New Welsh Review

Tazmamart: 18 Years in Morocco’s Secret Prison

Amy Aed explores the physical and mental struggle of Aziz BineBine during his 1972 imprisonment in a secret Moroccan prison, retold throughout the novel Tazmamart

PUBLISHED ON: 17/04/20


TAGS: English Pen Award 2020, Moroccan secret prison, biography, criminology, historical, novel, punishment, review

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The year was 1972 and Aziz BineBine was a young soldier caught up in the failed coup d’état against King Hassan II in Morocco. Days after following orders from corrupt leaders, he was punished with imprisonment at Tazmamart, a secret prison completely devoid of any humanity. This book follows his eighteen years in captivity.

Tazmamart is effortlessly translated and reads like a piece of poetry. The imagery and sheer detail that is woven into the book is as impressive as it is mesmerising, as is the fact that Aziz BineBine still remembers the exact treatment the prisoners received each week, the precise death dates of the inmates, and everyone’s complex life stories after eighteen years. The telling of his experience is interlaced with references to poems, religious perspectives, and philosophical ideals, rendering it so much more than just an autobiography.

One of the most prominent points throughout this book is the author’s unwavering clarity regarding the attitudes of the people around him. He suggests that instead of blaming the prison guards for his treatment, we should be blaming the system for ‘sucking out what remained of their humanity’. After years of disease, starvation, and living amongst the most outrageous conditions, you would assume that he would feel some sort of resentment towards the guards – but instead, he pitied them for being too weak-willed to stand up to their superiors and put an end to the abuse. As BineBine states, a ‘coward is more dangerous than a cruel man’.

I find it truly remarkable that he was able to survive the things he did. He would spend each day sat in a concrete two-metre by three-metre prison cell, with the only indirect source of light being from a tiny steel-clad vent – which offered so little oxygen, his brain began to suffer from hypoxia. With each new chapter, BineBine’s conditions seemed to deteriorate more and more, and yet even when the author was living under the worst of conditions, his whole body rotting from the outside in, he would ‘think of Siberian labour camps, of those who – under the tsars, or later, under Stalin – were deported there… human beings have endured and suffered worse.’ He believes that his treatment was nothing in comparison to what these other humans had faced.

One thing that plagued the author was the loss of futures surrounding him. One truly heartbreaking part of the book described the death of his friend, and the loss of opportunities.’ with the following quote:

‘In Tazmamart, [my neighbour] Boujemâa, lived as he always had, with dignity and courage. This little Berber who sang in Arabic had just one dream in life: to be able one day to cosset his sister, pamper her, give her back a tiny bit of that stolen childhood, those thwarted dreams. Children are children because our suffering protects them like a prayer.’

Throughout the eighteen years, BineBine would maintain an impressive level of detachment to the outside world, and only by ignoring its existence was he able to cope. He would instead focus on spending his days running philosophy classes in the dark, sharing stories to keep the other men from drowning in their desolation and furthering his connection to God. One evening, another prisoner sends him a piece of his bread as thanks for his hoarse storytelling, a ‘starving man sharing his rations.’ BineBine always seemed surprised when prisoners tried to repay him for his efforts in keeping their minds active, and I’m sure that he still doesn’t realise just how much he saved those men.

Another of the arresting features about this book is the often-occurring portents, which would warn the author of the horrors to come. A visit from a night owl would mean imminent death and a particular bird song would signal the invasion of deadly snakes to their tiny cells. BineBine learnt that a certain smell would develop hours before someone died; how horrendous it would have been to have that insight, and never once be wrong about it.

Towards the end of the novel, the surviving men had turned into mere shells of their former selves, until a woman called Christine Daure-Serfaty came into their lives and saved them. Her tenacity, stubbornness, and faith meant that the state finally acknowledged the prisoners and eventually, after many, many years, set free. I found myself wondering how BineBine could possibly come back to life after being so broken and tormented – and yet somehow, with his incredible spirit and an unbreakable will, he did it.

Tazmamart is an utterly heartbreaking book which forces you to completely reconsider your own freedom, pointing out the glaringly obvious fact that at any given second, millions of people are living their own inescapable dystopias. This book will leave you with new thoughts on the concept of humanity and morality, bewildered at the sheer cruelty that one human can willingly inflict upon another. BineBine had lost his youth to the limbo of prison, his health destroyed by disease, cold and vermin. This truly is an incredible story depicting the unbelievable survival of one man, the one who survived Tazmamart.

Copies of Tazmamart can be found online at Amazon

Amy Aed is one of this season’s Digital Cultural Correspondent in a new partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.