Tag Archives: migration

Desperate Moroccan attempts to reach Europe

The 2005 novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was ritten in English by Laila Lalami was born in Rabat in 1968, where she lived through earning a she became an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the popular blog Moorishgirl.


The book has, rightfully, been widely acclaimed both for her literary skills and for insights into those risking their lives to relocate north, across the Strait of Gibraltar rather than the Rio Grande. Showing the hypocrisy of both Islamists and secularists in Morocco has also made the book of wide interest. (It has been translated into six languages, including the languages of her earlier education, Arabic and French.)

Lalami has said that the original stimulus for this fiction was an online Le Monde article about an accident in which fifteen Moroccans drowned trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar on a fishing boat. The characters of her book— thirty passengers crammed into a Zodiac designed to hold eight — are mindful of the disaster and plenty scared when they set off.

The distance between Africa and Europe there is only fourteen and a quarter kilometers (8 miles). I can attest from personal experience that the waters can become turbulent quickly and are not warm. Currents are also treacherous (fortunately, I don’t have personal experience of that).

250 meters from the Spanish coast, the boatman forces the passengers (some of whom cannot swim) out. Some drown, a few make it and get away, while most of the others are captured by the Spanish Guardia Civil and deported back to Morocco.

The novel begins with the trip then backtracks to tell how four of the passengers got to the desperate gamble of paying substantial sums to be ferried (most of the way) across to Spain.

Murad, a multilingual guide, specializing in Paul Bowles tours for Anglophone visitors to Tangier lacks connections to get a job befitting his education (a degree in English like Lalami’s from Université Mohammed V). More direct interference occurred in the education of Faten at the same university. Faten joined an Islamist organization and influenced her friend Noura to don a headscarf, study the Koran, and decide not to go to NYU. Noura’s father is an official in the education bureaucracy and reaches out to have Faten failed. (Faten has received answers to a test from Noura, so her stern ethics are not invariable.)

Halima is fleeing with her children because her drunkard husband who has lost his job won’t grant her a divorce. (Men can divorce women by repeating “I divorce thee” four times, but women have to go to court and even if granted a divorce are rarely given custody of their children.

Aziz leaves his devoted and beautiful wife behind (with his mother) to try to make some money. (He also leaves behind a bosom buddy who also loves him, though Aziz does not seem to realize that they are more than friends, or that Lahcen would like them to be.)


The looking back at disparate characters who were together at disaster recalls Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge at San Luis Rey to me. His characters perished. Lalami’s survive. One escaped into Spain from the water. Three were deported. One made it into Spain on a later try. (I think it would be plot-spoiling to reveal who is where.)

The stories of the post-crossing-attempt characters fill in more backstory as well as showing them a few years later. Life in Spain is not a paradise for those who are there (one of them with legal status) and remains tough for those surviving in Tangier.

The book is not as grim as my account might suggest. It has a guarded optimism more like Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army than like Tahar Ben Jelloun’s nihilistic Leaving Tangier. There are more than a few ironies to make readers smile and some betterment of some lives recorded. The hope of undocumented migrants leads to dangerous attempts to reach a better life. And the lives of those left behind may be even harder, but hope does keep springing.


In an informative online interview at http://www.wab.org/events/allofrochester/2008/interview.shtml

Lalami noted: “Most of the Moroccans who undertake these journeys are people who have no job opportunities and very few useful educational prospects, whereas I have been very fortunate in receiving a good education (first in Rabat, the capital, and then in London and Los Angeles) and in finding employment…. I think I feel closest to Murad, however, because the whole book grew out of a short story [El Dorado] about him…. In the process of revising this story, I realized I was adding flashbacks of his life before the trip, so I decided to take these flashbacks out and put them in a separate story featuring the same character, but set in a different period of his life. Then I became interested in each of the other people on the boat with Murad and pretty soon I had a collection of stories, each from a different point of view, with the only connecting thread being that these characters make the same decision about emigrating illegally. Still, I felt that something was missing. Then I realized that what I needed was to reach closure with each of these characters, to find out what happened to each of them after the captain abandons them.”

I started taking English in high school, at the age of 15, and majored in English in college. After I moved to the States, I continued writing in French, but it quickly became clear to me that French comes with an enormous colonial baggage when one is writing Moroccan characters. I switched to writing fiction in English in 1996.

I don’t know of any Moroccans who would look to Paul Bowles for a story about Morocco, but it’s certainly true that many American readers might look to Bowles for a story about the country. I think he is a fine prose stylist, but I am not a big fan of his writing because I find it devoid of any compassion for his characters.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray


Season of Migration to the North

The back cover of Tayeb Salih.’s novel Season of Migration to the North, first translated into English in 1969 (having been published in Arabic three years earlier) has an assertion from Edward Said that it is “among the six finest novels to be written in modern Arabic literature.” This made me want to know what he thought were the other five. The history of the novel in Arabic is short and dominated by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.


In 2001 the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus was less equivocal than Said in judging it “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” I am dubious about the accolade from Said, and even more that this book by Tayeb Salih (1929-2009) is the best, though the Arab novelists other than Mafouz whom I read write in French (Abdellah Taïa, Tahar Ben Jelloun) or English (Laila Lalami), and Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone is generally classified as “autobiography.”

Though it has some lyrical passages (and some that strike me as ‘florid’), there is much in the very disjointed short book that seems to me unbelievable. The jagged fragmentariness may be anti-narrative “modernism” rather than incompetence, though I suspect the latter.

The book opens well, with the return from postgraduate studies in England (of English poetry) by the narrator to his natal village on the Upper Nile in downstream from Khartoum.

The never-named narrator’s grandfather is among the most respected village elders, a spry octogenarian. During the narrator’s seven-year absence, a man not native to the village has bought land, married a beautiful local woman with whom he has produced two sons. Mustafa Sa’eed has aided villagers in co-operating to end dependence on provisioning by riverboats. He refuses office, but is relied upon for advice in improving the lot of the village. (It may be a backwater, but socioeconmic change has been occurring in what is not “timeless” rural life.)

The narrator is very curious about this man who in some ways has taken on the role of rural-urban liaison that should have been his by virtue of his elite/foreign education. Slowly, the narrator learns that Mustafa Sa’eed was a wunderkind, the first student from the Sudan to become a success in the colonial metropole. Along with publishing a number of books on economics, Mustafa Sa’eed was both figuratively and quite literally a “lady-killer.” English women in extravagant numbers swooned and were ravaged by him. The body count — and I mean corpses, not conquests — seems ludicrously high to me.

Many committed suicide after being “corrupted” by the Sudanese Superfly, and he eventually killed a woman who repeatedly rejected him (double penetration: phallus and knife). No one else in the village knows of the triumphs, crimes, and prison term of Mustafa Sa’eed in England.

About midway through the short (169-page) novel, Mustafa Sa’eed disappears in a sudden flood. The narrator suspects that this was suicide, I suspect that he went off to start yet another life.

Mustafa Sa’eed had gotten his affairs in order and left a sealed letter for the narrator with the key to a room in his house that somehow was built without anyone else having seen the room or its contents (in a village house???). The letter also asks that the narrator look out for his two sons. His widow, Hosna, is in her husband’s judgment quite competent to make economic decisions.

Ah! but regardless of her competencies and wishes not to be remarried, a lecherous old man is forced upon her. The narrator’s best friend reminds him ” how life is run here: Women belong to men, and a man’s a man even if he’s decrepit.” The narrator coulda/shoulda married her (he only has one wife), but leaves for Khartoum. Hosna does what she said she would do, and there is a second knifing in bed, this time without other penetration.

The narrator returns and goes into Mustafa’s room, where he finds more about Mustafa’s life in England, but nothing about Mustafa’s life (and marriage) in the Sudanese village.

IMO, the novel is padded with lists and with documents from Mustafa’s English period of corrupting and being corrupted (in a rather Victorian and very sex-negative mindset) with too many too large lacunae (the narrator’s romantic/domestic life in both countries, for instance).

What happens and what it is supposed to mean are both confusing (and I don’t blame myself). Salih himself wrote some other novellas, married (and stayed married to) a Scottish woman, worked for the BBC and UNESCO, and did not return to live in the Sudan (in which civil wars and genocide have been raging most of the time since 1955, the year before independence from England, though there was a hiatus from 1962 to 1973, the time during which Salih wrote the book). I don’t know enough about him to hazard a guess about whether Mustafa’s lethal conquests are fantasy or exaggeration of experiences of African students in the era leading up to decolonization (followed by betrayals as shown in the novels of Ghanian/Igbo writer Chinua Achebe; Man of the People, his fourth, also first published in 1966, and the first of Achebe’s with a first-person narrator, though his previous ones had conflicted characters in colonial and postcolonial situations)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray