Sunday, November 20, 2005

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (Spoiler Review)

I have been the 20-something getting off the ferry and running into Tangier's hustlers. I remember meeting Moroccans - lots of them - who dreamed of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and getting a job in Europe. I remember Moroccans in Europe, often invisible, among the best and brightest in their country lucky to have a job serving me breakfast in a hotel or as an old man working in the hot sun getting a tear in his eye when I greet him in Arabic. I remember the Spanish and Gibraltarian attitude toward their southern neighbors. The morning of day I caught my flight back to the U.S., I went down to Point Europa at the end of the rock to look out over the strait before I left. While I was there, a taxi tour came by, and the guide talked about the Moroccans desire to work in Europe. I don't remember exact words, but what he said was that if they got a job in Europe, they could go back home rich and build a large mansion with a multitude of wives "like they like to do over there."

I say all this so as to make the point that when I read Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, I come at the topic with strong impressions of my own, and thus might have some tendency to read my own attitudes into the work. But I think Lalami was not just interested in a story about economic migrants, but also one about Morocco that she told using economic migrants.

The introduction certainly serves as a compelling hook for the book, with the harrowing passage across the strait told with a clear human touch, a powerful moving painting which says to the reader, "This is happening in the world. Would you like to know more?" The rest of the book tells us more, both in the backstories of four would-be migrants, and in what happens to them after they are picked up by the Spanish authorities upon landing.

Each of the four, Halima the abused wife, Faten the Islamist student, Aziz the unemployed husband seeking self-worth, and Murad the literary English student-turned-hustler, has their own story and their own ending. Halima has shocked her husband into granting her a divorce; by the end of her story her body is compared to a shrine and her son viewed as a saint for saving her. Faten, meanwhile, was never as pure as she claimed, and in Spain became a prostitute earning money for living out the falsehoods of European fantasy. Aziz achieves relative economic success in Spain, but realizes when he visits his wife that sometimes you can't go home again and have it be the same.

It is in Murad's story that the book itself reaches its denouement. He winds up working at a shop in Tangier, and during an encounter with two American girls on whom the nuances of Moroccan cultural products are lost realizes the value of his tradition, one that is being lost as people yearn toward a European future. At the end, he decides to write his own stories rather than read those of Europe ostensibly set in a Morocco he cannot recognize. This builds upon the earlier conclusions, in which the two characters who make it to Europe each lose something while Halima, musing all the while about the importance of self-reliance, finds what I guess you could best call 'value.'

Lalami's work thus tells not only of the hardships associated with physical migration (though that aspect should not be minimized), but also comments upon the costs of cultural migration, a desire to break with the past to pursue an illusory future in a world and metaphor not your own. An interesting comparison might be to the themes implicit in Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves, where the characters who follow Western ways are corrupted while those who follow Japanese ones live happily ever after; Lalami doesn't approach the issues from quite that direction, but the two are in the same ballpark in terms of their concerns. Hopefully Lalami will not disembowel herself before she can produce more quality novels like this one.


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