The “Surreal Hell” That Made Tahar Ben Jelloun a Writer

15 October, 2020

A Moroccan prison where many were at one time secretly held.

A Moroc­can prison where many were at one time secret­ly held.

Rana Asfour


In 1966, when Tahar Ben Jel­loun was not yet twen­ty, two offi­cers stormed into his fam­i­ly home to serve insults, a third-class train tick­et and a sum­mons to present him­self before the Com­man­dant at the El Hajeb army train­ing camp near Mek­nes. The pre­vi­ous year, Tahar had par­tic­i­pat­ed in a peace­ful stu­dent demon­stra­tion call­ing against “injus­tice, repres­sion and a lack of freedom”—a dan­ger­ous action in a Moroc­co under the rule of Has­san II where griev­ance against the regime, the king, and his hench­men was met with bloody repres­sion and “young men dis­ap­pear­ing.” With the sum­mons and very lit­tle spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion, since Moroc­co had no insti­tu­tion of mil­i­tary ser­vice, Tahar’s own pun­ish­ment for his gen­er­a­tion’s “ide­al­ism and naïveté” had begun with no fore­see­able end in sight.

The Pun­ish­ment, trans­lat­ed from the French by Lin­da Coverdale, is a first-per­son account from an author who con­sid­ers writ­ers to be “wit­ness­es of his­to­ry.” It has tak­en him fifty years to “find the words” for his eigh­teen-month ordeal, rely­ing on a mem­o­ry that has proved “extra­or­di­nar­i­ly faith­ful and brought back every­thing that hap­pened.” This is the account of a place where “sophis­ti­cat­ed bru­tal­i­ty” was met­ed out to make men out of boys, and where pris­on­ers were held with no tri­al by peo­ple in pow­er who would rather turn them into heroes fall­en “for the father­land with medals when they’re dead,” rather than risk releas­ing them to tell their sto­ries to the world. A doc­trine, the author writes, not exclu­sive to Moroc­co; in Egypt, for instance, Nass­er was send­ing his Marx­ist oppo­nents into the desert, hand­ing them over to psy­chopaths for maltreatment.

This is not the first nar­ra­tive that Tahar Ben Jel­loun has devot­ed to the peri­od of social and polit­i­cal tur­moil known as the “Years of Lead” under King Has­san II’s rule, which extend­ed from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. The Moroc­can-French win­ner of the 1987 Prix Goncourt and the 1994 Prix Maghreb is a nov­el­ist, poet and essay­ist who has vis­it­ed this hal­lowed ground before, in nov­els such as Cor­rup­tion and This Blind­ing Absence of Light (2001)—a deeply mov­ing and gut wrench­ing tale, also trans­lat­ed from the French by Lin­da Coverdale, inspired by the tes­ti­mo­ny of a for­mer inmate at Taz­ma­mart, where polit­i­cal pris­on­ers were left to wal­low in cells less than ten feet long and only half as wide, in which it was impos­si­ble to stand up. Details of this prison “designed specif­i­cal­ly to tor­ture inmates to death” appear in The Pun­ish­ment tucked in the trans­la­tor’s note at the end of the book. 

The secret prison, off in the Atlas Moun­tains of south­east­ern Moroc­co, was built after the failed 1971 Skhi­rat attack on the king. Of the fifty-eight indict­ed cadets to enter its tomb-like con­fines, only twen­ty-eight would sur­vive and only years lat­er would a smug­gled note tell the world of their exis­tence. In 1991, suc­cumb­ing to inter­na­tion­al pres­sure, Has­san II final­ly closed it down, releas­ing all its pris­on­ers and approv­ing a repa­ra­tions pro­gram for the fam­i­lies of the dis­ap­peared. Since his death in 1999, his son King Mohammed VI has been deter­mined to break away from his father’s lega­cy, ini­ti­at­ing reforms in a coun­try that remains the only Arab con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy in Africa. As late as last year, how­ev­er, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al con­tin­ued to mon­i­tor rights in Moroc­co close­ly, not­ing that, “The author­i­ties harassed jour­nal­ists, blog­gers, artists and activists for express­ing their views peace­ful­ly, sen­tenc­ing at least five to prison terms for ‘insult­ing’ pub­lic offi­cials and appar­ent­ly tar­get­ing oth­ers with spyware.”

Tahar Ben Jelloun early in his writing career (Photo: unknown)

Tahar Ben Jel­loun ear­ly in his writ­ing career (Pho­to: unknown)

In The Pun­ish­ment, Tahar Ben Jel­loun reveals how three years after his release from deten­tion and through what he can only describe as inter­ven­tion of “God or Chance, God or Des­tiny” did he escape from a “sur­prise” plot to rope him into the Skhi­rat coup d’é­tat by its two mas­ter­minds, and El Hajeb jail­ers and tor­tur­ers: the Com­man­dant, Ababou, and his hench­man and sec­ond in com­mand, Chief War­rant Offi­cer Akka, who is best described by his supe­ri­or as an offi­cer who “knows only force, blows, bar­bar­i­ty that would reduce any­one at all to the lev­el of an ani­mal.” Fol­low­ing a chance encounter, Tahar decides he can no longer remain in Moroc­co and books a plane tick­et to France, where he con­tin­ues to live and write today.

From the moment in The Pun­ish­ment that Tahar boards the train to Mek­nes, it dawns on him that his life as he’s known it has end­ed. As the “land­scapes drift by with a strange indo­lence,” he mulls over the unfair treat­ment, his pow­er­less­ness and “all that His Majesty’s police were about to put a bru­tal and defin­i­tive end to,” begin­ning with the loss of Zay­na, his fiancée, with whom he’d fall­en in love the sec­ond they’d both reached for the same copy of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Iron­i­cal­ly, Mer­sault the pro­tag­o­nist in The Stranger suf­fers Tahar’s predica­ment when he is charged with mur­der and like him, is stripped of agency as his fate falls into the hands of others.

Tahar’s last night of free­dom in a run­down motel in Mek­nes is a far­ci­cal shed­ding of com­forts as real­i­ty begins its descent into a sur­re­al hell; he notes the motel’s own­er who is unshaven, blind in one eye with a tic who admon­ish­es that no whores are allowed as he admin­is­ters him and his broth­er (who’s insist­ed on accom­pa­ny­ing him until the bar­rack gates) with a large key to a room with two bug-infest­ed beds and dirty sheets ran­dom­ly stained with blood. His broth­er pro­duces a roast chick­en he pulls out of his bag with two oranges and Laugh­ing Cow cheese. At night the broth­ers launch a futile bat­tle against the bugs and mos­qui­tos that have invad­ed their room before suc­cumb­ing to hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter fol­lowed by rest­less sleep. The vil­lage itself proves to be no bet­ter in the light of day as it wakes up to its beg­gars, its bees and flies and “lost tourists pestered by a swarm of fake guides.”

By noon, Tahar is in soli­tary con­fine­ment and his world is offi­cial­ly “top­sy-turvy.”

With his head shorn “like a sheep con­demned to death” on his first day, Tahar already feels “stunt­ed, crushed: a bed­bug, a play­thing for louts.” Known now as ser­i­al num­ber 10 366, he calls upon his lit­er­ary mem­o­ry of books and films to fill him with ener­gy and the desire not to get him­self killed by the “pro­gram of abuse and humil­i­a­tion.” He recites pas­sages from Dos­toyevsky, Chekov, Kaf­ka and Vic­tor Hugo as scenes from Char­lie Chap­lin stream through his mind. He ceas­es all thought, all rea­son­ing as he feels him­self slip fur­ther and fur­ther into “the ter­ri­to­ry of the absurd”—a place stripped of cre­ativ­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion, sur­round­ed by noth­ing but hatred and inhu­man­i­ty met­ed out by psy­chot­ic offi­cers for­mer­ly trained in the French army, proud of their stu­pid­i­ty and brutality.

The rot­ten food and pun­ish­ing heat even­tu­al­ly take their toll on Tahar. When he is admit­ted to Moham­mad V Hos­pi­tal for treat­ment, he seizes the chance to ask for paper and a pen­cil and jots down the first of his com­po­si­tions on the hos­pi­tal’s pre­scrip­tion forms which, unbe­knownst to him, will launch his lit­er­ary career when after his release they are pub­lished in poet Abdul­latif Laãbi’s poet­ry review Souf­fles (see Olivia Har­ri­son and Tere­sa Vil­la-Igna­cio’s Souf­fles-Anfas, A Crit­i­cal Anthol­o­gy from the Moroc­can Jour­nal of Cul­ture and Pol­i­tics from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press).

Two weeks lat­er he is back at the bar­racks where detainees con­tin­ue to die in sham mil­i­tary maneu­vers and from esca­lat­ing pun­ish­ment. He con­tin­ues to furi­ous­ly com­pose vers­es in his head that he jots down as soon as he man­ages to secure some paper. He hides them in the sewed-up pock­ets of his fatigues.

Dur­ing his incar­cer­a­tion, Tahar serves time in two camps, both of which are run by an army that fos­tered “a deep racism between those of the south, the Amazigh and those of the north, the Rif; between the peo­ple of the cities and those of the coun­try­side, between those who can read and write and those who jab­ber in anger.” Despite that, he incred­i­bly writes, “I could have come out of the camp changed, hard­ened, an adept at force and vio­lence, but I left as I had arrived, full of illu­sions and ten­der­ness for human­i­ty. I know that I am mis­tak­en. But with­out that ordeal and those injus­tices I would nev­er have writ­ten anything.”

Tahar Ben Jelloun with his quadriptych, displayed at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Tahar Ben Jel­loun with his quadrip­tych, dis­played at the Insti­tut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Tahar Ben Jel­loun, the Moroc­can-French nov­el­ist, poet and painter was born Decem­ber 15, 1947 in Fez. He start­ed draw­ing even before writ­ing, how­ev­er he began paint­ing only lat­er in life. After attend­ing a bilin­gual French-Moroc­can pri­ma­ry school, he stud­ied at the French lycée in Tang­i­er until he was 18. He then went to the uni­ver­si­ty Mohammed V in Rabat where he majored in phi­los­o­phy and wrote his first poems col­lect­ed in Hommes sous linceul de silence (1971). He lat­er taught phi­los­o­phy in Moroc­co. How­ev­er, in 1971, fol­low­ing the Ara­biza­tion of phi­los­o­phy teach­ing, he had to leave for France, as he was not trained for ped­a­gogy in Ara­bic. He moved to Paris to pur­sue stud­ies in psy­chol­o­gy. From 1972 onwards, he has writ­ten for the dai­ly news­pa­per Le Monde. Writ­ing in French, he pub­lished his first nov­el Harou­da in 1973. In 1975 he earned a PhD in social psy­chi­a­try. His writ­ing often reflects his expe­ri­ence as a psy­chother­a­pist (La Réclu­sion soli­taire or Soli­tary, 1976). In 1985 he pub­lished the nov­el The Sand Child which made him famous. He was award­ed the Prix Goncourt in 1987 for Sacred Night, a sequel to The Sand Child. In addi­tion to his many nov­els, Ben Jel­loun has authored sev­er­al edu­ca­tion­al pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Racism Explained to My Daugh­ter and Islam Explained to Chil­dren. In 2008 Tahar Ben Jel­loun was elect­ed a mem­ber of the Académie Goncourt. He is the most trans­lat­ed French-lan­guage author of mod­ern times. He has been nom­i­nat­ed for the Nobel Prize for Literature.