Tahar Ben Jelloun and the unvarnished truth

monday inspirations
Welcome back for another post from the Monday Inspirations series. Today’s post is by Elissaveta Marinova. You can check out previous posts here.


Sometimes, memories are like a mirage in the desert. They resemble a lush oasis where water flows freely and birds are chirping in the grass when in fact, there is nothing but sun and scorched earth.

My memory of Morocco is pure. It is that of a child growing into a young adult. It is that of a sunny country welcoming me with open arms and letting me go without a word. My memory is an erroneous, romanticised version of the real Morocco – the one in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s books.

When I first read This Blinding Absence of Light, I was in shock. I must have been around 14 years old and it wasn’t possible – what he wrote couldn’t have happened in this picture-perfect country I called “home away from home”.   blinding-absence-of-light

After the failed 1971 coup against the king Hassan II, many unwitting participants who did not fire a single shot are dispatched to Kenitra, a prison infamous for its harsh conditions. Two years later, 58 of them are sent to Tazmamart – underground cells, 10ft long and 5ft wide. Ceilings too low for one to stand. Scorpions and cockroaches that can only be heard. No light. The promise to see the outside world for a fleeting moment, only to bury a friend.

This Blinding Absence of Light is a grim tale of torture and a silver lining highlighting the triumph of the human spirit. A beautiful, poignant story based on the testimony of a former inmate.

With his words, Ben Jelloun lifted the curtain off of my blinded eyes. Morocco was not flawless, it was wounded.

As the years passed, I kept turning to him. He wrote about “The Western Kingdom” with such honesty, drawing inspiration from a bottomless well. His words were the mirror of his country. They were beautiful and they were crude. They were candid and they were painful. They were the unvarnished truth.

When I left Casablanca, Ben Jelloun’s books continued to fascinate me but it became more than a reading experience. I was now on a journey, revisiting the rich culture I had left behind, walking the streets of Fez or Casablanca, crawling inside the minds of Ben Jelloun’s powerful characters. When I say powerful, I don’t refer to strength or authority. I rather mean lasting. Because Ben Jelloun’s characters live beyond the last page. They escape into the outside world where the distinction between fiction and reality is only speculation.

Today, I read Ben Jelloun’s words for fear of forgetting. I read his books because I want the truth. The older I get, the more embellished my memories become. And I know that one day, when I return, I will be faced with a painful realisation. Morocco lived on after I left. It evolved, for better or for worse, and the innocent memories floating inside my head are no longer entirely true. They are neither mirage, nor desert. They are somewhere in between.


Elissaveta grew up in Morocco. She is currently working on her first novel, drawing inspiration from her childhood spent in Casablanca. She is also a freelance architect in London  where she has been living for the past 6 years.
You can follow her journey on her blog, find her on Twitter AND Facebook. Architecture lovers can check out her website at www.elissavetamarinova.com

16 thoughts on “Tahar Ben Jelloun and the unvarnished truth

  1. Pingback: The unvarnished truth. | A Writer's Caravan

  2. It is fascinating how the childhood memory is a simplistic sanitised piece whereas the reality is far more complex. Classically the ‘everything seemed so big’ fallacy but this is more nuanced and with far more depth. I look at old photos of me in my childhood garden and remember a smooth green lawn lined with flowers and yet the truth is crude and crueller as you make out is the case here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It really is a matter of selective memory, isn’t it? 10/10 times, the thought of Morocco brings a smile to my face and god knows how many crude memories it is also attached to. But coming to think of it (and as long as it doesn’t become an illusion), isn’t it best that way? I have filtered out the bad, leaving only the good to show on the surface. This thought may be worth exploring into a whole new post…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The beauty of this wonderful book is precisely in the words he chose and the way he put them together. It is harrowing but in no way painful to read. I keep going back to this story for those precious sentences, those turns of phrases that just make you stop and ponder on.
    Glad you liked it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ellie, you have definitely intrigued me enough to add this to my to be read list. I think we tend to “clean up” our memories no matter when they occurred. Most people usually remember most past events in a more positive light. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism or maybe some evolutionary thing so we don’t get stuck in the past too much. Moving on is much easier when things seem fairly good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pretty confident you will love it. I haven’t read the English translation and I might just give it a go, out of curiosity.
      Whether it be defence mechanism or just an optimistic attitude, I’m perfectly happy with a “cleaned up” memory as you say. Makes things easier.

      Liked by 1 person

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