This Blinding Absence of Light – Tahar Ben Jelloun

Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Winner of the 2004 IMPAC Award

Five words from the blurb: prison, struggle, survive, darkest, terrible

This book is based on the real experiences of a survivor of Tazmamart – the secret prison in which sixty people were imprisoned for taking part in the 1971 failed coup to oust King Hassan II of Morocco. They were locked in appalling conditions –  with no light, little food and virtually no protection from the freezing cold winters or the stifling heat of summer. For twenty years the men battled against disease and boredom, before the survivors were finally released in 1991.

This book is a gripping, but harrowing account of an almost unimaginable suffering.

The cold interfered with my thinking. It made me hear friendly voices, like a mirage for a man lost in the desert. The freezing cold muddled everything. It was an electric drill piercing holes in the skin. No blood spurted out; it had frozen in the veins. It was vital to keep our eyes open, stay awake. Those so feeble they succumbed to sleep died within a few hours.

Very little actually happens in this short book, but the full range of human emotion leaps from the page.

It could never be described as an enjoyable read, but it is as an important book. It is a vivid account of the terrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other, but also proof that with the right frame of mind it is possible to survive in even the harshest of conditions.

Recommended to anyone interested in imprisonment and its affects upon the human mind.


Thank you to JoV for sending this book to me!

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  1. Kathleen says:

    I am definitely interested in reading this one. I’d not heard of this incident before. I do always wonder how people tolerate long, solitary imprisonments and how they are able to survive these kind of conditions.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, I had heard of Tazmamart, but had no idea that they were imprisoned for twenty years. It is almost impossible to imagine someone being locked up for that long in those conditions. So sad.

  2. Alex says:

    It’s amazing how short books are sometimes the most powerful. Your review made me think of The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig. Have you read it?

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, Yes. I have read the Royal Game (under the different title, Chess) There were a few similarities, but the man in Zweig’s book had it very easy compared to the prisoners in Blinding Light. Blinding Light is a much more powerful book and has none of the lighter chess playing moments. I don’t think I could have coped with it being any longer.

  3. Ifi says:

    WOW… I’ve got to read this one Jackie. I hadn’t heard of this incident either. How could this be ? ´71 until ´91!! RECENT!! But I think I might need to be in the right frame of mind though when I do read this. Only DAYS left till my book buying ban is over. I really do wish I could have discussed this one with you though!!

    1. Jackie says:

      Ifi, Congratulations on sticking to your book buying ban! This is definitely a book that needs to be read in the right frame of mind. It is distrurbing, but at least it is short. I read it over just two nights.

      Enjoy your book buying freedom!

  4. stujallen says:

    Jelloun been on my list of arabic writers to read for a while ,know his last book got lot praise as well have see what library got ,going try some arabic or arabic diaspora ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I loved Jelloun’s writing. It was so easy to follow and gripping. I will be ensuring that I get his other books in the future.

  5. Sandy says:

    Not enjoyable but important describes about 98% of WWII novels, but that has never kept me from reading them. I am drawn to stories of the human spirit and overcoming hardship. And I saw the word “short” in there somewhere…I think I’m sold!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, You won’t get many books with more hardship than this. It may be short, but it certainly packs a punch. I think you’d appreciate this one.

  6. JoV says:

    I’m glad you like it. You are right nothing much happening, the most heart breaking part of it was when the inmates were released into the world and every single thing the modern world we took for granted becomes a novelty for these prisoners who live in dark holes for 20 years.

    Malika Oufkir’s book “La Prisonnaire” who made it to Oprah club is a victim of the coup too, and it is her father, General Oufkir who organised the coup. The act of the father results in his family i.e. his wife and 6 children, the youngest 3 years old were all incarcerated in the desert gaol in Tazmamart.

    Heartbreaking but awe inspring.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoV, I found their release almost more disturbing than their imprisonment. I found the scene when he couldn’t lie on a bed because it was too soft and gave him the sensation of falling so sad. It is definitely a book that makes you appreciate everything we have. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.

      I’ll try to get hold of “La Prisonnaire” at some point too, but I think I’ll leave it a bit as I don’t like reading too many books about the same subject close together.

  7. Amy says:

    Wow, definitely a book I want to read at some point.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, Yes. It is one of those important books that I think people should read at some point. I hope you like it.

  8. I’m fascinated by prisons and incarceration. This one sounds really intriguing to me. I’m adding it to my list!

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, Prisons appeal to me too – it is strange isn’t it?! As an insight into the thoughts of a prisoner I don’t think you can beat this book. Enjoy :-)

  9. Kelly says:

    This looks like a book I have to read. I’ve only heard a little bit about this particular prison but I definitely think it’s something I should read about and become a bit more familiar with.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

  10. Jenny says:

    Tahar Ben Jelloun is on my list! I read an article about him at work recently, and it was definitely intriguing. I’ve read so few African authors!


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