October 3, 2005
Friends of Morocco Book Review by George McFadden (Morocco 76 – 79)
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami. October, 2005: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits marks the book debut of a Moroccan-American woman who is one of the most creative and talented upcoming writers in the United States. Born and educated in Morocco, she went on to study in Great Britain and California, and with a master’s degree and a doctorate in linguistics, she found herself in Los Angeles working as a computational linguist. At age 30, she decided to follow her bliss and become a full-time writer. Now living in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, she is blazing across the literary firmament.
She maintains a literary weblog – www.moorishgirl.com – that has broken new ground and brought her international recognition. Earlier this year, she was featured as a member of a panel of literary bloggers on C-SPAN where she explained her approach to using cyberspace as a literary roundtable. Moorishgirl.com is the perfect venue for her unique literary talents and her enduring interest in all things Moroccan. In an age in which Americans are reading less literature than ever, it takes a Moroccan woman writing in a language other than her native tongue to reinvigorate American literature. Non-native, English-speaking writers are nothing new – Joseph Conrad was an excellent example. But Conrad was writing in a literate age. According to a National Endowment for the Arts survey released this summer, Americans are reading less literature than ever. (Their definition of “reading literature” is far from exacting – reading as little as one haiku poem per year would allow one to qualify as a “reader of literature!”) Indeed, in the 18 -24 year old age bracket, there was a 28% drop between the years 1982 and 2002. NEA Chairman Dana Gioia termed it “a national crisis.” (To read the results and download this study, go to: http://www.nea.gov/news/news04/ReadingAtRisk.html)
But writers who can transcend languages, cultures, and artistic traditions without need of a translator are extremely rare today, although there are many pretenders. Lalami combines her knowledge of languages, cultures, and perspectives to give readers a real edge of insight. For example, a review she wrote and posted on her blog of the racy novel The Almond – an inside view of a Muslim woman’s sexuality written by a Muslim woman – goes into a detailed analysis that only another articulate Arabic speaking woman fluent in both languages and cultures could provide. (See that review reprinted with permission elsewhere in this edition of the FOM newsletter.) Her blog is full of such insight, the effect heightened by her wide range of interests and her natural curiosity.
In Hope, Lalami tells a complex tale of four Moroccans – two men and two women - who feel the need to try their chances with illegal emigration to Spain in defiance of their lives in Morocco. Coming from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds, they suddenly find themselves at close quarters with 26 other men, women and children at the start of the book as they set off one dark night from the northern coast near Tangiers on the perilous journey across the Straits of Gibraltar.
The characters represent a cross section of society and their lives reflect the strains and vicissitudes of modern day life in Morocco. There is Aziz, an unemployed, newly married auto mechanic; Halima, a barely-divorced and abused young mother; Faten, a lycee-age young girl who has embraced the rigid strictures of fundamentalist Islam; and Murad, an unemployed university graduate who lives by his wits as a street hustler and “guide” in Tangiers. This last character has a uniquely amusing angle – he approaches aging hippie types at the ferry landing with the line, “Interested in Paul Bowles?” He then offers them private tours of “Paul Bowles’ Tangiers” with everything that connotes. But despite his creativity, he’s failing life and fighting to uphold his honor in his family and in society at large in a manner befitting a university graduate.
As they glide through the cold water, Murad contemplates the journey and the uncertainty awaiting them at its end, wondering “how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two wholly different universes.” Looking ahead, he sees the Spanish town they’re headed towards: Tarifa, the landing point of the conquering Moorish army in 711 A.D. He used to “regale tourists with anecdotes about how Tariq Ibn Ziyad had led a powerful Moor army across the Straits and, upon landing in Gibraltar, ordered all the boats burned….The men had followed their general, toppled the Visigoths, and established an empire that ruled over Spain for more than 700 years. Little did they know we’d be back….only instead of a fleet, here we are in an inflatable boat.”
After the description of their frightening trip across the Straits, Lalami writes of their lives before the trip as they come to their fateful decisions, and then after the trip as they cope with the consequences. The descriptions of daily Moroccan life, in the portraits of their lives before their emigration, is rich in the type of detail that only a native Moroccan would know so well. It is here that Lalami’s talent shines. Her descriptions stand on their own to a reader who knows nothing about Morocco but they are truly evocative to readers familiar with life in that country.
The issues she deals with in the book are dense and contemporary, and they are the stuff of daily headlines in Morocco and the world at large. Women’s rights in the Islamic world, illegal immigration from Africa to Europe, religious extremism, human rights, developmental economics, the role of tradition in the modern world and many more issues that are affecting individuals, societies, and cultures today. For example, her descriptions of the raging arguments that one of Faten’s friends has with her parents over her growing embrace of the piously rigid Salafi brand of fundamentalism offers us a rare glimpse into a debate that crackles in millions of homes in the Islamic world as a younger generation is seduced by the power and certainty of a righteousness that their parents see as a perversion of a rich religious tradition. Non-Muslims rarely see the long road that precedes radical Islam’s violence as parents watch, sometimes helplessly, as their children are consumed by what they recognize as the twisted logic of a hunger for power.
Laila Lalami ’s gift lies in her skill at giving her readers a window into that world, regardless of their cultural orientation. Her ability to describe the hopes, fears, aspirations, and daily life realities of a young generation of North Africans is something that we need more of today. Her craft is informed by a “there but for the grace of God go I” introspection so rare among many contemporary writers. In describing her approach to writing this book, she observes in an essay on her blog: “It would seem that I have nothing in common with my characters, but I could just as easily been one of them if the lottery of life had dealt me different numbers.” We can only hope that she continues on her path and produces many more works as insightful as Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.
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