The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun

I loved this, first of all.

Tahar Ben Jelloun… Wow. I didn’t realise how little I knew about Morocco until I read this book. My aunt visited and when she returned she had stories of streets taken up by friendly cats, bargain-full souks and warm hospitality.

Here, in a small number of pages, I found enduring friendship captured in a series of fleeting memories. The memories are sharp, the moments in them are defining and when it all pulls together it’s grounding.

The relationship between the main voices is so real, all the petty ego hurt, the love and the inability to see intentions clearly, both of the individual themselves and of those who they would analyse.

The Algerian War is brought in as early as the second paragraph through a memory of a strict professor with a son in the Algerian army in the 60’s.

“Once in a while, Monsieur Briançon would talk with Monsieur Hakim, our Arabic teacher, who also had a son in the army- on the other side, fighting with the Algerian National Liberation Front. The two must have talked about the horror and ultimate absurdity of the war…”

And so we hear about the war and civilian experience through the memories of Ali and Mamed. Their voices calmly sound out a verging-on-totalitarian government. When they are boys they are taken as prisoners of conscience and when they are men, they are denied autonomy.

I knew so little so I went to my helpful friend, Google. I stumbled upon the news site, The Al-Monitor :

On December 26 2019, Omar Radi, an investigative journalist and human rights activist was detained in Casablanca for criticising a judge’s harsh sentencing of peaceful protesters. He was released on New Year’s Eve due to pressure from protesters and human rights organisations. Sebastian Bouknight, the Al- Monitor, writes:

“Radi’s arrest was part of a recent muzzling of Moroccans who use the internet to voice dissent against the monarchy and ruling elite. Some 16 others have also been arrested on similar charges since October…’

The corrupt grounds for these imprisonments and harsh sentences are accompanied by national protests, mandatory military service and rising questions of individual freedom.

Jelloun’s work could have been set in the 1960’s or in 2020 and nothing would need to be changed except for the names. Beyond that, imprisonments due to peaceful protests and disagreeing with the government all over the world (Hong Kong, Kashmir, America, UK all spring to mind) seem to make newsfeed headlines daily.

Jelloun focuses on the war and political imprisonment under the lens of the friendship of his characters. The political unrest is sweltered down to eating habits and sleeping patterns in prison, and their families’ reactions to their unjust arrests.

They talk sex, love and not being able to find home. They take turns flying the nest and at these points it became clearer their conflict is between their love of home and their hatred of the injustice by their government. That was very relatable: especially now in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and awareness of structural and institutional racism. They were outsiders for disagreeing and thinking non-traditionally in their own community and just outsiders by nature everywhere else.

Jelloun writes with a simple language and all the way through I had a sense of the heartiness, the warmth, the food, the cigarettes, the laughter, the dust.

I got the post-book blues: I think that’s my version of a five-star review. I think the length and the language made this easier to follow for me.

If you’re interested, there’s an interview by Alain Elkann about Jelloun’s book ‘Racism Explained To My Daughter’, which is the next book of his I want to check out.

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