Tahar Ben Jelloun

"The Last Friend"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte FEB 7, 2007)

The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Once upon a time there were two fast friends--Ali and Mamed who were as different as could be. Yet they struck a friendship that lasted nearly 30 years. The setting for this story is Morocco but the essential truths that pervade this slim novel by award-winning writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, are universal.

The novel is divided into two parts -- each is one friend's account of the mutual friendship. Predictably the perceptions of certain events are slightly different but the facts are not. Ali and Mamed (whose real name is Mohammed) go through their teen years with a single-minded obsession about girls, later get arrested for political activities in their early youth, meet women and settle down. Mamed becomes a doctor and moves to Sweden while Ali continues to work in Tangier.

Throughout the novel, one senses a silent undercurrent of jealousy that Mamed feels toward the lighter-skinned and more intelligent (or at least more bookish) Ali. "Think how lucky you are. You're Jewish without having to wear a yarmulke. You have their mentality, their intelligence, but you're a real Muslim, like me," Mamed says to his friend when they are both still in school. "You win on both counts, and you're not harassed the way Jews are. Of course people are jealous of you."

 Much later, Mamed moves to Sweden but he is haunted by his native country. "Tangier was like an ambiguous encounter, a clandestine affair hiding other affairs, a confession that doesn't reveal the full truth," Jelloun writes in the voice of Ali. "It was like a family that poisoned your existence as soon as you got away from it. Tangier, the city that had given birth to my friendship with Mamed, harbored an instinct for betrayal." Elaborating on exactly what shape the betrayal takes would be giving away too much, but in the novel, the betrayal comes not from the city but from Mamed and the reasons for it are not completely convincing. 

Despite the turn of events, Ali soldiers on, placating himself: "In friendship, as in love, everyone needs an element of mystery. This was less true of me than Mamed, who loved secrecy, perhaps acquired during his Communist days," Ali says making one's heart bleed for him. Maybe it was precisely such benevolence that was slowly stifling Mamed--it is a little difficult to tell.

"Jealousy can arise from the simple fact that the other person exists; never mind who he is or what he does," Mamed says in the book. The Last Friend is a beautiful and sparse tale of friendship but to really love it, you need to buy this one statement whole. And for some, therein might lie the problem. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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"This Blinding Absence of Light"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage FEB 7, 2007)

Night was no longer night, since there were no more days, no more stars, no more moon, no more sky. We were the night. We had become nocturnal: our bodies, breathing, heartbeats, the fumbling of our hands moving effortlessly from one wall to another in a space shrunk to the dimensions of a tomb for the living, although whenever I say that word, I should say "surviving" instead, yet I really was a living being, enduring life in extreme deprivation, an ordeal that could only end in death but that seemed strangely like life.

This Blinding Absence of Light by  Tahar Ben Jelloun

This Blinding Absence of Light from Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun is the fictionalized account of the imprisonment of a young Moroccan soldier for his involvement in a coup attempt against King Hassan II in 1971. Based on a true story, the author worked closely with a survivor to record this tale of Man's seemingly inexhaustible capacity for cruelty. The narrator, Salim, joins the Moroccan army to help his family's financial situation, and he's swept along with other soldiers in a gruesome attack on the King's palace. His father, who abandoned his wife and children, is a favored poet who entertains and soothes the king, and ironically Salim's father is at the palace when the soldiers storm in and mow down approximately 100 of the king's guests. Salim, a lowly soldier who was not part of the conspiracy, was unaware a coup was taking place, and he's stunned when he's sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. But the 10-year sentence passes, and the prisoners remain incarcerated--apparently forgotten by the world.

In 1973, Salim and 57 fellow prisoners are transferred from jail to Tazmamart, a secret prison in a remote area of south eastern Morocco where many "disappear," and here they are divided between Cell Block A and Cell Block B. Salim is assigned to Cell Block B—one of 23 prisoners. Each of the men is shoved into a dank underground dungeon that measures approximately 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet high. And here Salim passes 18 more years of his life. This is the story of how he survived.

Subject to torture, abuse and neglect, the men are barely kept alive with strict rations of an exact amount of stale bread and filthy water. Assailed by freezing winters, scorpions, the squalor of their own filth, and hordes of cockroaches, the men's minds and bodies break down, and disease and madness take their toll. Living in a world with no light, the men survive as best they can by trying to maintain camaraderie. One man recites the Koran, one man keeps time, another is a scorpion expert, and Salim is the storyteller who entertains with remembered tales of One Thousand and One Nights, Balzac, and the plot from A Streetcar Named Desire. Certain distractions occur to disrupt the monotony of the living death the prisoners endure—sometimes the prisoners are allowed to bury their own dead, and this affords them a brief, bright exposure to the outside world. On other occasions, a bird flies in and entertains with its song, and a pitiful dog is given a 5-year sentence for biting a general.

Throughout his imprisonment, Salim learns to stay alive by letting go of hate, memories, and hope—"hope was a complete denial of reality. How could these men abandoned by everyone be made to believe that this hole was only a parenthesis in their lives, that this ordeal would have an end, and that they would emerge from it stronger, better men?" Salim learns to create out-of-body experiences with his mind no longer attached to his physical body, but these "voyages" are not easy to achieve, and  "freedom could be enjoyed only rarely." Salim also records the guards' resentment that they too are  "sentenced" along with the prisoners, and how the dehumanizing treatment of the prisoners also dehumanizes the guards. Written in any other vein, the novel would be impossible to read, but the author writes with beauty and grace while exploring the strength and integrity of the human spirit. This Blinding Absence of Light is a disturbing, gripping read—but since torture is, unfortunately, a topical subject, it's an essential, relevant book and is highly recommended.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

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About the Author:

Tahar Ben JellounTahar Ben Jelloun was born in 1944 in Fes, Morocco. He attended a bilingual (French-Moroccan) primary school and in 1955, his parents moved to Tangier. The rest of his schooling was mostly in French. He entered the Universite Mohammed V in Rabat in 1963, where he studied philosophy and began writing. His studies were interrupted when he was sent to an army disciplinary camp with 94 other students for organizing the March 1965 demonstrations. Upon his release from military service, Jelloun taught Philosophy in Tetouan and Casablanca. He also continued writing and published his first volume of poetry.

In 1971, the Interior Ministry announced that philosphy teaching was to be Arabized as of the new school year. Since we was not trained for this, and was denied an exemption, he moved to Paris to prepare a PhD in psychology. He has lived and worked in France since then, as a writer and a pyschotherapist. In 1975, he received his Ph.D. in psychiatric social work. His thesis, which was published in 1977, was an acclaimed study which dealt with the Moroccan immigration into France, which Jelloun had experienced six years earlier. In the 1980's, Jelloun began writing various essays against racism.

Sacred Night won the Prix Goncourt in 1987 and in 2004, This Blinding Absence of Light wont the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In September 2006, Jelloun was awarded a special prize for "peace and friendship between peoples" at Lazio between Europe and the Mediterranean Festival.

Jelloun still lives in Paris with his wife, Aicha, and his daughter, Merieme, where he continues to write and advocate human rights issues.

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