• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Muslims in the Dark

Having escaped Libya’s oppressive solitude, Suleiman wonders about his new life in Egypt: “how readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves.” The exile’s experience of deracination and painful self-invention is also the fate of Laila Lalami’s Moroccan characters in her novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The young hijab-clad Faten, who has been a radical Islamist as a student in Rabat, becomes a prostitute in Madrid, uneasily satisfying the Arabian Nights fantasy of a Spanish client. Having failed to interest tourists in visiting Paul Bowles’s home in Tangiers, Murad, who has a college degree in English literature, turns to hawking Moroccan artifacts. Another well-educated young man, Aziz, leaves a wife he barely knows to work as a dishwasher in a Madrid restaurant. Fleeing a violent husband in a Casablanca slum, Halima almost drowns in the sea off Spain. Rescued by her ten-year-old son, she returns to Morocco to see him unexpectedly exalted as a folk saint.

Political despotism is only partly to blame for the displacement and bewilderment suffered by Lalami’s characters. Though Morocco’s King Mohammed VI wields absolute power, commanding loyalty bordering on sycophancy from the parliamentary parties, Moroccans enjoy a higher degree of political freedom than their North African neighbors, the Algerians, Tunisians, and Libyans. However, corruption, especially in business deals with France, taints many politicians and bureaucrats, increasing the appeal of radical Islamists among the young and the unemployed.3

The intense and usually thwarted search by young people for a stable job infects many lives with anxiety and anomie. Uprooted from their traditional livelihoods and exposed to modern education and urban life, millions of them have found their basic hopes disappointed throughout Morocco’s postcolonial history. Not surprisingly, they find the promise of modern life incarnated with tempting vividness in Europe, particularly Spain, one of Morocco’s former colonial overlords, which, increasingly prosperous and democratic, lies just a few miles across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Unable to create enough jobs, Morocco’s economy is propped up by remittances sent by the approximately four million Moroccans abroad—roughly 12 percent of the country’s population. Many of these often well-educated and skilled Moroccans live, often illegally, in Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, bolstering the local economies with their low-paid jobs. Their growing presence in relatively homogeneous societies has helped right-wing politicians in Europe to incite xenophobic sentiments against immigrants, particularly Muslims.

But then countries such as Morocco, which have no oil or any other precious commodity, and seem condemned, in the present conditions of globalization, to uneven economic growth and a perennial state of underdevelopment, are unlikely to cease exporting some of their surplus workforce to Europe. Immigration to Europe, both actual and imagined, increasingly shapes Moroccan society and culture. Moroccan immigrants are the subject of the new novel Partir by the country’s most famous writer, Tahar ben Jalloun, who lives in Paris.4 Lalami’s novel opens with all its four major characters—Faten, Murad, Aziz, and Halima—heading toward Spain in an inflatable boat on the open sea.

As it turns out, only two of them make it; the others are intercepted by the Spanish police and sent back to Morocco. The rest of the novel describes, in careful, limpid prose, their separate pasts and futures. Lalami, who was educated in Rabat and London, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, writes about her home country without the expatriate’s self-indulgent and often condescending nostalgia. She brings a calm sympathy to all her characters, and so well chosen are they, from different classes and regions, that they manage to represent a broad panorama of a Moroccan society in troubled transition.

Returning to Morocco after a spell in Spain, Aziz notices a growing number of women wearing Islamic head-scarves; his own usually submissive wife startles him by claiming that it is “the right way.” In Madrid Aziz has suffered the humiliations inflicted on all North African immigrants; but he has also found there a new idea of himself. Distractedly making love to his wife, he remembers the women he has slept with in Spain, and wonders “what his wife would look like in a sexy bustier, straddling him, her arms up in the air, moaning her pleasure out loud. He couldn’t imagine Zohra doing it.” Briskly and subtly, Lalami shows Aziz’s growing alienation from his relatives and friends in Morocco; her evenhandedness offers us no scope for easy judgments.

Even those of her characters who are unable to make it to Europe find their inner lives in thrall to the Continent. Murad, the English literature major and reader of Paul Bowles, has spent much of his life imagining a life for himself in metropolitan Europe. In doing so, he has cut himself off from his own society; he can’t remember any of the stories he heard as a child from his father; he feels he has no inherited culture to pass on to his own children. In a scene rich with irony he appears as a salesman in a gift shop. Half-listening to Western backpackers looking for bargains, he reconsiders the larger consequences of his perennial longing for the West:

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.

In Morocco, as in many colonized countries, material want and constant fantasizing about a life elsewhere seem to have gradually damaged individual memory and, eventually, an entire cultural tradition built upon the transmission of memory. Murad follows in a long line of damaged men in postcolonial African fiction whom a Western-style education has unmoored from their tradition, and who abandon their own indigenous culture and society for the sake of what the Moroccan-American critic Anouar Majid calls a “catastrophic, even suicidal, journeys to the Northern metropoles.”5

It is true that compared to other African countries, Morocco knew a very brief and mild spell of colonialism—from 1912 to 1956. Visiting the country in 1917, Edith Wharton approved of French colonial rule.6 But as happened in many other colonized countries, a European power in Morocco profoundly disrupted traditional arrangements without replacing them with a workable modern political and economic system. With the best of intentions that went into setting up modern educational institutions, it created generations of rootless and confused men, who were likely, eventually, to focus their rage and despair on the modernizing West.7

In Heirs to the Past (1962), a novel by Driss Chraïbi, the most distinguished of the first generation of postcolonial Moroccan writers, a French-educated Moroccan fails to find the superior European civilization he has been taught to revere:

I’ve slammed all the doors of my past because I’m heading towards Europe and Western civilization, and where is that civilization then, show it to me, show me one drop of it, I’m ready to believe I’ll believe anything. Show yourselves, you civilizers in whom your books have caused me to believe. You colonized my country, and you say and I believe you that you went there to bring enlightenment, a better standard of living, progress, missionaries the lot of you, or almost. Here I am—I’ve come to see you in your own homes. Come forth. Come out of your houses and yourselves so that I can see you. And welcome me, oh welcome me.8

In Chraïbi’s first novel, The Simple Past (1954), a student in a French missionary school confronts the violence he has done to his identity:

You were the issue of the Orient, and through your painful past, your imaginings, your education, you are going to triumph over the Orient. You have never believed in Allah. You know how to dissect the legends, you think in French, you are a reader of Voltaire and an admirer of Kant.9

Such existential crises may no longer seem likely in postcolonial Morocco, which seems, to the passing tourist eye at least, more liberal and Westernized than most Muslim societies. But Lalami is aware of how the particular economic and social structures introduced by European colonialism still shape everyday life in Morocco. She is particularly deft at showing how displaced and deprived people in half-modern societies gravitate toward religious consolation. She evokes the most popular form of this phenomenon in the story of Halima, whose son turns into a saint in a Casablanca slum. Describing the student radical Faten and her influence on her middle-class friend Noura, Lalami provides, with admirable economy, a complex picture of the appeal of Islamism among even relatively well-off youth, and shows how Muslim identity is always a process, shaped by political and economic pressures and not something eternally fixed.

Waiting to go to New York University for advanced studies, Noura abruptly discovers in a highly politicized post–September 11 climate that she does not want to live in a country that apparently hates Muslims, and she adopts her friend Faten’s ostentatious virtuous ways. Noura’s Islamism is of course little more than adolescent playacting; she will soon get over it. Nevertheless, her parents are appalled to see their daughter, whom they hoped would achieve academic glory in America, reading Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian ideologue and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and wearing the hijab: “His precious daughter. She would look like those rabble-rousers you see on live news channels, eyes darting, mouths agape, fists raised.” Finally, Noura’s father manages to get Faten expelled from the university.

For another novelist this could have been the cue for Faten’s transformation into a suicide bomber. But Lalami spurns sensationalism of this sort, revealing her commitment to exploring the truth of ordinary lives. Faten shows the common fate of many trampled-upon lower-class women when she ends up as a prostitute in Spain. Lalami treats her tormentors with the same equable realism. She artfully makes us empathize with the fears and anxieties of Noura’s parents. She also examines their claims to moral superiority over the Islamists. Noura’s father, a senior bureaucrat who accepts bribes and dreams of Scotch whiskey during the feast of Ramadan, and her mother, a lawyer with a modish interest in human rights, come to exemplify the moral and spiritual mediocrity of the secular bourgeois elite that came to dominate not just Morocco but many other Muslim countries.

This elite has long lost the idealism of the earliest postcolonial years. Noura’s father, discovering some old prayer beads, can’t “help but think about his mother, for whom virtue and religion went hand in hand, about a time when he, too, believed that such a pairing was natural.” But now religion, increasingly invoked by popular Islamist movements, has become a threatening political challenge from below.

Speaking of the corruption and injustice of the Moroccan elite, the student radical Faten says, “If we had been better Muslims, perhaps these problems wouldn’t have been visited on our nation and on our brethren elsewhere.” More often disappointed than realized, this sentimental vision of faith nevertheless remains popular among Muslims. Lalami seems as unsympathetic to it personally as some of the recent Western literary explorers of radical Islamism, such as John Updike and Martin Amis. Yet she is able to show why it remains attractive to so many people by describing it in a particular national setting, against the backdrop of political despotism, a stagnant economy, and deeply entrenched class divisions.

Both as a novelist and as a critic—she comments regularly on literature and politics in her popular blog Moorishgirl.com (now lailalalami.com)—Lalami focuses on specificity and distrusts large abstractions—the abstractions that have become of the greatest importance in understanding the diverse political and cultural choices of Muslims, who seem lately to have become subject to wilder generalizations than would be deemed intellectually respectable for non-Muslims.10 She offers no false optimism. A meager modern society that consists of severe economic inequality, the stranglehold of a corrupt ruling elite, and the crippling dependence on a widely distrusted West will continue to force many people in Muslim countries into the simple solutions and consolations of faith-based politics. Relentlessly exploring the emotional climate of another secular dictatorship, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men offers even fewer comforts. As they reveal the darkening ambiguities of North Africa and its relationship with the West, these first novels make Septimius Severus’s antique exhortation to learn from Europe look touchingly innocent.

  1. 3

    Their popularity seems likely to grow. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is one of the secular Muslim leaders in North Africa and the Middle East who have helped the Bush administration in the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects. For example, Binyam Mohamen, who was arrested in 2002 by Pakistani authorities in Karachi as a suspected terrorist, claims that he was subjected to rendition and then tortured in a Moroccan prison before being transferred to Guantánamo, where he remains imprisoned. See “The Imperial Presidency 2.0,” The New York Times, January 7, 2007.

  2. 4

    Paris: Gallimard, 2006. Much acclaimed in France, but little known in America and England, ben Jalloun’s novels have been only sporadically translated into English. The best of these is This Blinding Absence of Light (Penguin, 2006). For another recent account of Moroccan immigrants, see Wedding by the Sea (Arcade, 2000), a novel by Abdelkader Benali, a young Dutch writer of Moroccan origin.

  3. 5

    Anouar Majid, Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World (Duke University Press, 2000), p. 78. See also Majid’s novel Si Yussef (Interlink Press, 2005).

  4. 6

    Few travel writers, however, have described Morocco’s landscape as brilliantly as Edith Wharton. See In Morocco (Scribner, 1920).

  5. 7

    The Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih charted this traumatic journey in Season of Migration to the North (1969; translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, Penguin, 2003). The novel’s slightly deranged main character, Mustafa Sa’eed, seeks a private sexual revenge on the English for introducing, through their schools, his countrymen to “the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known.” Sa’eed ends up killing the English woman with whom he falls in love.

  6. 8

    Translated by Len Orzen (London: Heinemann, 1971), pp. 15–16.

  7. 9

    Translated by Hugh A. Harter (Three Continents Press, 1990), p. 56.

  8. 10

    Lalami has spoken of the “burden of pity” imposed on Muslim women like herself by Western commentators and their “native informants,” such as the Somali-Dutch polemicist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Reviewing Hirsi Ali’s book The Caged Virgin, Lalami attacked her for lumping together “various Islams—the geographical region, the Abrahamic religion, the historical civilization and the many individual cultures.” See “The Missionary Position,” The Nation, June 19, 2006.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print