So many of us know Laila Lalami through her blog, Moorishgirl.com, which reflects her Moroccan roots by often covering—and confronting—literary news relating to the “other” in our society. Specifically, Lalami has accorded non-Christian and non-white writers the kind of respect and analysis not usually offered in the “mainstream” press or even most blogs, for that matter. If this were Lalami’s sole contribution to the literary world, she would have much of which to be proud. But now she brings us her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), a collection of interlocking stories, which also reflects her connections to Morocco.
The structure of Lalami’s collection is as elegant as it is powerful. The title story, “The Trip,” serves as a prologue where she introduces us to the four main characters who will reappear in the eight subsequent stories. It is dark and cold as four Moroccans huddle with twenty-six others in small boat—a six-meter Zodiac inflatable meant to accommodate eight people—to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Their hope: to avoid the watchful eye of the authorities as they travel fourteen kilometers to their haven, Spain. First, we meet Murad, who has dreamed of this trip for a long time: “He spent hours thinking about what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house.” Murad had made a less-than-meager living as a guide who regaled tourists “with anecdotes about how Tariq Ibn Ziyad had led a powerful Moor army across the Straits and, upon landing in Gibraltar, ordered all the boats burned.” And there’s the young, beautiful Faten who wears a hijab scarf and is too shy and frightened to make chit chat with the others. The tall, lanky Aziz “sits hunched over to fit in the narrow space allotted to him.” This is his second attempt to get to Spain. Finally, we meet Halima who keeps her arms tightly around her daughter and two sons. Lalami captures with clear and revealing language the brutality of the smugglers and the desperation of their human cargo.
The collection is then divided into two parts. In the first, entitled Before, we see what drove Murad, Faten, Aziz and Halima to risk their lives to escape Morocco. We learn in “The Fanatic,” the hijab-wearing Faten has upset the happily modern, Mercedes-driving Larbi Amrani who wishes for his daughter, Noura, to attend NYU and make good money some day. But Noura becomes friends with Faten, embraces the Qur’an without question, starts to wear the hijab and begins to reject her parents’ plans of an American education. The arguments that ensue between Noura and Larbi are, in many ways, universal and will remind most parents of teenagers that they are not alone. But in the end, the person who suffers most is Faten who is no match for Larbi’s wealth and connections.
We discover in “Bus Rides” that Halima is suffering an abusive marriage with Maati. When she runs to her mother’s house for safety, she’s met with an exasperated rhetorical question: “Again?” Halima’s mother, Fatiha, blames her daughter: “A woman must know how to handle her husband.” Halima must find a way to escape Maati even if it entails bribing a judge or something more dramatic. But she can expect no help from her own mother.
In “Acceptance,” Aziz has already made the decision to leave Morocco so that he can make money to send to his wife, Zohra. His boyhood friend, Lahcen, who has a less-than-hidden crush on Aziz, tries his best to keep Aziz from leaving. In one of the most moving passages, Aziz prepares to leave his family and try his luck with the illegal journey to Spain:
“As he sat for breakfast with his parents one last time, Aziz tried to memorize every sensation he could—the taste of the wheat bread, the smell of the mint tea brewing, the feel of the divan under him, the sound of his father’s beads as he fingered them. He knew that in the months that would follow, he would need each one to help him survive.”
And then there’s Murad who, in “Better Luck Next Time,” searches out English-speaking tourists with temptations of visiting the old haunts of Paul Bowles and with tales of ancient battles. Murad must reconcile his growing disgust for such tourists with his need to make money. It is a struggle that proves too much for him.
Part II is entitled After where we see how the lives of our four protagonists change after their desperate voyage across the Strait of Gibraltar. These stories will surprise the reader; lives get turned inside out, people do things that they normally wouldn’t absent distressed circumstances. And in the end, we don’t know which is more dangerous: the weary acceptance of poverty and brutality or the hope-driven risks people take to make life worth the effort. Lalami wisely doesn’t offer any answers. Rather, she gives us potent and perfectly-crafted portraits of those who both battle and embrace hope. And she lets us know that the lives of undocumented immigrants can’t be painted with one, broad stroke; their lives are as varied as anyone else’s.
What an auspicious debut this is. One hopes that Lalami will be telling her stories for many years to come.
Daniel Olivas is a writer living in Los Angeles. His most recent book is Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press). Visit him online at www.danielolivas.com.