In November 2006, I returned to live in Morocco after an absence of many years. Instead of staying in Rabat, my hometown, where family and friends could drop in at any moment, I rented a flat in a high-rise building in Casablanca, where I could write uninterrupted. From my living room window I had a full view of the King Hassan Mosque, a gleaming edifice that reportedly cost nearly $1 billion, enough to pay for more than a few schools or health clinics. On one side of the mosque, I could see the Lycée Lyautey, a private French institution attended by the children of the country’s elite. And on the other side of the mosque, though hidden from view, were the slums of Lahjajma.
Slums in Casablanca crop up when you least expect them—you could be rounding a corner from an extravagant health spa or an Art Deco building, and there, hidden behind a white wall, you’ll see clotheslines and satellite dishes, or hear children playing and quarreling. The karian, as the slums are known, take their name from the oldest of them, the Carrières Centrales, established early in the twentieth century by quarry workers who were expanding the port during the French occupation. Because this original karian was settled by transplants from the countryside, slum-dwellers in Casablanca are still viewed as outsiders, uncouth and uneducated, even when they have lived in the city for three generations.
During the year I spent in Casablanca, I noticed that slums were discussed in the press almost exclusively with the vocabulary of pathology. The karian were “dangerous.” They were places that “tainted” the city and had to be “eradicated.” One journalist called them “a gangrene”; another urged a “hunt for the slums.” The language became even more antagonistic after a failed terrorist attack in March 2007, when it was revealed that one of the suicide bombers, like those who had attacked the city four years earlier, had come from the slum of Sidi Moumen. I remember vividly a television reporter shoving a microphone in a woman’s face in Sidi Moumen and demanding to know why “your” youths did what they did.
I tell you all this because I want to explain why Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, struck me with the force of a revelation. Unlike other reporters, who come to the slums in brief and harried visits, only when they have news to report or statistics to illustrate, Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has chosen to chronicle the lives of slum-dwellers in the Indian city of Mumbai by spending more than three years with them, patiently listening to them talk about their aspirations, their struggles and their dilemmas.
Here is one dilemma, all the more disturbing for its banality. Fatima Sheikh, a crippled woman, lies on a bed in Burn Ward Number 10 at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai, an IV bag and a used syringe sticking to her skin. Abdul Hakim Husain, the teenager who is accused of pouring kerosene over Fatima’s body and setting it alight, is in the custody of officers from the Sahar Police Station. After assessing the situation, Asha Waghekar, a part-time schoolteacher and full-time fixer, makes what she deems a very fair offer: Abdul Hakim’s parents can pay her 1,000 rupees and she will persuade Fatima to drop the charges.
That crime, justice and money could be so intimately and immediately intertwined may strike the reader as just another instance of corruption, easily diagnosed and just as easily condemned. “In the West,” Boo explains, “and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” In the case of Abdul Hakim Husain, who is wholly innocent of the crime, the bribe represents his best chance at a quick and painless acquittal. He never hears about it, however, because his mother, Zehrunisa, encouraged by an officer’s initial kindness and distrustful of her neighbor Asha, turns down the offer.