Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2005.
Tahar Ben Jelloun, A Palace in the Old Village. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: Penguin, 2011.
Already, the narratives of the Arab Spring dominating the American media have a nebulous relationship with the human stories behind the events. The deaths of Mohammed Bouazizi and Khaled Said usually mark the beginning of the story, to be sure. But beyond a handful of famous and visceral anecdotes, most coverage has favored broader themes more familiar (and arguably more palatable) to American audiences: the triumph of social media, for example, or the abuses of dictators.
This is nothing new, nor is it particularly surprising, when it comes to coverage of the Middle East and the Arab world. But in the midst of moments as radical and revolutionary as the region is witnessing, a lack of attention to the human experiences at their core – whether attempted self-immolations or mass protests in the face of regime violence – risks romanticizing the struggles and the very real sacrifices that accompany them. Neglecting to examine the relationships between broader policies and influences (from neoliberal economics to the “War on Terror”) and the individuals that are subject to them can lead to a reductionist understanding of the recent events, without consideration of how they figure into larger, global systems.
This is precisely why novels like Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (published in 2005) and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s A Palace in the Old Village (published in 2010, and translated into English by Linda Coverdale this year) are vital. They convey the human dimensions of phenomena ranging from economic crises to political corruption to migration, illuminating the lives of people and ideas as they traverse borders of all kinds. Spanning geographical and generational lines, both books represent a diversity of viewpoints without resorting to archetypes (e.g., the frustrated, unemployed Arab man or the desperate and marginalized Muslim woman). Written in English (Lalami) and French (Ben Jelloun) by authors who were born in Morocco, the novels, to some degree, defy categorization: like their characters, the novelists are themselves part of a process of travel, interaction, and exchange.
In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami creates a web of loosely linked stories that disintegrates nearly as soon as it comes together. The novel begins with a harrowing crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar in a small Zodiac raft; aboard is a group of harragas, migrants attempting to cross to Europe illegally. When the expedition nears the Spanish coast, its members are forced to scatter. As they drift apart, the narration returns to the beginning of each character’s story, charting the pressures, influences, and crises that drove each to attempt the crossing in the first place – and then tracking what happens to each after the Spanish authorities arrive.
Lalami’s stories peel away the facades of “human development” processes, which are ostensibly designed to promote rights and dignity but often become subsumed within more powerful economic or political trends. Doing so, she explores the limits of individual agency and complicates the widely promoted notion that education and perseverance are sure means to dignity, opportunity, and choice. After immigrating, Faten, a young, pious idealist, reflects upon her decision to start wearing the hijab as a university student in Morocco and the subsequent circumstances that have forced her to take it off again in Spain. She wonders about her wealthy former best friend, Noura, whom she once convinced to wear the hijab, too:
Noura was probably still wearing it. She was rich; she had the luxury of having faith. But then, Faten thought, Noura also had the luxury of having no faith . . .
While Noura’s privilege and connections protect her from the consequences of her decisions, Faten’s religious leanings and socioeconomic circumstances work against her to make her a persona non grata in Moroccan society. “That was the thing with money,” Faten concludes. “It gave you choices.”
It is those without money, of course, who are typically the intended beneficiaries of educational reforms that aim to equalize opportunity. Programs like women’s literacy classes, vocational training, and instruction in “practical” languages like English and French are touted as tools that lift populations out of poverty with practical skills that correspond to “real” economic needs. But Lalami’s series of character portraits tells a different story: Halima, a newly literate woman, gains not so much a new sense of dignity as an ability to read “the rolling credits at the end of the soap operas she watched every night”; she still performs menial labor in a job that she suspects was only given to her out of a sense of charity in the first place. Aziz, a character who failed out of high school, has no better luck finding work after two years of trade school than he had before.
Finally, Murad, whose story begins and ends the novel, has a similar tale but (perhaps) a different ending. As a young man with a university degree in English literature, the only work he can find is hustling tourists stepping off the Tangiers ferry, selling tours of local “culture” (or more often, that of the Beat poets who once frequented the city). English, which is his key to another world through literature, leaves him dejectedly underemployed in the “real” world. Murad’s case, like those of Lalami’s other characters, is not a story of a person desperately wanting “out” or longing for a new life in a strange land. Instead, we see desperate individuals who, caught up in circumstances beyond their control, attempt migration as a last resort. Lalami questions what, exactly, constitutes a “choice” or an “opportunity,” as well as the idea that people can be easily divided into categories of legal and illegal, voluntary and forced. Just like the logic of vocational training and literacy classes, these neatly delineated categories are often misaligned with the realities of everyday lives.
A handful of the would-be immigrants make it to Spain and manage to establish themselves; others are forced to return. And while there are no happy endings – none of her immigrants’ “dreams” come to fruition as intended – Lalami’s deeply sympathetic and nuanced descriptions keep her characters from becoming mere objects of the historical forces that determine their circumstances. Given impossible circumstances, her characters make impossible choices. “Next time, he’ll make it,” Murad thinks to himself, after being forced to return to Tangiers, and yet his final resolution is not a repeated attempt at relocating himself, but a decision to begin writing his own stories rather than continuing to lead foreign tourists in the footsteps of Paul Bowles – who, according to the self-assured pronouncement of a smug American tourist in the novel’s final scene, knew Morocco “better than the Moroccans themselves.” These final moments of the book speak volumes: they raise the question of who has the privilege to represent whom, suggest the many ways that ideas can traverse borders, and speak to the transformative power of individual creative acts of all kinds.
While one of Lalami’s characters envisions the Strait of Gibraltar as separating “two universes,” A Palace in the Old Village follows the story of a single Moroccan immigrant who never truly feels at home in the “other universe” of Europe, suggesting that the true sources of otherness and loneliness are more complex than the straightforward lines of geography. Ben Jelloun’s image of the immigrant’s dream, just as fractured as the one Lalami portrays, is conveyed through one man’s experiences over time. Where Lalami’s narrative connects the dots between different characters to form a larger picture, Ben Jelloun’s narrative alternates between the way the world sees “Mohammed Thimmigrant” and the way that Mohammed sees the world.
Like Lalami’s novel, A Palace in the Old Village begins at a time of crisis. Mohammed, a Moroccan who has lived in France for forty years, is facing retirement and the end of a routine that, while colorless and uninspiring, left him in no doubt of his purpose and place in the world. Faced with an uncertain future, Mohammed reminisces about his pilgrimage to Mecca – the realities of which contrasted sharply with the ideal journey he had anticipated, with crowding and even fatal accidents disrupting the holiest of rituals. This dissonance between dreams and reality pervades the rest of the work, which unfolds as a series of memories and dreams whose realizations depart, again and again, from their intended outcomes – whether it is immigration to “LaFrance,” the experience of raising children, or the expectation of a triumphant and reconciliatory homecoming.
The narration shifts between the third person and the perspective of Mohammed himself, alternating between profoundly personal moments (“My children don’t want to be like me . . . But do I want to be like me?”) and broader, historical ones (“The caid scrupulously imitated everything the French had done during their colonial occupation”). The immigrant’s tale is written here as a personal tragedy, as Mohammed relocates and reorients his entire life for the sake of his children only to “lose” them to assimilation, marriage outside of Islam, and the general trappings of modern life. “France gave him work,” Ben Jelloun writes, “and then took everything he had” – pointing, like Lalami, to the questionable promise of work and opportunity.
The book traces the various forces that estrange Mohammed from “home,” starting with his emigration from a southern Moroccan village at the behest of the French, who are in need of physical labor. Mohammed at first seems indifferent towards the move; contemplating the experiences of fellow villagers who have emigrated, he recalls:
When they came back they never talked about LaFrance, just the cold, the difficult language, the people who never smiled at you. They brought back money, though, and things we didn’t necessarily need. I remember my uncle who brought home an electric oven and an iron. He’d forgotten that we don’t have electricity . . . They used the oven for a pantry. It was so funny!
The local makhzen (the class of elites whose power remains a source of frustration in Morocco today) who determine Mohammed’s fate have more in common with the former French colonial elite than with anyone else in the village; it is money and personal interests, not skin color or religion, which unite or divide these characters. For Mohammed, the value of life in France lies entirely in the promise of the future generation: by enduring hardships for the sake of his children, he finds meaning in a strange land. The tragedy emerges as it is gradually revealed how this meaning becomes lost.
In portraying the disintegration of Mohammed’s relationship with his children, Ben Jelloun uses the trope of language as both a means of estrangement and a proxy for it. Mohammed grew up speaking Arabic and Berber (although the novel does not explore the complicated relationship between the two). His devotion to both Islam and Arabic is embodied by his copy of the Qur’an, which he treasures as a piece of portable authenticity: “This book was everything to Mohammed: his culture, his identity, his passport, his pride, his secret.” By contrast, his children’s disdain for Berber and Arabic exemplifies their attitude towards all things Moroccan. The real tragedy is not that Mohammed’s children prefer to speak French, per se, but that they speak a language that Mohammed “had learned to understand but did not use.” The language gap translates, literally, into the loss of “every scrap of authority” Mohammed once had over his children.
Faced with the impossibility of retirement in France, Mohammed decides to move back to his home village and build a “big, handsome house, full of light and children.” In his imagination, the house becomes the irredentist project that will reconcile everything: it will reunite his family, bringing his children back into the fold of Islam and of their native land and language, and consolidate his standing in Moroccan society as well. He envisions “the ideal house built by the model emigrant.” Everything Mohammed does in retirement is done with the aim of “saving” his children from the dangers of permanent assimilation.
As the house nears completion, the novel’s tone shifts, and supernatural omens encroach upon Mohammed’s plans. When a sinister presence threatens the house, Mohammed turns to his Qur’an – only to discover that the Arabic on its pages has been erased: “The verses had been wiped away, swallowed by something unseen.” It is painfully clear that the language of his childhood dreams has disappeared. Despite the warnings, Mohammed obstinately sinks himself into a “colonial armchair,” whose broken springs dig into his body, and waits for his children in the home he has struggled to create. The house, once ridiculed as a “folly,” becomes a local shrine before long, and Mohammed’s story is transformed from a realist narrative into an eerie and melancholy fable.
At one point, reflecting on the frustrations of life in France, Mohammed reasons with himself: “The contract is clear: I work, they pay me. I raise my children, and then one day we all go home to our house, yes, because the house is my country, my native land.” In the end, this logic is refuted with a story of displacement and distance, which exists even back in “the old village.” Rather than describing this displacement as part of the immigrant’s physical or temporal journey, however, Ben Jelloun locates it in the space created between two generations. The story’s outcome deflates Mohammed’s notion that there is something permanent and significant about his children’s “native land” and language, something written on their faces and in the color of their skin, that they cannot escape – above all, speaking to the transience of all things “authentic,” and exposing all that can be lost in migration and translation as much as all that can be gained.