Of imprisonment & exile
An interface with Tahar Ben Jelloun, who spent many years in prison, reveals his uncompromising sentiments about freedom

Rumina Sethi

MY first thought was to decline since I had never read anything written by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Then immediately, I reflected on the invitation of Alliance Francaise to have a round table discussion with this Moroccan-French author, and said yes. The idea was to be forced into reading some of the works of an author who, it is rumoured, was sure to be shortlisted for the Nobel. Never mind if he did not speak any English and I no French.

I was sent two of his works: The Blinding Absence of Light and The Sacred Night, two novels as distinct from each other as night and day. The Blinding Absence is a political novel in which the protagonist is a dissident soldier, Salim, who is incarcerated for opposing the King in 1971. Their coup having failed, a group of men are imprisoned first in Kenitra, a prison known for its apathy to prisoners, and then in Tazmamart, another prison, the searing account of which leaves the reader shaking. A book about detention in prison is not comfortable reading. Tazmamart has underground cells with ceilings so low that the prisoners cannot stand upright. The food is revolting and the diseases untreated until one by one, the soldiers yield to death. The only time the prisoners are allowed to come out in the open is when they bury their comrades. At all other times, they are deprived of light, exercise or personal interaction.

The inmates were to stay imprisoned for 18 years before they were released owing to international pressure. Thereafter, these 28 survivors who had lost several inches in height, were forbidden to speak to anyone about their experiences. Salim’s life in prison echoes, to a limited extent, Jelloun’s who went to prison in 1966 for being a Leftist. This is when he read Joyce’s Ulysses and understood the meaning of Dedalus’s invocation to “silence, exile and cunning.” I have read so many accounts of incarceration in prison: Feryar Ali’s Gauhar’s No Place for Further Burials, Haifa’s Zangana’s Dreaming of Baghdad and Nawal el Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, but none of these books had prepared me for the ultimate indignity Jelloun recounts.

As a post-colonial writer, Jelloun’s writing belongs to the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Albert Camus, the former who was rejected by the French to finally become the patron saint of Algerian independence, and the latter who was a pied noir, a Frenchman, evicted to a penal colony, Algeria. Jelloun carries images from both and makes them his own. Like Fanon, he has trained as a psychotherapist and like Camus, he has lived as an exile.

Jelloun’s other book is the improbable story of Ahmed/Zahra, a girl child who is treated like a boy from the day she is born. Unable to accept another daughter, her parents delude themselves into believing she is male. Thereafter, there are circumcision ceremonies and fake certificates until the day of the death of Zahra’s father when he gives her her freedom. What is it to be a woman when you have the choice of being a man: to me, this is the question the text asks. So skilfully does Jelloun inhabit a woman’s skin to explore her new-found liberty and dangerous seductive power within the environment of a very conservative Maghreb, that we find ourselves agreeing with the author’s uncompromising sentiments about freedom: “It was the sleep of life’s first moments.”

Tahar Ben Jelloun spoke French while the rest of the group English in a fine blend: the two languages posed no crisis, the conversation flowed and intimacies created. I was reminded of Habib Tanvir’s lecture at the Bellagio Center on Lake Como in Italy many years ago when he began to speak in Hindi to an audience consisting mostly of western scholars.

This spurred the rest of the group to join the conversation in their own mother tongues giving rise to a cacophony that recognized the acceptance of the other deep down, a life lived in the border country where the politics of recognition allow the existence of all communities irrespective of their language or creed. A point is driven home: We might speak different languages but we reside in a cosmopolitan world of mutual recognition.



A navigator's discovery
Deepak Rikhye

IF an author had to describe a prickly shrub in India, the choice of a shrub would be the bougainvillea. This plant is strictly in the category of a climber. But it is often pruned and shaped as a shrub. Stiff thorns rise from axils of many leaves.

We see so much of the bougainvillea in campus of schools, universities, walls of airports and private gardens. How did this plant make a beginning? It is so resistant to pests and disease. It has been named in honour of LA de Bougainvillea, a famous French navigator. He collected a speciman of this plant during a voyage. His log book refers to South America’s Peru. He apparently brought two plants.

Botanists have classified it in the Nyctaginaceae family. Over the years it has been developed in different colours.

The ‘Mary Palmer’ was named by S. Percy Lancaster in Calcutta. Bracts, a leaf with a single flower, of this variety include two colours, white and magenta, sometimes pinkish or white and magenta. The ‘Mary Palmer’ became the most popular variety in the world.

The ‘Lady Mary’ was raised by HP Green Smith in Nairobi. The Bright Yellow flowers are attractive. ‘The Golden Glow’ originated in Cuba (in 1949). The colour is described turmeric yellow. The purple variety brought to Trinidad by Mrs. RV Butt of Colombia gave this variety the name ‘Mrs. Butt’.

Dr. BP Pal, from New Delhi selected the ‘Stanza, a chrysanthemum crimson colour. Names can vary depending on the country of origin. The International Bougainvillea Checklist has compiled every variety. Cuttings are required from a healthy branch. In a few weeks buds will begin to emerge. They are best transplanted to a flower pot. As the plant develops it can be transplanted into a larger container. If you have the luxury of a garden the plant can be moved to a corner of your choice. The ‘Lady Mary’ with bright yellow flowers will add a resplendent look. The colour exudes warmth. A plant that is often the quintessence of a garden; the bougainvillea will continue to be a part of our lives.

La de Bougainvillea might have been disappointed on occasion. He led a life full of adventure. Did his friends prefer to discuss the bougainvillea discovered by him? Many of them probably did.