2020 WINNER OF A PEN TRANSLATES AWARD
‘In a jumble of rumours, one passed almost unnoticed.
It concerned a military prison being built in the desert. Its name was Tazmamart.’
This is the true story of Aziz BineBine who, unwittingly entangled in a failed coup against King Hassan II, found himself locked in a small, underground cell in a prison thought to be a mere horror story: Tazmamart. For 18 years, no one knew where the prison’s inmates were. No one knew if they were even alive. In many ways, they hardly were: confined for 24 hours a day, with the barest rations, no hygiene or medical help, and accompanied by cockroaches, scorpions, and tarantulas. One of the few to survive, Aziz writes not only to tell his own remarkable story but to remember and honour the men that lived – and died – alongside him. Against the backdrop of this unimaginable suffering, Aziz shows the strength of the human spirit to keep going against all the odds, to smile in the face of misery, and to forgive rather than condemn. Set to become a cult classic of survival literature, Tazmamart is a hellish journey through the abyss of despair – and out the other side.
It’s many years now since Aziz BineBine shyly and politely handed me – his brother’s translator – his book. I knew (but only vaguely) what had happened to him, and I took it with some reverence. I assumed it was a present; I didn’t realise for years that he wanted me to translate it! Aziz has waited so long to see his book get some kind of proper reception… I so wanted, and want, to do him proud. It’s impossible, of course, to escape all the resonances with current events… But there are lockdowns and lockdowns, and comparisons are odorous. Tazmamart is important in the same way as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or De Profundis, because the lengths to which humans will go under circumstances of extreme cruelty – for good or ill – always teach us something new about how to live and what matters in the end.
AZIZ BINEBINE is a Moroccan author and former army officer. He completed his secondary education within the French lycée system and then entered the Royal Military Academy. Appointed as an instructor to train cadets at Ahermoumou Military School, he was unwittingly involved in the 1971 coup d’état against King Hassan II. Judged and condemned, BineBine spent 18 years in Tazmamart prison. He now lives in Marrakech.
LULU NORMAN is a writer, translator, and editor who lives in London. She has translated Albert Cossery, Mahmoud Darwish, Tahar Ben Jelloun, and the songs of Serge Gainsbourg and written for national newspapers, the London Review of Books, and other literary journals, in particular Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature, where she is an editorial assistant and regular contributor.