x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The importance of elsewhere

Books The novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun has long documented the effect of Morocco's decay on its citizens. Robert Eshelman reads his newly translated novel, in which a few unhappy souls decide to leave.

Tangiers, with its economic difficulties and slums, is the point of departure for would-be immigrants trying to illegally reach the European mainland across the Straits of Gibraltar.
Tangiers, with its economic difficulties and slums, is the point of departure for would-be immigrants trying to illegally reach the European mainland across the Straits of Gibraltar.

The novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun has long documented the effect of Morocco's decay on its citizens. Robert Eshelman reads his newly translated novel, in which a few unhappy souls decide to leave.

Leaving Tangier Tahar Ben Jelloun, Linda Coverdale (Translator) Penguin Dh55 In the opening scene of the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jalloun's novel Leaving Tangier, customers sit at the hilltop Cafe Hafa, waiting for twilight to reveal the twinkling lights of Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. They long for that country, and recall the legend of a woman who grants travellers safe passage across the strait. Among them is Azel, an unemployed 24-year old. As he stares into the sunset, he experiences a vision of himself drowning in the waters below. It does not quell his desire to flee. "Even Azel has come to believe in the story of she who will appear and help them to cross, one by one, that distance separating them from life, the good life, or death."

As the customers sit and ponder their possible futures, they fish from their glasses of mint tea the dead bees that in their lust for sweetness have plunged into the sugary liquid and died. "Poor little drowned things, victims of their own greediness!" Such are the stakes for hungry bees - and certain Moroccans. In Leaving Tangier, first published in French in 2005 and now translated into English by Linda Coverdale, Ben Jalloun revisits a theme of many of his prior works: the effect of Morocco's corruption and political repression on the psychological condition of its citizens. Ben Jalloun's characters often feel alienated from their beleaguered homeland; in Leaving Tangier, they leave home only to end up alienated from their own selves.

Born in Fez in 1944, Ben Jalloun attended a French lycee in Tangier, where he became acquainted with French poetry and the works of existentialists such as Camus and Sartre, and he later studied philosophy in Rabat. In 1966, he was arrested for participating in a student protest against the regime of King Hassan II. In prison, he was given a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, which he claims had an enormous influence on his choice to become a writer. He was released after 18 months and taught briefly in Tetuan and Casablanca before being forced out because he was unable to teach in Classical Arabic, a requirement under General Mohammad Oukrit's Arabisation of Moroccan school curriculum in 1971. Without a teaching job and increasingly isolated politically, he took exile that year in France, where he has lived since.

His first novel, Harrouda, was published in 1973, and he has since steadily ascended to a well-deserved place of prominence in international literature. His novels, poems and plays have been translated into dozens of languages and have won him wide acclaim. He received the 1987 Prix Goncourt for The Sacred Night, an often surreal depiction of a Moroccan woman who - after being raised as a boy in order for her father to circumvent Islamic inheritance laws - renounces her past and travels through Morocco as if wandering through a dream. After winning the 1994 Prix Maghreb, Ben Jalloun was presented with the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for This Blinding Absence of Light, a fictionalised account of a man's 18-year confinement in one of King Hassan II's notorious desert prison camps. Ben Jalloun also contributes regularly to France's Le Monde, Italy's La Repubblica and Spain's El Pais.

The geographic diversity of Ben Jalloun's publications, influences and recognition hints at his boundless cosmopolitanism. But he has never stopped writing about Morocco and its problems. In Leaving Tangier - as in previous works such as Corruption, This Blinding Absence of Light and The Last Friend - the country is defined almost entirely by social decay and political oppression. University students are beaten and jailed by authorities for the slightest murmur of dissent. Police sweeps - "disinfections" - net a human bounty from which cops extract cash and confessions (or simply bodies to abuse for the fun of it). Integrity is in short supply, and palms for the greasing are abundant. The sick are turned away from hospitals - whether for lack of bribe money or medicine is unclear - and the honest have no hope for gainful employment. Those on the wrong end of a bribe or a baton float, at best, in a state of detached ennui. Worse, they contemplate "burning up the straits", as the dangerous eight- or nine-mile crossing to Spain is known, risking life or eventual deportation for a sliver of economic opportunity in Europe.

The question for Azel, a former law student, is not how to improve his lot in Morocco - he has no hope of miracles. His goal is to find the most dependable path to a new life across the water. His solution comes about by way of a chance encounter. In a moment of clarity and boldness, Azel insults a local gangster and is in turn subjected to a late-night beating by two of the man's goons. A Spaniard and his driver stumble upon the fracas, compelling Azel's attackers to flee. The Spaniard, a rich gallery owner named Miguel Lopez, whisks Azel back to his posh villa, where he allows the youth to stay and recover from his near-death injuries.

Lopez is of a breed of Europeans who have descended upon Morocco over the decades, mining the cafes and souqs in search of cheap kif - and men. He is a cultural parasite in search of young, olive-skinned flesh in which he can become lost in ecstatic bliss. Between tinkering with his lush flower garden in the morning and attending soirées in the evening, he fawns over Azel as he has over many other Moroccan men. But like his new-found object of desire, Lopez is prone to premonitions: "He had the strong impression that this young man was going to turn his life upside down - he was convinced of this in a kind of blazing and inexplicable intuition." But he doesn't change course. Spaniards, too, might learn from hungry bees.

The heterosexual Azel soon enters into a Faustian bargain, grating the rich Spaniard his sexual desires in return for help getting into Spain. But soon after arriving in Barcelona, Azel begins to unravel under a multitude of burdens. Azel's mother and sister, Kenza, phone him several times a week from Morocco. Neither woman knows the nature of Azel's relationship with his Spanish patron, and both lean on him heavily to arrange a marriage between Miguel and Kenza. He seeks friendship among his fellow immigrants, most of whom are destitute or struggling to make sense of their lives away from home. He finds temporary relief in sexual liaisons with Siham, a girlfriend from Tangier who has found a job in Spain as a caretaker for a handicapped child, and a Moroccan cafe worker named Soumaya. But these brief moments of happiness and escape are soon overtaken by Azel's deepening mental anguish over his exploitative relationship with Miguel and the general limits of life in Spain. He soon becomes impotent, and eventually takes to the streets with little more than an expired work visa. He sells stolen watches and hashish. He often thinks of his mother and Morocco. "Everyone has a dream," Ben Jalloun writes. "Azel's was broken beyond repair."

Azel's psychological dilemma is familiar material for Ben Jalloun. After emigrating to France, he began a doctorate in social psychology, researching sexual impotence among North African immigrants. The project was later published for a popular audience. In 2006 he told Britain's The Guardian: "The wounds of migration hit me in the face: men who were psychologically destroyed. I'd thought sexuality was instinctive or natural, but it's profoundly linked to inner security and cultural context."

As Leaving Tangier progresses, Ben Jalloun shifts focus slightly away from Azel and continues exploring the overlapping material and psychological crises of exile through his supporting characters. Here is his description of Soumaya: "She missed her country so much, but before she could go home, she had to earn a little money. Whenever she called her family, she would tell them about Salim, her Kuwaiti husband off on a business trip, and say she'd soon be coming to visit them." Except Salim isn't away on a business trip - and was never her husband. Soon after becoming lovers in Morocco and moving to Spain together, Salim ditched Soumaya for a wife and family in Kuwait. How would her family react if they knew? And it might be a while before she earns enough money from her cafe job. Under these pressures, Soumaya drifts into drugs and sickness.

Even Lopez, a man whom (we eventually learn) more than one desperate Moroccan has looked to as a means, however unsavory, to a better life, eventually comes to understand Azel's situation: "Miguel now realised that there was something terrifying about the loneliness of immigration, a kind of descent into a void, a tunnel of shadows that warped reality [...] Exile revealed the true dimensions of calamity."

Leaving Tangier begins with problems specific to a place - Azel leaves Morocco to escape material want and lack of freedom so pervasive it threatens existential crisis - and ends up exploring the problems of placelessness. An African immigrant in Europe is less likely to find comfort and freedom than a shadowy world of economic precarity and sharp, surprising longing for the place they have just left. Traumas abound, whether in a corrupt, repressive homeland or in another country. In Azel's journey, Ben Jalloun shows us part of the expansive middle ground between life - the good life - and death.

Robert Eshelman's writing has appeared in several American publications, including The Nation, In These Times and the Brooklyn Rail.