Exile and the Kingdom
Parallels between the novel and Ben Jelloun's life abound. Like his characters, Ben Jelloun studied at a French high school in Tangier. Like them, he was arrested in 1966 on suspicion that he had taken part in student demonstrations (a charge that was true in his case). Like them, he was sent to El Hajeb and Ahermemou. But although he has written fiction about everything from gender identity (The Sand Child, The Sacred Night) to bribery (Corruption), he has never written directly about this episode in his life until now. The reasons for this change may lie in the controversy surrounding the publication of his previous novel, This Blinding Absence of Light, which is loosely based on the experiences of Aziz Binebine, a junior officer who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1971 Lieut. Col. Mohamed Ababou led an entire corps of cadets from the Military Academy of Ahermemou to the beach city of Skhirat, where, he told them, they would take part in military exercises. Little did they know that they were being called upon by General Oufkir to seize the royal palace, where King Hassan was celebrating his 42nd birthday in a lavish garden party. The coup failed, and the king threw fifty-eight of the student officers into the infamous jail at Tazmamart, where cells were so cramped that prisoners, held in solitary confinement, could not stand up. They remained there, in complete darkness, for eighteen years.
Many survivors, among them Ahmed Marzouki, whose own memoir, Tazmamart: Cellule 10, became a bestseller in Morocco in 2001, complained that Ben Jelloun should have written a book or spoken up on their behalf when they were still in prison, rather than after their release. Marzouki was quoted in Le Monde as saying Ben Jelloun "has always been silent. Why does he speak up today? Tazmamart is an ocean of misery and darkness. Not everyone can talk about it and profit from it." Even Aziz Binebine claimed that Ben Jelloun had "harassed" him to get permission to use his life story. Adding insult to injury, Ben Jelloun had used the first person in the narrative. The accusation was clear: Ben Jelloun had only spoken about political repression once it became safe to do so, and had exploited the memories of the victims by writing a novel.
Ben Jelloun appears to have been blindsided by the criticism. He denied harassing anyone and claimed that it was Aziz Binebine's own brother, the writer and painter Mahi Binebine, who approached him to write a book about Tazmamart survivors. He defended himself vigorously against the charges of inaction, pointing out that few on the Moroccan left had known or spoken about the secret prison, whose existence was only revealed in 1990 by the French journalist Gilles Perrault in his biography Notre ami le roi (Our Friend the King), a searing account of the close relationship between the French government and the Moroccan monarchy. Ben Jelloun noted that he had given half his royalties from This Blinding Absence of Light to Aziz Binebine and promised to make donations to human rights organizations as well.
Still, the complaints continued. Why, asked Ben Jelloun's critics, had he been so outspoken against anti-Arab racism in France, Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and Russian repression of the Chechen uprising, and yet so timid about his own country's "soft" dictatorship? Finally, in an interview with Libération, Ben Jelloun admitted, "I was like all other Moroccans--afraid. I did not want to take the king head on. I wanted to be able to go back home." Living in Paris did not necessarily afford him any protection. After all, Moroccan secret police were said to routinely spy on students and intellectuals abroad, and they could be creative in their methods of repression. In an interview with Maroc-Hebdo International, Ben Jelloun offered his final defense: Aziz Binebine had written him a fan letter after the publication of This Blinding Absence of Light, commending him for the work he had done with the story and calling the novel "impeccable."
Given this history and the striking parallels between the novel and the author's life, it is tempting to read The Last Friend as Ben Jelloun's meditation on a career of writing and activism, and to think of the two main characters as mirrors he holds up to himself and to an imagined detractor on the left. Although Ali's last name is never revealed, the fact that it contains the particle "Ben" is enough to provide some clues. Like Ben Jelloun, Ali writes poetry, goes to university in Rabat and then teaches high school in the north. And like Ben Jelloun, Ali is reproached for his silence. Here is Mamed accusing Ali of inaction and duplicity: "When it came to political commitment.... You were never very brave. You always arranged things to appear to be someone you're not." Later in their argument, Mamed delivers the ultimate judgment: "You should never have gone to prison for your ideals, since they are totally insincere, a lot of hot air, a lot of talk." Even Ali's wife appears to resent his silence: "You're riddled with vanity. Ah, the respected teacher, the distinguished pedagogue, the old leftie who has fallen into line with the corrupt majority!"