Tazmamart by Aziz BineBine review – life in a secret prison

ToLichtig
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Abdelhak Senna/AFP</span>
Photograph: Abdelhak Senna/AFP

In July 1971 military leaders launched a coup against Morocco’s King Hassan II, descending on his summer palace in Skhirat, where he was hosting a sumptuous garden party. A bloodbath ensued. Aziz BineBine was a junior officer at the time. He had been told, like most of his comrades, that he was taking part in a military exercise. Only as the chaotic, and quickly foiled, coup unfolded did the young officer realise he’d been tricked. He fled the scene, his gun unfired.

BineBine came from a well-connected Moroccan family. His father was a close confidant of the king but this had no bearing on his fate. After a summary trial, BineBine was sentenced to 10 years. Worse was to come. Following a second failed coup the next year (Hassan II was not universally admired), he and his fellow military inmates were plucked from the relative sanctuary of civilian prison and deposited in a place that didn’t officially exist, and wouldn’t exist until 18 years later, when they finally emerged blinking into the light.

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Tazmamart was a purpose-built dungeon situated in the Atlas mountains, searing in the summer, freezing in the winter, cramped and hellish all year round. The rations were meagre, the clothes spartan, the sewers open. Exercise consisted of “the diagonal of life” – “four steps one way and four the other, a half-turn to the left and right alternately, so as not to get dizzy”. The prisoners were repeatedly reminded that their sole exit was death. Only following international pressure did Morocco admit to the prison’s existence and close it down. Of the 58 men sent there after the coup attempts, more than half had died.

<span class="element-image__caption">King Hassan II of Morocco.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Abdelhak Senna/EPA</span>
King Hassan II of Morocco. Photograph: Abdelhak Senna/EPA

Tazmamart was a pit of despair – but also a well of stories. Several memoirs and documentaries have emanated from its horrors, along with a novel, This Blinding Absence of Light (2001) by Tahar Ben Jelloun, probably Morocco’s most famous living author.. He had based it on a three-hour interview with BineBine, whom he renamed Salim. BineBine wrote an open letter denouncing the book, claiming that he’d been pressured into handing over his story. The novelist hit back, insisting that he’d been approached to write it by BineBine’s brother.

This Blinding Absence of Light is a brilliant novel – clear-eyed, humane, richly metaphysical – and, whatever the truth of its origins, it undeniably did good in bringing the Tazmamart story to an English-speaking world. Now BineBine has been given the chance to do the same, following the publication of his own account (which first appeared in French in 2009) in Lulu Norman’s translation. What is remarkable – though perhaps it shouldn’t be – is how similar Tazmamart is to This Blinding Absence of Light. This isn’t just because the sources are the same but because BineBine is a talented author in his own right, who perhaps gave Ben Jelloun more than raw material. Both accounts convey with extraordinary vividness the clash between physical degradation and psychological transcendence necessitated by the hardships of the regime. Both writers deserve their places in a tradition of incarceration literature alongside Dostoevsky, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and Genet.

One could play a game of spot-the-parallel all day: the description of the tiny cell as a “tomb”, of the starch that passes for food and the filth that passes for drinking water; of the agony of the narrator’s ruptured gall bladder and the damage to morale when he and a fellow inmate descend into a ferocious slanging match. It also becomes clear, reading BineBine’s memoir, how Ben Jelloun conjured up the character of Salim the story-spinning jailbird, whose verbal flights help to keep his comrades removed from their material condition.

BineBine's role as entertainer in the king’s dungeon is remarkably similar to his father's at the king’s court

BineBine is (by his own, characteristically fabular description) “a merchant of dreams, a master of imagination”. He keeps the other prisoners entertained with his yarns and regurgitated passages from novels, his “courses” in philosophy and literature. This imaginative capacity – allied with his religious faith and apparently formidable memory – is what helps to keep him sane. He feels that he is serving “three sentences”: one imposed by men (he admits culpability for having been naive); one by heaven (which he accepts “unconditionally”); and one by himself (“I was responsible for my own destiny”). As the book unfolds, we see that those who rail and rage tend to be the quickest to lose hope, and to die. The wretch who appears in this book is perhaps even more accepting than Ben Jelloun’s version of him, and he displays no anger at the father who publicly disowned him following the coup. Although BineBine doesn’t mention this, his role of erudite entertainer in the king’s dungeon is remarkably similar to the one his father enjoys at the king’s court.

It is easy to see how BineBine became “the star of the prison block”: as well as his gift for storytelling and generous grasp of ethics, he has a keen eye for absurdity. The food may be appalling but the corollary of his constantly roiling stomach is the warmth he can harvest from his flatulence: no fart is wasted. Denied even an onion to draw out the pus of his suppurating thumb, he urinates on it instead: “I had achieved total self-sufficiency.” When a needle is fashioned from a scrap of metal (“This took … months of patience and work”), “we’d passed from the Stone Age to the Bronze”.

Perhaps the main difference between the two books is BineBine’s focus on his fellow inmates. His testimony, one feels, has partly been written to honour this “group of wise young men”. On a political level, this lends his account a function beyond the scope of the fictionalised version; on a literary level, it causes the narrative to plod a little, as BineBine dutifully moves his gaze from cell to cell. Such disparities are fertile ground for discussions about the different remits of fiction and memoir. But Tazmamart is far more than a vital document: it is a powerful tribute to human fortitude and imagination – and perfect reading for incarcerated times.

• Tazmamart is translated by Lulu Norman and published by Haus (RRP £14.99).

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