Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Book Review: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

This book review for "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" by Laila Lalami appeared recently on the Oregonian. Laila Lalami is a Moroccan living in Portland Oregon. Her latest book is a collection of short stories on Moroccans' migration to Europe. Through the lives of a series of different characters, she depicts the root causes of this 'Moroccan Exodus'. Laila Lalami also maintains a blog moorishgirl, where she shares her work and thoughts. Read a lot about the book, but still couldn't get a copy. But thinks it's surely worth reading.

Clear-eyed stories of the Moroccan exodus

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Each year, thousands of Moroccans emigrate, hoping to find a better life, often entering Europe illegally through Spain just eight miles across the Straits of Gibraltar from Tangier. Their reasons for leaving are familiar ones: poverty and unemployment, poor health care, lack of educational opportunity and increasing political instability generated in part by pressure from Islamic fundamentalists. In recent weeks countries of the European Union have stepped up efforts to stem the tide of immigration by providing Morocco with financial aid, but mostly for increased border controls, not for economic development that might keep Moroccans in their home country.

This is the backdrop of "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits," Laila Lalami's collection of loosely joined stories about the Moroccan exodus. Born and raised in Morocco, educated as a linguist in Britain and in California, Lalami now lives in Portland where she maintains her blog www.moorishgirl.com, an eye-catching compendium of quirky literary talk and thoughtful political commentary on economic and human rights conditions in Morocco.

The first story introduces several Moroccans making the illicit, treacherous journey from Tangier to the Spanish coast in a motorized inflatable boat. The remaining stories trace the characters' motivations for leaving, as well as the consequences of such a life-altering experience for those who are quickly apprehended and deported, those who survive and live illegally in Spain, and those who obtain legal visas and work permits and establish more-or-less permanent residence abroad.

Lalami interweaves the stories to show the local effects of globalization. Turn-of-century Moroccans have been set adrift from traditional cultural moorings, torn between desperate social and economic conditions at home and limited financial success abroad, which is in turn but a poor substitute for life with family and friends in a familiar cultural milieu.

One of the most affecting stories, "The Fanatic," is about a midlevel bureaucrat adept at trading favors with others to ensure privilege and advancement for his family. His teenage daughter, under the sway of militant Islam, questions his lifestyle and challenges his moral authority. Eventually, however, she pleads with him to use his influence on behalf of a friend failing in school. He refuses to intercede, using moral arguments that echo his daughter's earlier challenge.

"The Saint" is about a woman who risks emigration with her small children in order to escape an abusive husband. Lalami shows how a traditional "culture of silence" traps women in marriages that are cycles of intimidation and violence. At the same time, she establishes a web of community ties because of a folk belief that her son is a "blessed child" with magical powers. Neighbors barter to obtain his blessing, another cultural anachronism, in this case benign.

"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" is a slim book, the stories brisk, with a strong dose of realism about current conditions in Morocco. Lalami clearly admires how cross-cultural writers such as Salman Rushdie have created a world audience for novels and stories that paint a vivid picture of a particular time, place and worldview. But in her own distinctive contribution to this global literature she eschews the exoticism and magic realism that might cast culture in a romantic light. Not from lack of imagination, but from a reluctance to expose the most authentic details of a culture under siege.

Lalami knows most American readers see Morocco in images drawn by expatriate writer Paul Bowles, who lived in Tangier from the mid-20th century until his death in 1999, translating Moroccan folk stories and recording native Moroccan music for the Library of Congress. His collection of tales about cannabis, "A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard," published by City Lights, became a cult favorite of beatniks, hippies and rock stars who flocked to Tangier to meet him. Bowles' stories criticized the spread of Western values and their negative consequence for native cultures, but he also made Morocco seem a mysterious, exotic place, often brutal in the clash of cultures.

"The Storyteller" features Lalami's most sympathetic protagonist, Murad, a man obsessed with Bowles and his reputation as the interpreter of Moroccan culture. For a time Murad made a living guiding naive American tourists seeking a glimpse of Bowles' house or the cafes where he hung out with American celebrities. Now he works in a gift shop selling authentic antiques as well as replicas manufactured for the tourist trade. Two American women, Bowles aficionados, can't tell real artifacts from fake ones, just as they miss the meaning of the cool story Murad tells them, so intent are they on cheating him on the price of a rug.

Murad, like Lalami a careful observer and natural storyteller, longs for the stability of family, culture and homegrown economic self-sufficiency. But he knows the true price he has paid for daydreaming about a new life:

"He'd been so consumed with his imagined future that he hadn't noticed how it had started to overtake something inside him, bit by bit. He'd been living in the future, thinking of all his tomorrows in a better place, never realizing that his past was drifting. And now, when he thought of the future, he saw himself in front of his children, as mute as if his tongue had been cut off, unable to recount for them the stories he'd heard as a child. He wondered if one always had to sacrifice the past for the future . . . so that for every new bit of imagined future, he had to forsake a tangible past."

Murad's metaphoric muteness wryly echoes Bowles' "A Distant Episode," a perverse story about a foreign professor -- a linguist studying desert dialects -- held captive by tribesmen who cut off his tongue. We sympathize with Murad's (and Lalami's) dilemma. But isn't it an inevitable one? The future encroaches in any event, and alters or colors even when it does not destroy the past. We can wish we'd never left but we can't go back.


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