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Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in 1944 in Fez, Morocco, and emigrated to France in 1961. He is one of North Africa's foremost novelists. His novels include The Sacred Night which received the Prix Goncourt in 1987 and Corruption.
Based on a true story, This Blinding Absence of Light is an unforgettable novel of endurance, survival and the human spirit. Here its author Tahar Ben Jelloun reveals the truth behind the title.
Why did you decide to write This Blinding Absence of Light?
I couldn’t have written this story about one of the darkest and most shameful times in Morocco’s recent history if I hadn’t met a survivor of one of its prisons. Through a close relation of his, he asked that I hear his experience and write about it, not as a journalist would do but as a novelist, in a work of fiction based on real facts. For three hours I listened to this man talking about the horrors he had endured. Then I started to write about it but didn’t see him again. I wanted to use only my imagination and inspiration. It’s the novelist’s role to become the character and to communicate his feelings, his experiences and his dreams to the reader.
Can you explain what the title means?
The title is a provocative one. There was no light in this prisoner’s world for 18 years, so it is blinding when it reappears. There was such a lack of it and it was so missed that it inundates the world of this man who was in total darkness for 18 years. In Spanish the novel is entitled « Sufrian por la luz » [« suffering for the light »] (a line from the poet Vicente Aleixandre).
Although it is a novel, This Blinding Absence of Light is based on a true story. How much of the detail is taken from interviews with ‘Salim’ and his fellow survivors?
Salim’s testimony gave me a lot to think about. He didn’t tell me everything but I guessed the rest. What was important to me was the degree of suffering, deprivation and humiliation caused by this terrible imprisonment. It is a story of revenge: officers and soldiers of the Moroccan army tried to kill the King, Hassan II, in order to seize power and were judged in a war crimes tribunal. Two years into their sentence the King decided to move them to a prison in the south-east of the country so as to forget about them. This is reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo or similar prisons in Cambodia. For the novelist, the story lies in the theme of a cruel and sadistic revenge.
Do you know what has happened to ‘Salim’ and his fellow survivors? Are they still alive today?
Salim, whom I never saw again, is now married and has a son he looks after very well. He and the other survivors received compensation from the State. The new King, Mohamed IV, was brave enough to open these files from the dark years and allow the victims of the old regime’s repression to speak out on television. It is the only Arab country which has dared to do that. Tribute must be paid to Mohamed IV for shedding some light on these terrible years of Morocco’s history.
Some of the scenes in This Blinding Absence of Light recount almost unbelievable horrors. Were they difficult to write?
The horror scenes were very difficult to write. I felt sick when writing them. Sometimes, thinking of those who didn’t come back from this hell, I had tears in my eyes. Even if they weren’t innocent, they were entitled to a justice that respects the prisoner’s rights. In the penitentiary, barbarity and lawlessness ruled.
Do you see relevance for This Blinding Absence of Light in the contemporary world?
Thankfully the story my novel belongs to the past. Today’s Morocco is a more democratic and transparent place. Nothing allows a head of State to take this kind of revenge any more. There are tribunals; there is a justice to be respected. The prison in Guantanamo must be similar to the Tazmamart prison: torture, humiliation, illegality, suspicion without trial, etc. By allowing Guantanamo to exist, the most powerful country in the world is disrespecting rights and laws, and setting a very bad example. It is shameful.
This Blinding Absence of Light won 2004’s IMPAC Award, which is awarded by public libraries in countries around the world. What do you think the general reader will get from the novel?
I was very proud and happy to receive the IMPAC Award in 2004. Thanks to this exceptional distinction, my book was able to reach a large public. What I would like to say to readers is that this story is universal, it concerns all of us whether we are Arab, African, American or Asian. The only way to avoid this happening again is to talk about it and to remember how to resist barbarity through spirituality, through the power inside us, be it religious or mystical. The resistance through faith and spirit is stronger than physical torture. This novel demonstrates it and proves it.
Are you inspired by any writers in particular?
I am inspired by authors such as Cervantes, Borges, Kafka, Montaigne, Faulkner and many poets such as Gérard de Nerval, Saint-John Perse, René Char and Paul Celan.