Wednesday, May 15, 2002

This Blinding Absence of Light

Posted By on Wed, May 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Never before have Westerners had so much access to the Arab street. Never before have Arabs had so much access to what goes on behind the walls of their kingdom’s palaces. Indeed, the despots of the desert must say a thousand curses a night against the satellite dish. This roman à clef novel, a best seller and prizewinner in France, offers an even more disconcerting view, provided by a man who spent 20 years in a secret Moroccan shithole after a failed coup against King Hassan II.

Salim is no ordinary prisoner, a cosmopolitan Muslim at the mercy of a ruthless monarch. His father has a regular audience in the king’s court, even while the son is locked away. And Salim is frightfully aware of what he must do to survive.

“To remember was to die. It took some time to realize that the enemy was memory. Anyone who summoned up his past would promptly die. It was as if he had swallowed cyanide. How were we to know that, in that place, homesickness was fatal? We were in our graves, banished forever from our lives and all remembrance.”

But remember he does. When he grows tired of recounting stories from the Arabian Nights to his fellow prisoners, he reverts to a running commentary on the film A Streetcar Named Desire. But the profane is nothing without the sacred and every page is infused with their pleas to God, asking not for insight but endurance. One man is bitten by a scorpion; another breaks his arm and is devoured by a plague of cockroaches. The years pass until there are only five men left. To steel them for escape, he “Moroccanizes” the plot to Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Salim finds himself reborn in the terror of his ordeal yet never renounces God. He never, as in Camus’ The Stranger, rejects the afterlife in favor of the present.

What does one feel at the end of such a story? Pity? Sadness? No, anger. It was easy enough to characterize the Taliban as impoverished zealot cavemen who treated their citizens worse than dirt. Here is a cruel, despicable system run by allegedly respectable world denizens so drunk on power that inhumanity is an afterthought. May the end be near for them and all who emulate them. Hello, Baghdad.

E-mail Timothy Dugdale at


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