Translator’s Note: Tazmamart was a secret prison for political prisoners built in the wake of a second failed coup d’état against King Hassan II of Morocco in 1972. Aziz BineBine was one of the soldiers caught up in that day’s events who found themselves condemned to a 2 x 3 yard underground cube in notoriously inhumane conditions for eighteen years. Over half of Tazmamart’s prisoners died there.
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light (which won the 2014 International IMPAC Award) was based principally on BineBine’s experiences in Tazmamart, but here for the first time BineBine presents his own account.
BineBine wrote his story in order to honor the friends and comrades who lived and died alongside him, by telling theirs. He dedicates it to the two women who brought him into the world: his mother and the late Christine Daure-Serfaty, a human rights activist whose relentless efforts to expose the prison led to his release, “and to all those who are grieving the ghosts of Tazmamart: to you daughters, mothers, wives, and sisters. I love you.”
The radio didn’t last forever, the battery died and we couldn’t replace it. Playtime was over. The owl returned, taking the radio’s place, but bringing what news? It had come for Mohammed Abdessadki, known as Manolo, who had himself returned from the first building. He couldn’t have made the most of the better conditions there and he fell ill.
Manolo was a veteran, originally from the Rif, who’d knocked about all over the country, crisscrossing the Algeria of Protectorate days and working here and there in Spain doing all kinds of jobs, before ending up in the ranks of the army and taking part in the civil war. Like all of life’s adventurers, he knew when to express his joy and when to hide his tears. He was used to confronting difficult situations. The clearest memory I have of him goes back to the night he called out to us, sobbing, to say that he was cold. He said he felt as if needles were going right through him, all over his body; he was crying. I was shocked because I didn’t know you could cry from cold. Here was a man, a tough guy, who’d worked the most thankless jobs, who’d fought in the Spanish Civil War and lived through all kinds of miserable ordeals, sobbing like an abandoned child because he was cold. Illness didn’t make him cry—and nor did death, which he faced with dignity, like everyone in Tazmamart. But he cried from the cold.
Manolo was extremely weak and began coughing up blood; internal bleeding, no doubt, but where exactly? We couldn’t say. His condition worsened as the days went on, he was vomiting more and more blackish blood, and it stank. The guards were so revolted by the stench, they wouldn’t open his cell door. They called on one of us to give him food and water; we’d use the opportunity to bring him what comfort we could. On his last evening, fate decreed that Rashid Lamine was the one singled out to spend the night with Manolo, to help him through his last moments, hardly suspecting that his friend’s death would drag him into the worst kind of nightmare.
Rashid was a friendly, talkative lad, who’d definitely been spoiled as a child. That he was in the army at all had always amazed me; it was far easier to picture him working in a fabric shop than completing an army assault course. Not a bit of it! He was Warrant Officer First Class, in charge of air traffic control at the Kenitra base, Abounssi and Dghoughi’s superior. Rashid couldn’t bear the confinement and he told us he never slept, which wasn’t quite true. He’d doze off and later we’d taunt him when he claimed not to have closed his eyes all night. As with our other comrades who claimed not to sleep at all, we’d sometimes call out to him in the middle of a story or a conversation, and he wouldn’t answer. Clearly, he was in the arms of Morpheus. And yet, at the end, he could tell you the whole story almost word for word. Only when he was talking could Rashid forget his cell. He was an extremely poor listener. The silence at night was torture to him. As soon as the sparrows announced the guards’ arrival, Lamine would call out to someone and, like a drowning man coming up for air, begin talking. It had become a morning ritual: those who wanted to speak would wait for Rashid’s opening gambit. His moral and psychological suffering was far worse than ours. Lack of sleep doubled the time he spent in his cell; we’d deduct from our sentences all the hours we spent sleeping. He suffered, too, from not being able to talk as much as he wanted. There were other times, as well as the night, when silence was compulsory: when the whole building was listening to a story, to Koranic teaching or language lessons, or other things organized by our community. All these tensions eventually wore him down. He felt his right side growing heavier and heavier. It was hard to move at all and finally he had to ask for a stick to be able to stand up. The guards, who’d become more accommodating, knew just how weak we were, they knew we couldn’t try anything. Even had we been capable of it, a single one of them could easily have overwhelmed all of us survivors.
Since now the guards allowed us to help our sick comrades, they authorized Rashid, who was in an equally bad way, to support Manolo, who was on the verge of death. The warning signs had been with us for a few days: the owl and the foreboding dreams that no one dared report for fear of causing the dying man to despair. Then came the smell, removing all doubt that someone was going to die—a matter of hours, at the very most. Manolo could no longer get to his feet. It was Sergeant Baghazi, on duty that evening, who nominated his neighbor, Rashid, to help him in the night. This was a rare favor and Lamine could not refuse, in spite of his own poor health. So he went to spend the night with Manolo, who lay on his bunk, semiconscious, hemorrhaging, continually spewing blood, which coagulated on his face, his neck, on the rags he wore. A repulsive smell overlaid the stench of the cells and their inhabitants. When Rashid leaned over the patient, to prop him up and tuck him in as best he could, he gagged suddenly, almost bringing up his food, so unbearable were the odors coming from his friend’s mouth. And yet, God knew we were used to bad smells! Overcoming his disgust, he covered him up as best he could and sat down by the concrete slab that served the sick man as a bed, so he’d be ready to assist. In the middle of the night, he was woken by a raucous noise, a kind of angry snore, followed by loud gurgling. He didn’t have time to stand up to see what was going on. Manolo was jerking up and down, as if being strangled, so violently that he was catapulted from his pallet and landed face down on top of Lamine, who could not move, paralyzed by surprise, fear, disgust, and the weight that was crushing him, suffocating him, by the smell of death that assaulted him, that penetrated his senses and all the pores in his skin. He wanted to run away, to faint, even to die, but his brain and body would not obey. Blood dripped onto his face, his eyes, his ears. He shut his mouth so he wouldn’t swallow this liquid death. With his whole being, as if his life depended on it, he wanted to vomit—but nothing. Hiccups rose from his stomach and stopped in his throat, unable to go up or down. He concentrated, every fiber straining to move his arms and push off this burden that was bent on dragging him with it into the chasms of approaching death. He pushed with all the strength of his failing limbs, with everything he had, he prayed and he pushed, he called out to his mother and he pushed, he thought of his wife and his children and he pushed, he begged his brother for help and he pushed, he summoned all the fury accumulated over nine years in Tazmamart and he pushed, he wanted to die and he pushed. Sisyphus lay flattened by his rock. The mountain no longer existed; nothing existed beyond the rock and the curse that bore down with full force on his already sickly health.
So he passed most of that night under the corpse—the night that wouldn’t end, the night that decided his fate. When the guards arrived in the morning, Rashid was more dead than alive. His comrades extricated him, barely conscious, and took him back to his cell. For several days he remained lethargic—unable to talk at all now, paralyzed down his right side, dragging his feet and slurring his words, now and forever lugging the weight of that corpse, to the grave. He dragged it around for two long years before flinging it, along with his own body, to be consumed by the quicklime.
From Tazmamort. © 2009 by Éditions Denoël. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.