Tag Archives: Morocco

A Moroccan girl raised as a boy

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 1985 fourth novel L’Enfant de Sable (translated as The Sand Child) first brought widespread attention to the Morocco-born (1943) French writer. Its protagonist is Mohammed Ahmed. Frustrated at only producing daughters (seven of them already), her father decides to raise the eighth one as a boy. Among other things, this will keep his estate from going to his brother for lack of a son to inherit. A circumcision is faked (with blood from her father’s finger), her breasts are bound, and she even marries a mistreated epileptic girl, Fatima.


The story-teller draws on the journal filled with gender confusion written by Mohammed Ahmed, who once she can becomes Zahra (flower of flowers). For the time after the journal breaks off, a multitude of endings are imagined by those who have heard the story of the girl raised as a boy. (Her imposture never caused her to doubt her true gender. That is there was no role-self merger/role engulfmen.)

Apparently, Ben Jelloun became usatiisfied with the multiple endings, and in Nuit sacree/The Sacred Night (1987), chose a singular one. At the start of the second book, the father dies on the most auspicious of nights for death to be followed by salvation, the 27th night of Ramadan. Zahra xis snatched away from her father’s funeral by a splendidly mounted rider (“the Sheikh”) and taken to a seeming paradise otherwise inhabited entirely by children.

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She is a threat to the children already there and cannot stay there. Walking through the woods away from the lost paradise, she is raped (with at least acquiescence out of curiosity). She finds her way to a bathhouse, where the ugly and surly proprietress takes her in to help care for her brother, a blind Koranic teacher.

Zahra bonds with him, reads to him, talks to him, smokes kif with him, and eventually begins bedding him (in a bordello to which his sister had previously taken him and described the available women for him to rent).

The idyll is doomed by his sister’s jealousy. She unleashes the fearsome demons (uncle and sisters) of Zahra. In prison, the five sisters still in Morocco get to her and do some horrific things. Zahra survives and becomes first a letter-writer for illiterate fellow prisoners then is regarded as a saint. Surprisingly, there is a happy ending.

Other than the visits from her sisters, prison is not too horrible an experience for Zahra:

Finding myself behind bars made me realize how much my life as a man [actually, as a boy] had been like a prison. I had been confined to a single role, and in that sense deprived of freedom. Beyond the limits of that role lay catastrophe. At the time [covered by Sand Child] I had not been aware of how much I had suffered. My destiny had been twisted, my instincts suppressed, my body transfigured, my sexuality denied, my hopes destroyed. (135)


I have to say that I like Ben Jelloun’s later realist novels more than the magic realism (or is it influence of French surrealism? Moroccan fairy tales?) in Sacred Night. I think that Sand Child is more innovative, though both books pound away at the inferiorization of women in Muslim societies. It was Sacred Night that won the most prestigious French literary away, the Prix Goncourt, however. Near the start Zahra proclaims that “there is no greatness or tragedy to my story.” This is the kind of statement that stirs a contrarian response from me, and I went on to be sure that there is tragedy aplenty (greatness in a story is not as easy to decide about).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

The Last Friend

Generalizing from the two novels I’ve read by Tahar ben-Jelloun (born in Fez in 1944, emigrated to France in 1971) his recurring interests are in exploring the high psychic (and social) costs of emigration from Morocco to Europe and the “white terror” including disappearances and very long imprisonment without trial of Moroccans expressing (even in private) discontents with the authoritarian postcolonial rule of the Alaouite dynasty King Hassan II (who ruled from 1956 to 1999 and whose regime developed procedures of torture that were used on those “rendered” by the CIA to Morocco as possible terrorists).

Ben-Jelloun’s book based on interviews with survivors of Hassan’s desert concentration camps for dissidents and suspected dissidents won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004. His novel La Nuit Sacrée won the Prix Goncourt in 1987.)


His 2006 novel The Last Friend (La dernier ami, 2004) recounts from the perspective of Ali, whose family migrated from Fez (a city to which many of the Jewish and Muslim subjects of their Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella who refused to convert moved at the end of the fifteenth century; some of the Jews later converted to Islam there). The frail but spirited Ali was an outsider amongst the Tangier natives. Mamed (short for Mohammed, a shortening his father considers blasphemous) is a darker, tougher fifteen-year-old in the same French school, who comes to Ali’s defense.

They become bestest friends. Both leave Morocco to study abroad: Mamed medicine in France, Ali film studies in Canada. Returning for visits, both are apprehended by the (not-so-)secret police and held for a total of 18 months. Ali finds Mamed already there, weak from being tortured. Each believes the other saved his life during a medical emergency during their incarceration.

Though “pardoned” (without having been tried, let alone convicted), Ali cannot get his passport back and enrolls in Rabat University in history, which he later teaches. Mamed becomes a physician and eventually moves to Stockholm, though seemingly working on tropical pulmonary diseases.

Mamed married first and suspected that Ali, who had been leading a playboy existence, married in emulation of Mamed. The wives are jealous of the greater trust, built on many more years of association and shared traumas, of their husbands, but despite geographic distance Ali and Mamed can read each other like an open book.

A wife impinging — or incessantly seeking to impinge — on male pleasures, including spending time with friends (in tea or coffee shops rather than bars in Morocco), seems a leitmotif of Moroccan (and, more generally, Maghreb) literature. Their jealousy of those outside the family unit wears on friendship as the waves erode coastal bluffs.

There are some surprises awaiting the reader after Ali tells his story of the friendship. There is not a “Rashomon effect” in hearing Mamed’s account, though it provides fresh insights about many matters in the three decades each narrates (followed by two shorter documents about the end).

Mamed learned Swedish and was highly regarded by his colleagues, but missed Morocco more than his wife and children and/or missed having a friend who had known him growing up and undergoing incarceration. The final self-sacrifice is moving, when it becomes explicable.

The translation by Kevin Michel Capé and Hazel Rowley is very conversational rather than literary. Between that and the more manageable cast of characters, I found The Last Friend easier to stay with than I had Leaving Tangier, which I found easy to put down at least until I reached the midway point in it.

Also see my review of Leaving Tangier.


©2010, Stephen O. Murray

Laila Lalami’s second novel, Secret Son

I think that Laila Lalami is a very good writer in her third or fourth language, English. It would be faint praise to bill her as “the best Moroccan-American novelist,” not a category in which there is much competition.

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Her second novel, Secret Son (2009) seems far more linear than Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), though some very crucial information is supplied out of sequence in Son. It also seems — not least in its title — to have a single protagonist. In the opening part of Hope, there was one, Murad, though his was only one of five backstories that followed (and the four stories of what happened to some of those who were together in the debacle of the opening venture). Most of Secret Son is from the perspective of Youssef, but there are chapters from the perspective of four other characters. Two important scenes are replayed from a second perspective (although I think doing this was a mistake).

The book opens with a flood ending a drought and Youssef El Mekki rescuing the portraits of the father he has never known. Youssef and his friends from the Casablanca slum neighborhood, Maati and Amin, are finishing high school. Maati fails the college entrance test and starts work for the mysterious Party that has opened an Islamist center with a tea shop and sermons. Amin begins law school and Youssef majors in English.

Second Son has been likened to African American classics Native Son and Invisible Man (Lalami’s editor suggested the latter, which drove her to read Ellison’s book, and “son” was not in the title until later still, so is not an homage or an echo). The one scene of a class discussion of a book, however, addresses The Great Gatsby. Youssef sees that Daisy is Jay Gatsby’s dream, an impossible ideal to which he aspires (and IMO an unworthy chimera). His own dreams are thwarted by the society, his station in it, and by such blood relatives as he has.

Youssef aspires to and even beds one of the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, that is, students from affluent backgrounds. He remains an outsider (this was the book’s working title) to the Islamists, the Marxists, and the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, longing to belong somewhere, envying those with fathers and family.

Gradually, he learns more about the background of both his mother and his father, is lifted up and thrown back down, and used in various ways by various people who claim to have his best interests at heart—not least his mother. The childhood friends are out of his life for a while, but become central, way-too central to the denouement.

Much of the pleasure of the book is in the complicated unfolding of relationships in two families, making discussion of what happens and even who are the other major characters spoilers. There is a female character with some of the author’s geographical experience (LA, albeit being an undergraduate math major at UCA, rather than a graduate student in linguistics at USC). Lalami has expressed frustration at assumptions that Amal is autobiographical.

Lalami does not write anything from the perspective of the Angeleño of Brazilian descent, Pedro, but writes convincingly (at least to me) from the perspective of Morrocan males, elite and unemployed. Blaming Mom is a venerable American angle, though smothering mothering seems even more rampant in lower-class Moroccan culture than in middle-class Anglo American culture. Still, I was startled that disaster is laid on the doorstep of a conclave of mothers determined to keep control of their men in a novel written by a woman.

As in Hope, the Islamist movement, the corrupt and brutal government, and the smug Moroccan elite are all shown to be not only disingenuous but dangerous, with the naïve youths of the slums at best pawns, but mostly nonentities. Lalami is interested in telling stories, not in being an analyst of the society in which she was born and grew up. At a book event Q&A, she said: “I am not pretendingt to know my native country, Morocco, any more than anyone else. I am just trying to write the best story that I can.” Nevertheless, the story is set in a place in which some of those in situations of chronic unemployment are aiming to overthrow the corrupt and highly stratified status quo through terrorist attacks, and her imagination is rooted in recognition of the appeals of hedonism and Islamism, often on the same individuals in sequence or simultaneously.

The characters Lalami has imagined in both her novels are interesting, but however indirect the social critique is, they are also inevitably read in part from interest in the milieu of poor Arabs that leads to desperate acts of immigration north to unwelcoming Europe and of terrorist attacks.

©2009, Stephen O.  Murray

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


The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles

Before this week, I had read all of the collections of short stories by Paul Bowles (1910-99, who lived in Tangier from 1947 until his death) and three of his four novels. I had put off reading the third of his novels, The Spider’s House (1955) because it is the longest and because I thought it might be too connected to what had just passed from being current events when it was written, that is, the revolt against the French that Bowles had observed, but not participated in.


After a prologue with an American writer in Morocco, Stenholm, the novel focuses on an illiterate young Moroccan named Amar, who is nearly as apolitical as Bowles or Stenham. Quite inadvertently, Amar encounters the local (Fez) leader of the Muslim revolt, Moulay Ali, who is not to Amar’s way of thinking a proper Muslim (not just imbibing alcohol but insufficiently fatalistic). Moulay Ali and his entourage believe that Amar must be a spy for the French. Eventually, Amar’s flute-playing helps Moulay Ali escape a French stakeout, though Amar only realizes this is what was going on after the fact.

Before the long final set piece in Moulay’s hideout, Stenham and an American tourist, Polly (Lee, since she hates the name “Polly”), take Amar and his frenemy Mahmoud along to a festival in the mountains. Neither of the Americans is very interested in having an affair with the other and they are not even particularly a good fit as traveling companions (recalling the married couple in The Sheltering Sky and their interests in the natives that do not dovetail; there is not so extreme an ending as in The Sheltering Sky (1949) or some of Bowles’s short stories, however).

The book shows something about the hatred the colonized had for the colonizers, and the incomprehension of American romanticizing Muslims and/or the anti-colonial struggle. Stenham and Lee are not quite Paul and Jane Bowles, but there are more than passing resemblances. And Paul Bowles took on many young Moroccans and wrote with greater facility than Stenham about them, often from their point of view. (I still wonder how much Mohammed Mrabet dictated to Bowles, how much he is a character Bowles crafted).

The tumult that will not stay in the background is credible in the manner of Olivia Manning’s two trilogies (more than Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet).


I’m not sure that I “like” Bowles’s fiction, but I usually find it interesting, and this was again the case for The Spiders House. For me, there is a bit too much scene-setting, that is, specification of locations and descriptions of sites and sights. And too many words and phrases in Arabic or French.) There is a glossary for the Arabic expressions, though I think almost all of them would have better been translated within the text.

Nowadays, there is much fretting about cultural appropriation. Bowles did not pretend to be an illiterate Moroccan boy. He much more resembled Stenham, not least in his romantic attachment to the older, calmer colonial epoch, yet he makes Amar a very credible figure with a subjectivity that does not feel like a ventriloquist performance. (Just how much he put into Mrabet’s fiction, which Bowles supposedly translated rather than wrote, is another, more suspicious, matter.)


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

The jacket flap of the Library of America’s edition of the first three novels by Paul Bowles (1910-99) characterizes the second, Let It Come Down (1952), as “a horrific account of a descent into nihilism.” Much of Bowles’s fiction seems nihilistic to me, and Nelson Dyar, who has gone through WWII as a teller in a New York City bank, strikes me as a nihilist — if a nebbish can be a nihilist — from the beginning, when he arrives in Tangier to work for Wilcox, the son of his family doctor, who has a travel agency there. That is a cover for smuggling business, and Wilcox intends to have Dyar take the risk of transporting currency, not drugs. Halfway through the novel, Dyar has his first experience of hashish, and consumes a lot of it while he is in hiding in a remote mountain house owned by Thani, who has just bought a boat and transported Dyar there.


The scale is much smaller (20,00 pounds rather than forty million dollars) than the smuggling of The Godfather of Kathmandu. Until the altered consciousness induced by majoun (the Moroccan hashish concoction), Dyar seems like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley (who did not appear in print until 1955), resentful and then seizing an opportunity (not involving murder), though the affectless nihilistic Mersault of Camus’s Letranger seems something of a model. (Bowles taught a course on existentialism and the novel at San Fernando State in 1958. (I’d like to see the syllabus for that!).

The novel sags in the middle third, or at least my attention flagged. I guess I was more interested in the competition between Dyar and the obese American, Eunice Goode, for the uneducated Moroccan prostitute, Hadija. 1952 readers, even any of whom had read Jane Bowles’s one novel, Two Serious Ladies (published in 1943) would have recognized the frustrated hankering for control of Hadija as based on (the not-obese) Jane Bowles’s fixation on Cherifa, which began in 1948. Insofar as Thani also wants to bed Hadija, I guess it is more than a triangle.


There is a lot of rain, with the book’s title comes from what Macbeth says just before he slays Banquo.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Bertolucci’s adaptation of The Sheltering Sky

Having read and reread a lot of Paul Bowles’s writings, I wanted again to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 movie of The Sheltering Sky, in which Bowles appears in scenes near the beginning and the end as a laconic narrator. Despite his presence, the voice which is so important to the greatness of the novel is lost, and viewers of the movie see what Kit does, but the reasons for her increasingly odd behavior must be guessed at by viewers.


There’s a lot more movement than there is action in “The Sheltering Sky.” Some time shortly after the end of the Second World War, a pair of world-wandering Americans, Kit and Port Moresby (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) who very much resemble then-composer Paul Bowles and writer Jane Bowles, arrive in Tangier with a mountain of luggage and a handsome young male traveling companion, George Tunner (Campbell Scott, more handsome than I remember his being back then). Tangier is insufficiently exotic for them, and they set off for the desolate interior. Separately and together, they do some ill-advised things putting themselves into multiple kinds of danger. What is ailing their souls remains mysterious. Kit and Port do not sleep together, but stay together, puzzling Tunner.


As a travelogue, the movie has some very striking photography by Vittorio Storaro(who has photographed Bertolucci films going back to “The Conformist” in 1970, plus “Apocalypse Now,” and Warren Beatty films starting with “Reds”) of North African deserts and mountains (it was shot in Algeria and Mali, as well as Morocco) and the fabled interior city of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo in the old spelling) with its mud-brick city walls and edifices. The mounds of a Tuareg trader’s backside are as lovingly photographed when he mounts Kit as was the desert through which his camel moved en route to Timbuktu. There are sex scenes with a variety of black and white participants and titillating frontal nudity for both Winger and Malkovich.

“The Sheltering Sky” has the most realistically annoying flies I’ve ever seen on screen. The night bus ride with swarms of flies on the faces of the passengers is memorable. Between the flies, the typhoid, the predatory nomads, and the obvious discomfort of the accommodations, “The Sheltering Sky” is not likely to encourage viewers to rush to the North African interior. (Many of Iceland’s landscapes are as stark, but the natives are friendlier and the accommodations considerably more comfortable.)

The movie is scenic but also talky, though the talk is banal, boring the characters as well as the audience. The visual aspects are superb and the actors do the best they can with an opaque screenplay and unsympathetic characters to play (with the exception of Eric Vu-An, the veiled camel-jockey who rescues/ravages Kit after she has wandered off alone into the Sahara). The screenplay fails and the running time of two hours and eighteen minutes is not justified. (Bertolucci is not exactly notable for fast-paced action! “The Last Emperor” was quite long, though covering something like seven decades of tumultuous times. I found “1900” insufferable, and “Last Tango in Paris” considerably less daring and intriguing than Pauline Kael did… On the other hand, I liked “Little Buddha” more than most; again for Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography). Ryuchi Sakamoto’s music in it is appropriately haunting.


I can understand why many viewers would not have the patience to stay with Kit, though the cinematography (and basic familiarity with the worldview of Paul Bowles) got me through. Four stars for those who want to see Bowles and/or North African cities and desert vistas, two stars for those wanting plot-driven movies, and three for those wanting character-driven ones. The visual transfer is superb, though, like other sweeping desert vista pictures (Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, the middle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). A huge screen enhances the impact.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray