Moroccan writer wins top prize

A Moroccan-born writer has won the world’s richest literary prize for a fictional English-translation novel of human suffering and survival.

Tahar Ben Jelloun's novel is based on a terrible true story
Tahar Ben Jelloun's novel is based on a terrible true story

Tahar Ben Jelloun won the €100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel, This Blinding Absence of Light, on Saturday.

IMPAC prizes have been awarded annually since 1995 to celebrate excellence in world literature – either written in English or translated into English from original world languages.

His book was selected from a list of 125 nominations comprising 47 countries and was translated from the original French by Linda Coverdale.

Speaking to on Sunday, Ben Jelloun said he felt immense pride that such an important work had been recognised internationally.

“Although the novel is fictional, it is related to a true account [relayed] to me by a political prisoner who suffered 20 years imprisonment. His story inspired me.”

Winning novel

This Blinding Absence of Light is based on the real-life experience of a soldier kept at the infamous Tazmamart prison in Morocco for his part in a failed coup against King Hasan II in 1971.

For his part in the insurrection, the main character, Salim, is kept underground and deprived of light for two decades.

Over half of the prisoners die in such terrible conditions, but Salim survives and maintains his sanity by memorising long passages from the Quran.

The novel deals with human evil, suffering and how man can transcend it through faith.

Many of the novel’s passages were described by the competition’s judges as possessing mystic beauty.

Judges’ comment

IMPAC chairman Dr James Irwin told how much he admired the novel for its beauty and clarity of language.

“A literary and metaphysical journey into an Islamic-based humanism … against an otherwise overwhelmingly meaningless suffering”

Tahar Ben Jelloun,

“You will not emerge before you have explored it … its commitment to a terrible subject, its passionate evocation of the human soul and the will to survive.”

It is “a literary and metaphysical journey into an Islamic-based humanism that alone secures the tortured individual’s sanity and existence against an otherwise overwhelmingly meaningless suffering”.


Born in Fez in 1944, Ben Jelloun is considered one of North Africa’s most successful post-colonial writers.

A regular contributor to Le Monde, he has also won France’s Prix Goncourt for literature and has also published numerous collections of poetry.

Awarded a doctorate in psychiatric social work from the University of Paris in 1975, Ben Jelloun has focused most of his novels on social and sexual dysfunction in Moroccan society.

His novels are considered a sharp critique of Moroccan culture.

He always writes in French, though he does often play with words that produce ambiguous concepts when translated into Arabic.

“Arabic is my wife”, he says. “But French is my mistress; and I have been unfaithful to both!”

Source: Al Jazeera

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