also introduces the contemporary process of recognition since the arrival of Mohammad VI to the throne and the struggle of human rights groups to protect dissidents and political opposition. Susan Slyomovics successfully opens up the dialogue of the politics of the public memory and human rights in Morocco.

blinding 4

It is very interesting the debate that Valerié Orlando introduces about the authorship and the possible “appropriation of the narratives”. The dispute between Aziz Binebine, the author of the original testimonial and former prisoner himself, and Tahar Ber Jelloun, the writer of This Blinding Absence of Light, is the same debate that exist between the society and the individual. The latter is accused of abducting the testimony and the outmost intimate experiences in jail, while he did not really bear the abuses described. On the other hand Ben Jelloun defends himself with the aspiration of spreading the voice and “let[ing] the whole world know what Tazmamart was!”1

Without the pretension of judging the morality of this specific debate, the underlying discussion is the social participation and identification with the people who were disappeared, imprisoned or persecuted. On the one hand it is noticeable that the whole Moroccan society was suffering the Years of Lead, although the great majority might not have been in prison, the fear and the repression were common among the “free” Moroccans. On the other hand, it should be valued that not the whole society suffered with the same intensity, and moreover, a part of the society is responsible of such abuses.

Although this debate belongs to that of the identity, individual versus collective identities, or the composition of the society, as a gathering of individuals or as a unique social block, it can be assumed that the whole society was affected by the repression. To exemplify this, it is very common to find the illustrative image of the whole state of Morocco as a enormous prison in which the society was contained.2 From this point of view, the totality of the population, no matter if imprisoned in real penitentiaries, or imprisoned in the metaphorical prison of the state, or even if they were marginalized in exile, they all share the oppressive feeling of unrest, even thought they experienced it in an individual manner.

Is it exactly this intersection between the individual and the society, this process of transformation from a private individual opinion into a public discourse, what defines the nature of the public sphere. The conceptualization of the memory as a collective feature that is atomized can be a very useful tool for the fight for human rights and for the recognition of the abuses due to the strength the provides the unity of the society. On the other hand, this unity can be misused to impose a unique discourse that erodes the details of each of the individual experiences. Likewise the notion of individual memoirs also has its problematic side. The accumulation of individual testimonies might fall into relativism and particularism, and would by-pass the importance of collective identities.

Whether the public sphere is fragmented or should be considered as a whole, it is doubtless that the role of literature is of great importance to give visibility to the abuses committed in daily life. In this case, This Blinding Absence of Light is a major example of how literary sensitivity can rise awareness about human rights abuses. 


1Valerié Orlando, Francophone Voices of the ‘New’ Morocco in Film and Print. (Re)presenting a Society in Transition, Palgrave Macmillan. New York 2009. (58) Ben Jelloun actually achieved such purpose because his book was translated into English with the title This blinding absence of light, and hence, arriving to a world wide public. Susan Slyomovics echoes this dispute from another perspective (2005, 60-61) commenting that also the critiques that Tahar Ben Jelloun received pointed at his silence during the Year of Lead and his lack of action against the regime of Hassan II. The answer of the author was that he was fearful of any reprisal even if he was living in France.

2Abd al-Qadir al-Shawi cited in Moukhlis, “The forgotten Face of Postcoloniality: Moroccan Prison Narratives, Human Rights, and the Politics of Resistance”, in Journal of Arabic Literature 39 (pp. 347-376). Brill, Leiden, 2008. and Abdessamad Boubid, cited in Slyomovics, (2005, 358).


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