Toll 1

 

In Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath…. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold … a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinselled reverie…. They look at the sea, at the clouds that blend into the mountains, and they wait for the twinkling lights of Spain to appear.

—Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier, translated from French by Linda Coverdale

 

Just before departing for Morocco with my family, I finish reading Leaving Tangier.  The protagonist, Azel, looks toward Spain, recalling his beloved cousin who drowned attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, imagining his own “naked body … swollen by seawater, his face distorted by salt and longing…” This melancholy novel unfolds in a series of mutating reflections—in addition to the twinkling lights of Spain bouncing off the water–the view north reflects the view south reflects the view north again.

To reach Morocco, my family travels by ferry from Algeciras, Spain to the port of Tangier.  Which is not Tangier, but an armed camp with a formidable police presence, enclosed in barbed wire.  As soon as we disembark, we are bused to a blocky concrete building to be processed.  Tangier may have captured the imaginations of western literati, but this particular port of embarkation lacks signs of human habitation; it’s a bulwark to prevent trafficking emigrants and drugs.

Azel finally makes it to Spain in Leaving Tangier, but his successful crossing leads to sexual exploitation and ruin.  Laila Lalami plies related waters in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.  In that novel, she plumbs the frustration caused by lack of opportunity and failed futures, a sense of defeat that spurs her characters to risk everything for a place on a rubber boat speeding across the Strait of Gibraltar.  A character named Murad judges passage in a Zodiac preferable to sneaking in on vegetable trucks.  “Last year the Guardia Civil intercepted a tomato truck in Algeciras and found the bodies of three illegals, dead from asphyxiation, lying on the crates.  At least on a boat there is no chance of that happening.”  Murad is a bit too optimistic.  Despite paying exorbitant sums, these passengers are not smuggled onto dry land; they’re forced to jump from the boat 250 meters offshore.  It’s a miracle that none of them drowns.  All but one ends up in a Spanish detention cell awaiting deportation, or worse—rape and expulsion to a life of prostitution in Madrid, tempered only by Valium.  Like Ben Jelloun, Lalami sets her novel between opposing mirrors.  Initially the Zodiac passengers look north.  After they’re forced to jump into the sea, those who survive Spain’s underground economy look south to Morocco–anguished for the life they abandoned, while those who are deported from Spain assess the implications of that brief northern sojourn from their final, southern vantage point.

MoorsAccount_CoverThe Story of La Florida

It was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world. I was marching behind Señor Dorantes in a lush territory he, and Castilians like him, called La Florida. I cannot be certain what my people call it. When I left Azemmur, news of this land did not often attract the notice of our town criers; they spoke instead of the famine, the recent earthquake, or the rebellions in the south of Barbary. But I imagine that, in keeping with our naming conventions, my people would simply call it the Land of the Indians. The Indians, too, must have had a name for it, although neither Señor Dorantes nor anyone in the expedition knew what it was.

Laila.Lalami.2014authorphoto

How do you pronounce your name?

Laila is pronounced like the Eric Clapton song. And Lalami rhymes with Rarity.

 

I bet you get asked that a lot.

Oh, only about five times a day.

 

So you have a new book coming out?

Yes, it’s called The Moor’s Account and it will be published by Pantheon in September 2014.

A round-up of high quality tweets from people in the world of literature…

Sean Ferrell:

 

The rain came unexpectedly, after nearly three years of drought. In those days, Youssef still lived with his mother in a whitewashed house that huddled with others like it along a narrow dirt road. The house had one room with no windows, and a roof made of corrugated tin held down by rocks. The yard, where his mother did the cooking and the washing, was open to the sky. It was in the yard that she cleaned the sheep hides she took in on the day of Eid, and there Youssef received the rare friends who came to visit. The front door was painted blue, but over the years rust had eaten its edges, turning them reddish brown, so that holes had begun to appear at each of the four corners.

In Secret Son, your main character, Youssef, a university student who comes from a very poor background, discovers the identity of his father and decides to go find him.  Would you describe this as a very common Moroccan story?

No.

Morocco is underexplored in English language fiction.Most novels with which American readers are familiar are likely to focus on Anglo foreigners traveling to or settling in the country, such as in The Sheltering Sky or Hideous Kinky.Laila Lalami’s debut novel, Secret Son (Algonquin; paperback March 2010) would have merit, then, if all it did was explore Morocco from the inside out: from the perspective of contemporary Moroccans rather than through an exoticized traveler’s lens.But Lailami, an ambitious and meticulous writer whose terrain is as emotional as it is geographic, achieves much more with this barebones, layered and daringly bleak exploration of one man—Youssef El Mekki—and his progressive defeat within a ruthless system.

Move over, Pulitzer. Step aside, Man Booker. National Book Award? Pfft.

We asked our esteemed TNB editorial staff to nominate their selections for best books of 2009. The only rules were: the book had to be published this year, and books by TNB contributors were not eligible. The result is the first annual TNB Best Books of the Year award—The Nobby, for short.

Here are the Nobby winners, presented in alphabetical order by author: