From The Punishment, which was published in April by Yale University Press in its Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Originally published by Éditions Gallimard, the book recounts the author’s imprisonment by the Moroccan military. Translated from the French.
July 16, 1966, is one of those mornings that my mother has tucked away in a corner of her memory, she says, so that she can remember to tell her gravedigger about it. A gloomy morning with a white and pitiless sky.
Many words have gone missing from that day. What remains are vacant, downcast eyes. It’s a time when young men are disappearing, when frightened people keep their voices low, suspecting the walls of recording words voiced against the regime, the king, and his henchmen, those ruthless soldiers and undercover policemen. One man tells my father, “Tomorrow your kid must report to the camp at El Hajeb, general’s orders.” My crime? To have participated on March 23, 1965, in a peaceful student demonstration that was bloodily repressed. I was with a friend when suddenly, right in front of us, members of the Chabakoni brigade, as they’re called, began savagely beating the demonstrators for no reason. We ran and ran until we found shelter in a mosque. I saw mothers rushing to hospitals in search of their children. I saw panic and hatred. Above all, I saw the face of a monarchy that had given soldiers free rein to restore order. On that day, the division between the people and their army was sealed.
Two soldiers shove me into a dark, round room with a small opening high in the wall. The air is stifling; my thoughts grow darker and darker. They’re not really thoughts, but a strange feeling that everything is now topsy-turvy, no longer in the right place: the living-room ceiling is studded with chairs, couches hang where the mirrors should be, night has been poured into day, and clocks have lost their hands; time has ceased to exist, kidnapped by fleeing convicts, while walls slide along on rails toward other walls stockpiled in a vast hangar where men are shrunken the way heads once were by faraway tribes, shrunk down to the size of rats, yes—human beings have become rats. I place my hands on the wall, reassure myself: I am not in a nightmare but imprisoned in a cell where there are no rats and nothing is moving; the walls are solid, and I’m solid too—well, almost.
We must surely be thought of as dead or disappeared. If things keep on like this, I’ve planned to die. I remember the words of Christian Pacoud, a poet who said he lived “with death slung across my chest.” An idea to keep from spinning around in circles: consider the right one has to kill oneself before humiliation becomes unbearable. I know that Islam forbids taking one’s own life. My religious fervor is quite faint. No one here talks about Islam. There is no mosque in the camp. Of course there isn’t: we’re considered miscreants. We’re not good citizens: daring to protest is like daring to be an atheist or agnostic.
On the way to training exercises one day, I saw a soldier left to die, buried in the sand up to his neck, facing the sun. The sight terrified me. What had this wretch done to deserve that agony? He disobeyed; that’s all we knew.
Orders have arrived from Rabat to speed up our release. Before leaving, a medical checkup. We are not ill, but our general condition is not good. Our morale in particular has suffered, although the idea of freedom does give us some hope. We’re afraid of traps. We don’t know how they choose whom to release. No logic, no criteria. We wait. I realize that our trials have not created any bonds, any friendships: we put up with one another but don’t talk about getting together again in civilian life. See one another again? Why? To remember the long days of misery? I retreat into silence, do not participate in animated discussions—there’s no point.
At night I have more and more explicit nightmares. I’m surrounded by rats; I hate those creatures—I’m allergic even to the sight of them. Some bite me, others lick my face, I scream for help, no one comes, I’ve no more voice, no sound comes out of my throat, the rats dance and laugh, whirling around me, their new prey. I feel tired, I’m done for, I let myself be devoured, and I die in my sleep.