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.