A young man from the slums discovers that he was born out of wedlock and that his father is a wealthy businessman. Devastated after his dear ol’ dad snubs him, he falls prey to Islamic fundamentalists.
Country Focus: Morocco (Al Maghreb in Arabic)
By Laila Lalami
Originally published by Algonquin Books, 2009.
My edition: Algonquin Books, 2010. 291 pgs.
Acclaim: Short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006; Short-listed for the National Book Critics’ Circle Nona Balakian Award in 2009
Time period: Contemporary
To make a long story short: Youssef El-Mekki is a college student majoring in English. He has a couple of close friends, enjoys watching movies, and hopes that his education will lift him and his mother out of the Casablanca slum that they call home. After rains flood the area, a group of Islamic fundamentalists led by a man named Hatim move into the ruined movie theater and assist the stricken community. Hatim’s radical religious messages hold no appeal to Youssef, but he acknowledges that help has come from no other quarter.
Youssef had long believed that his father died from a tragic accident, so his kasbah is seriously rocked when he learns that not only was he born out of wedlock, but that his father is Nabil Amrani, a wealthy and successful businessman. Youssef tracks Amrani down, who is delighted to discover that he has a son and gives him an apartment and a job with his company. Youssef’s new digs and position last only a couple of years. Amrani’s wife, brothers, and daughter pressure him to cut off his new-found son. Crushed by his father’s betrayal, Youssef returns to the slums and falls into an angry and depressed funk. Hatim notices the vulnerable young man and wastes no time in exploiting him.
All morning, as he had sat alone in the apartment, thinking about his father, Youssef had told himself that he should try not to look back on the past and should focus on the future instead. Yet already he could not help feeling a touch of envy upon hearing about his sister’s studies at UCLA. This was what people like the Amranis did: they studied in private schools, went to university in France or Canada or the United States, and then came back to run the country, while the rest of the people got by on fifteen hundred dirhams a month. Youssef had heard a rumor that one of the government ministers smoked Cuban cigars that each cost that much – and he was never seen on TV without one.
The armchair travel experience: Lalami offers a passable explanation of how a young, liberal Moroccan would be compelled to participate in an act of terror. She speaks of poverty, corrupt and negligent public officials, limited job prospects and the clever extremists who insinuate themselves benignly into the slums. Men like Hatim talk their talk as they provide emergency supplies and free medical services, patiently molding their customers’ desperation and unhappiness into anger and focusing that anger in support of fundamentalism.
This is disheartening to be sure, but PO’d young Arabs and their evil handlers figure in news headlines daily; hymenoplasty does not. One of the most shocking lines in Secret Son comes from Amrani, who inwardly bemoans his daughter’s sexual activity: “Other girls would have been more discreet about their relations, then gotten a doctor to sew them back up.” What he (and Lalami) are referring to is a popular North African reconstructive surgery called a hymenoplasty. Some Arab hubbies-to-be are old-fashioned, and expect that their bride’s wedding night will be her first time. Brides with a secret can undergo the aforementioned procedure, which re-builds the hymen to virginal standards.
The author’s relationship to Morocco:
Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco and grew up speaking Moroccan Arabic and French. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat and worked as a staff writer at the newspaper Al-Bayane. She currently lives in Los Angeles. Of the long distance from her county, she says, “…I hope that my life is in some way like the Qur’anic parable of the good word – a tree firmly rooted but with its branches in the sky.” Her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, follows four Moroccans who undertake an illegal and perilous crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar for the chance to live in Europe.
My opinion: Secret Son rivals Nuruddin Farah’s Secrets (Somalia) for the amount of er…secrets contained within, but Lalami’s novel is the easy reader version of Farah’s explicit art-house work. I was interested in hearing a native Moroccan’s thoughts on why fundamentalism might appeal to her country’s 20-somethings, but was only somewhat satisfied with her effort. Lalami tells Youssef’s story straightforwardly and steadily, but he and the rest of the characters felt one-dimensional: the gullible young man, the beleaguered father, the deceitful mother(s), the rebellious daughter, etc… I found Assaf Gavron’s stellar Almost Dead (Israel) to be the more illuminating read on the topic of homegrown terrorists.
In my book (or what Morocco means to me and maybe you, too)
Here’s looking at you, kid
Casablanca is Morocco’s largest city and its economic center, but when I hear the name all that comes to mind is that over-hyped black and white Humphrey Bogart movie. Casablanca seems to be a city best viewed in technicolor – especially the Hassan II Mosque, located at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A section of mosque’s floor is made of glass, so that worshipers can see the waves directly below. Above them, a sliding roof opens so that they can contemplate the stars.
Many of today’s thoroughbreds, including horseracing legends Man O’ War and Seabiscuit, claim the Godolphin Arabian as an ancestor. Marguerite Henry gives a fictional account of this renowned Moroccan horse (who she calls Sham) and his young caretaker in her Newbery Medal-winning children’s book King of the Wind. When I was going through my childhood horse-crazy phase, Sham was one of my favorite steeds, right up there with The Black from Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion.
Rice is my go-to carb sidedish, but sometimes I don’t want to wait 20 minutes for it to cook. Enter couscous, an excellent rice stand-in that only takes five minutes. Those round, yellow bits of semolina have been around since at least the 13th century, and are a staple of the Moroccan diet. Here in Montana, I buy Near East brand’s Parmesan, Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil, and Mediterranean Curry flavors. Fast and filling, they make tasty backpacking dinners and don’t use up my fuel.