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by Bensalem Himmich
translated by Roger Allen
Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2015.
ISBN: 978 0 8156 1047 2 Pbk, 225pp, £18.50/$19.95
ISBN: 978 0 8156 5317 2 (ebook)
A masterpiece of post-9/11 literature
The torture by the US and its allies of detainees held without charge or trial has been a notorious aspect of the ongoing “war on terror” launched after the 9/11 attacks in the USA. This maltreatment has often followed the secret and illegal “extraordinary rendition” of suspects to another country for interrogation.
The Moroccan novelist, poet and philosopher Bensalem Himmich tackles this programme of state-sanctioned torture, abuse and rendition head-on in his powerful semi-satirical novel My Torturess, translated by Roger Allen.
The novel’s first-person protagonist Hamuda is a blameless and scholarly bookseller from the Moroccan town of Oujda. His ordeal begins when he is dragged from his bookstore by three masked men claiming to be from the secret police. They inject him with drugs, put him aboard a helicopter and dress him in a blue uniform. On arrival at the prison where he spends the next six years Hamuda’s identity becomes merely prisoner number 112. He never discovers the location of the prison, nor even which country it is in.
The novel was first published in Arabic in 2010 by Dar El-Shorouk in Cairo under the title Mu’adhdhibati , the female form of the noun making clear the torturer’s gender. But when the novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2011, IPAF rendered the title in English as the gender-neutral “My Tormenter”.
Allen was keen to restore gender in the title of his translation, and thus chose the word “torturess”. In his illuminating afterword he notes that unlike “actress” and other nouns feminised by the “ess” suffix, “torturess” does not appear in the English dictionary.
The torturess is the dreaded Mama Ghula, who inflicts a variety of tortures on Hamuda. She can be seen as symbolic of a system of repression which perverts those very values of freedom, human rights and justice which the war on terror was claimed to defend.
The involvement of women in torture, some of it sexual, has been a recurring feature of the war on terror. An early shocking example came after the 2003 invasion of Iraq when photographs leaked from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad showed US army reservist Lynndie England posing gleefully with tortured and naked detainees. There have been many other examples.
My Torturess has a circular structure, and begins after Hamuda’s release. He recounts the contents of a letter that had been smuggled to him in the prison by Naima, a Moroccan secretary to the investigating judge. She had advised him to pretend to be mentally ill: “pepper your interrogators with all kinds of crazy talk”. He should also play on the interrogators’ fear of TB by coughing over them.
Naima’s suggestions eventually helped Hamuda exit the prison. If not for her, he would have “spent still more years enduring never-ending torture sessions all supervised and directed by that truly barbaric and expert hang-woman of evil memory and repute known by the name ‘Mama Ghula’ ”.
Hamuda has returned to Oujda deeply traumatised. He cuts a weird figure, going out only at night protected by a reinforced metal helmet and by a bulky bullet-proof vest that some people fear is a suicide belt.
A religious sheikh visits him and tells him he should change his strange attire and behaviour. When Hamuda says he wants to write about his horrendous period of imprisonment the sheikh offers him sanctuary on a farm he owns, where Hamuda will be looked after by a shepherdess and her daughter.
The main body of My Torturess consists of Hamuda’s account of his imprisonment, while the novel’s final section take us once more to the period after his release.
Himmich brilliantly portrays the prison and its atmosphere of paranoia and random violence. He conveys a sense of constant disorientation, and the novel is full of startling images and bizarre happenings. The momentum of the novel builds towards to a macabre soirée.
On arrival at the prison Hamuda is first held in the cages of the Shock and Terror Cellar. Then he is transferred to solitary confinement in a cell of only five and a half square feet and he describes how he tries to keep his sanity, including through reciting passes from the Qur’an. Hamuda has belonged to a Sufi group and his faith is if anything strengthened by his tribulations. He has a strong inner core and constantly sticks up for the rights of himself and other detainees.
After several months Hamuda is brought before the investigating judge. This verbose character is by turns ingratiating and threatening towards Hamuda. He maintains that they are similar in that they both have degrees in both Islamic law and literature. But the literary and religious references with which he laces his discourse frequently need correcting by Hamuda.
Some of the more amusing passages in My Torturess feature Hamuda’s various encounters with the judge and his three secretaries, who appear in succession. The first is sexually provocative and drives Hamuda to distraction. The judge mocks the speech defect of the second, and Roger Allen finds a way of translation this defect. The third is Naima, who would prove to be Hamuda’s salvation.
The judge wants information on Hamuda’s militant cousin al-Husayn al-Masmudi, of whose activities Hamuda is in fact ignorant. After the judge fails to force any confession from Hamuda, he is passed into the hands of Mama Ghula. His first torture session includes her raping him anally with a bottle after burning him with a cigarette on various parts of his body.
In a chapter entitled “In My Torturer’s Bed: A night of Debauchery and Terror”, Hamuda tells of his horror on waking from a drugged sleep to find himself in bed with Mama Ghula. She tells him that while sleeping he has married and had sex with her, and that she intends to bear his son.
After Hamuda expresses disbelief, she “proceeded to do things with me that I could never have conceived, even in my wildest nightmares. In fact, she assaulted and raped me, showing superior skill and a whorish professionalism in the process. I kept screaming in shame, and begging for help, but she stopped me by kicking my bandaged leg, which had not fully healed yet.” Mama Ghula forces three bottles of wine down Hamuda’s throat while uttering insults such as “God curse your mother’s religion” and “Whoever said you’re going to heaven, you little bastard?” They are joined by a midget with a long silvery beard who tells dirty jokes and stories.
Hamuda’s prolonged descriptions of torture are almost unbearable to read. And yet the novel is lightened by Hamuda’s intelligence and sharp eye for absurdity. There is a grace about the man and a beauty in his flow of observations.
The culpability of the US and its allies is made clear at various points in the novel. A detainee describes Mama Ghula as “the professional torturess, who’s an expert in all kinds of degradation. The worst of them she’s learnt in specialized foreign centres, but she’s also invented others of her own that she delights in testing on imprisoned subjects like you and me.”
The investigating judge privately condemns Mama Ghula. He tells Hamuda: “She should be punished not merely for what she’s done to you but also because, when it comes to monstrous conduct and illicit behaviour, she has no peer; when it comes to terror and violence, no one else comes even close. But how can I be blamed when Uncle Sam has written her a blank check? What am I supposed to do? The Yankees have given her a green light – in fact it’s so green that there’s nothing fresher and greener.”
Himmich is the author of many works of fiction, poetry, essays and criticism in Arabic and French, for which he has won numerous awards and distinctions. He is professor of philosophy at Mohammed V University in Rabat and was the Moroccan Minister of Culture in 2009-12.
My Torturess is the fourth of his novels to be translated by Roger Allen, who was until his retirement the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.
Allen’s translation of A Muslim Suicide (Hadha Al-Andalusi!) published by Syracuse University Press in 2011, won the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The novel is “narrated” by the 13th-century Andalusian Sufi physician and theologian Ibn Sab’in.
Allen’s vigorous translation of My Torturess once again shows his particular affinity with Himmich’s rich, multilayered prose. He conveys the novel’s wide range of registers and vocabulary, from slang and the scatological to theology and poetic meditation, as well as its wordplay. The novel has verve and pace and is darkly entertaining. The glossary provided by Allen is invaluable for understanding the literary and religious works and personalities referenced in the text, and as for Qur’anic references, the source of each is provided in square brackets within the text.
My Torturess deserves to be considered as a masterpiece of post-9/11 literature as well as a major contribution to Arab and world literature. With its exploration of abusive practices in the war on terror it raises some of the most vital questions in the world today.
Published in Banipal 54 - ECHOES