In Tangier, Murad spends his days hovering near tourist destinations, whispering “Interested in Paul Bowles?” to foreign passers-by. Murad has a degree in English and doesn’t really care for Bowles, but he knows why Americans come to Morocco and how to make a buck or two. It’s not much of a life, and it doesn’t take much to convince him to board a shoddy inflatable raft bound for Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. Scanning the anxious expressions on the faces of his fellow passengers in the opening scene of Laila Lalami’s collection of stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Murad consoles himself: “Some time on this flimsy boat and then a job.”
The already risky journey becomes even more dangerously uncertain when the captain reneges on his promise to take the boat safely ashore in Tarifa, ordering everyone overboard and forcing them to swim for their lives. Some make a new life in Spain, while others are immediately deported, and in the eight stories that follow–portraits of the four main characters, told in two sections, “Before” and “After”–Lalami explores the ironies of the diasporic experience. Faten, a deeply religious young woman of 19, becomes a prostitute in Madrid. Aziz returns to Morocco years later, only to discover that he no longer belongs there. Sharing a bed with his wife once again, he feels further away than ever before. With grace and authority, Lalami evokes the unease of men and women adrift, caught between the stagnation of their homeland and the hope of a better life on another shore.
Born and raised in Morocco, Lalami lives in Portland, Oregon, where she edits moorishgirl.com, a blog launched in October 2001 that focuses on fiction in translation and on writers of color, with a particular emphasis on Arab and North African authors. Her native language is Arabic, and she says her first literary language is French. She has written her first book, however, in English. “When I write in English,” she says, “I revise and revise and revise.”
All this revising serves her well: Lalami distills her stories to their elemental parts. She steeps her characters in their most basic drives, exposed by extreme circumstances and made raw by years of hardship, and she can make a tiny gesture (“he bit his fingernails, tearing strands of cuticle with his teeth”) or a snippet of dialogue (“A bit salty, dear”) carry great weight. These are quiet yet tough-minded stories: Around their gentle core, the desperation of the characters and the gritty edges of their world resonate forcefully. Often it is in the silences between words that the tensions fester and loss is felt, as much as in the words themselves. Aziz’s wife sits on their bed, hugging her knees and crying at the thought of letting her husband go. “You’re coming back,” she says. Aziz has no reply, and from her tone he cannot tell whether it is a question or a statement. In an earlier story, the image of Faten thrashing about in the Mediterranean, unable to swim, is all the more piercing because we never hear her scream.
Lalami calls herself an “immigrant by chance” writing about “immigrants by choice,” and indeed she made her way to the West as a student of linguistics, first in London, then in Los Angeles, rather than by swimming across the sea. Yet as a member of Morocco’s growing diaspora, she writes of her own experience as well as that of millions of people in today’s world of traveling people, and her familiarity with the lives and struggles of these harragas (Moroccan Arabic slang meaning “those who burn”) is palpable. If this easy intimacy is her greatest strength, she can be a bit pious in her depictions of these “immigrants by choice,” who at times seem too holy to touch, like Halima, who “did not notice the fading afternoon light that lengthened the shadows behind her, framing her body like the arches of a shrine.”
Despite the backdrop of economic deprivation, these are not bleak stories. Hope is what drives her characters, although as Lalami’s title suggests, it’s often a perilous leap of faith, exacting a heavy price. As the book comes to a close, Murad–having been sent back to Morocco by the Spanish authorities–helps a couple of snooty Americans in a gift shop and stumbles upon the realization that by living only in the hopes of a brighter future, he was losing his past: “He wondered if one always had to sacrifice the past for the future, or if it was something he had done, something peculiar to him, an inability to fill himself with too much, so that for every new bit of imagined future, he had to forsake a tangible past.”
Finally able to express what could be Lalami’s or another émigré’s sense of loss, longing for a country he didn’t even know he’d left behind, Murad discovers the urge to write. Renewed, he can think only of the story he will begin tonight–one no doubt full of possibility, though unresolved.