Marrakech, Morocco – Acclaimed Moroccan writer and painter Mahi Binebine’s new novel, Le Fou du Roi (The King’s Jester), was inspired by his father’s life serving the late Moroccan king, Hassan II.
Mohamed Binebine met the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum during her official visit to Morocco in the 1960s and charmed her with his tales. The king, who was also impressed by Mohamed’s wit, then decided to hire the talented storyteller to entertain him, which he did for decades until Hassan II’s death in 1999.
Mohamed stayed faithful to his king even after a failed military coup in 1971 resulted in the imprisonment of his son, Aziz – a young soldier who participated in the coup attempt – in the country’s most brutal prison, Tazmamart. Aziz spent almost two decades in solitary confinement in horrific conditions, with no human contact beyond the screams and cries of other prisoners.
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Mohamed’s son was among the only prisoners to emerge from prison alive in 1992, but the trauma tore the family apart. Mohamed continued to accompany the king and to make him laugh, never asking for clemency during his son’s ordeal.
The book, which offers a detailed account of life inside the royal palace, also tells the story of a family trying to survive years of hardship. Al Jazeera spoke with Mahi, now 59, about their experiences and how he managed to one day forgive his father.
Al Jazeera: Why did you wait so long to write this story?
Mahi Binebine: Deep inside, I always knew I was going to write this difficult book – that I was going to reopen wounds that had barely healed. But as always, we must allow time to heal wounds. Things happen when they have to happen.
Al Jazeera: Why did you choose to fictionalise a true story?
Binebine: Because this is all Shakespearean; because the court of Hassan II resembles that of the Sun King, except that we are in the middle of the 20th century; because, for 25 years, my half-brother filmed my father.
He placed his camera on the television set and recorded him relating his day with the king. I watched some of these recordings, swarming with anecdotes, authentic or invented by my father. Storytellers are often liars – it is well-known.
The same story came under very different versions. I picked the most saucy one and decided it was the absolute truth. Everything is, therefore, reality while being absolute fiction.
Al Jazeera: What’s the dynamic like for a family where the father shares his time between a bereaved family and the person responsible for their misfortune?
Binebine: Often in my writings, I defended my brother, locked up for 18 years in the prison of Tazmamart – a deathtrap – for having attempted to take the life of the king during the coup of Skhirat in 1971. That day, my father was hiding in a cellar with the monarch, while his armed son was participating in carnage in the palace.
This story is a blessing for every writer. In this novel, I gave my father a chance to speak. I allowed him to explain, to tell his own wounds. I did not even attack Hassan II, because the narrator is crazy about his king, a kind of demigod in the mythological sense of the term.
Al Jazeera: The book speaks of reconciliation. How can one forgive under such circumstances?
Binebine: To keep his job with the king, my father had to publicly deny his son, tear off his page from the family’s record book. As a teenager, I was mad at this man that I considered to be a coward. I refused to see him for many years.
When he left prison, my brother asked me to take him to see my father. I took him there unwillingly and the two men fell into each other’s arms and wept.
On the way back, my brother explained that of the 29 inmates in his building, only four had survived. Someone who miraculously survived had no hatred for anyone, not even for the king, because hatred is a poison to the one who carries it.
Yes, I reconciled with my father. And by extension with our history. I feel at peace with myself now.
Al Jazeera: Has Morocco changed between King Hassan II and his son, Mohammed VI, who succeeded him in 1999?
Binebine: The “years of lead” in Morocco are not a fiction. We had been terrorised, we had experienced arbitrariness, injustice, nepotism. Police raids and disappearances were commonplace. And you know what – I see it by presenting this novel almost everywhere – Hassan II still fascinates Moroccans. At his death, people mistreated for decades cried sincerely. It was Stockholm Syndrome in all its splendour.
The country has changed. The enemy is no longer the communist who conspired against the security of the state, but the Islamist, and many Democrats turn a blind eye to the way they are treated.
Today, we do not attack a newspaper by imprisoning the journalist; it’s rare. As long as red lines are not crossed – the person of the king and the Moroccaness of the Sahara – we can almost say everything.
Al Jazeera: How has the book been received in Morocco?
Binebine: Concerning the artistic creation, mysteries remain in our country that I do not understand. For example, the cabal orchestrated against the film of Nabil Ayouch, Much Loved, gave Morocco a bad image.
There were even calls to murder the artist. This is absurd and in no way corresponds to the state of our democracy. The country has changed a lot. Even if resistance forces remain refractory to progress, the opening is irreversible.
My novel was well-received, with articles all over the press. It even made the evening news on the state channel. In the days of the internet and social networks, censorship no longer makes sense.