By Beth Harrington.
Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier, Arcadia, 2009
Tahar Ben Jelloun is one of the Arab world’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists, whose works have been translated and distributed within the Western world. His latest offering deals with the fate of several young Moroccans who make their way across the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangier—the point of Africa that reaches closest to Europe—to Spain, where they imagine a better life awaits them. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, they soon realize that leaving home is not enough to slay their demons. “There was something terrifying about the loneliness of immigration, a kind of descent into a void, a tunnel of shadows that warped reality.” With a new land comes a new set of problems, namely adjusting to a new cultural climate and establishing an identity as an expatriate.
Born in Morocco yet living in France, Jelloun’s novels are written in French that is translated into English. Intriguingly, Leaving Tangier suffers the same malady as a text that its characters do as immigrants. The text seems dry and aloof, the characters distant and almost watery, and the conclusion takes on a metaphysical dimension that is less than convincing given the stark realism of the issues the book deals with. However, it is hard to know who is more to blame for these problems: the writer or the translator. Perhaps the merit that I could not derive from Leaving Tangier as literary entertainment can instead be extracted from the novel as an anthropological document on Moroccan society that quietly debunks a lot of the myths that Westerners hold about predominantly Muslim countries.
In the Moroccan culture Jelloun describes, nearly the same level of ‘scandalous’ and liberated behavior that occurs in the West can occur in Morocco provided it is kept secret. In a society where women are expected to preserve their chastity until marriage, underground networks of not-quite-prostitutes make rounds to service men and get their own as well. For those who are anxious about providing proof of their virginity on their wedding nights, there is always anal sex—vis-à-vis a significant portion of abstinence-pledging teenagers in the United States. Likewise, for all the Qur’an’s prohibitions against homosexuality, the main character, Azel, ‘earns’ his way to Spain by becoming the companion of a wealthy philanthropist and art gallery owner; a strategy that is encouraged by his friends. In this male-dominated society, it is true that Azel is the apple of his mother’s eye, the one she pins her hopes and ambitions on, yet his sister, Kenza, supports him while he is unemployed. At one point, Azel’s sponsor even acknowledges that it is industrious Kenza who has more of a chance of making it in Spain than aimless, reckless Azel. In essence, what Westerners consider taboo in an Islamic society really isn’t taboo as long as nobody talks about it.
As Leaving Tangier progresses, it shifts into less of a linear narrative and incorporates more symbolic elements. Character sketches intended to delineate the ways people reconcile themselves with leaving their homeland and what it means to flee one’s country of origin and live in the one that once conquered it. It faintly resembles Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in which short chapters provide narrative silhouettes of characters who are not directly related to the main characters, but whose struggles are tangential to those of the protagonist. In Jelloun’s hands, these passages detract from the narrative arc of the novel but add provocative points of consideration which may otherwise have not been underscored. A child laborer stricken with pneumonia dreams of passage to Spain even from her deathbed; a Cameroonian named Flaubert presents a pan-African perspective, highlighting the extent to which North African Muslims feel excluded from African continental culture.
The conclusion of Leaving Tangier takes on an even more philosophical dimension as the assorted characters finding themselves bogged down by despair and boarding a ship that may or may not be metaphorical and may or may not return them home. It is hard to know what to make of such an ending, particularly given Jelloun’s own status as an émigré. His in-depth descriptions of the social and economic distress that plagues Morocco and the corrupt, ineffectual responses of its government give his characters a clear impetus to leave their native land, yet once abroad, they find themselves adrift, lacking focus and identity. The siren call of a foreign land is replaced by that of anxious elders who care little of their children’s sophistication and want to know when they will settle down and have children of their own. Does this imply that Jelhoun believes traditional ways are always best? Perhaps another meaning is that one can never feel at home away from home, but should instead fight to turn the native land into a country which one loves.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Beth Harrington resides in Boston, Massachusetts. Her nonfiction has appeare in BookSlut and Venus(online). Her fiction has appeared in Fifth Street Review (now-defunct), Kaleidoscope: Emmanuel College Magazine, and Cherry Bleeds: Literary Transgressions as well as its 2005 print anthology. She holds a B.A. in English Literature and was the 2007 recipient of the James T. and Ellen M. Hatfield Memorial Prize for a short story at Smith College.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 26th, 2009.