Monday, April 27, 2020

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Moroccan-American novelist, essayist, and professor Laila Lalami has written 4 novels and various essays, opinion pieces, book reviews, and short stories. Born in Rabat (where this novel starts out), Lalami was educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the U.S. She holds a BA in English and an MA and PhD in Linguistics and is currently a professor at UC Riverside. She has just published her current non-fiction book Conditional Citizens in April 2020 through Pantheon Books. Her first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in 2005.  
              Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is broken up into two parts, each part making up 4 chapters. The novel tracks various characters as they attempt to cross the Strait of Gibraltar together in a 6 meter long Zodiac boat filled with 30 people and are forced to swim to shore. Each chapter shows the various connections that each character has and the reasons for and result of the attempted emigration.
              The book begins with an introduction called “The Trip”. The author narrates the events of the trip across the strait from Tangier to Spain. Murad had paid Captain Rahal 20,000 dirhams to take him the 14 km across the strait. We are introduced to Faten (an 18-19 year old girl), Aziz (his second attempt), Scarface (tennis instructor), Mauna (10 -year old girl), Halima (her mom who is escaping an abusive husband), and a Guinean woman who throws up on Faten’s boots. When they are forced to swim, Faten has trouble, so Murad helps her. The Spanish Guardia Civil capture them when they reach the shore. The book proceeds to piece apart each story of both their “before” and “after” lives.
              In “Part I: Before”, we are given the stories of Faten and her friend Nouma.” The Fanatic” is a narration explaining why Faten decides to cross and eventually becomes a prostitute in Madrid. The chapter called “Bus Rides” tells the story of Maati and Halima and why she decides to leave her husband and cross with her children. The chapter called “Acceptance” is the story of Aziz and why he decides to cross and leave his wife Zohra for five years. The chapter “Better Luck Tomorrow” is finally Murad’s story. His mother discounts his authority because he is jobless and so decides to leave and pursue better opportunities in Spain besides the hustling that he does. He meets Rahal, the reptilian boat guy who hustles the hustler into paying him money to take him only partially across the strait.
              Part 2 is what occurs after they arrive in Spain. Chapter 5 called “The Saint” is the story of Halima and her blessed son, Farid. Farid apparently saves her life when they are forced to swim across the strait. Halima did not know how to swim. Halima ended up returning to Casablanca, but lives in a room in the slums outside the city. The miracle of the stick, the rescue, and Maati’s change of heart all are seen as supernatural intervention. Farid is seen as having some sort of gift. Maati grants Halima the divorce that she had wished for. The story of the Bleeding Tree is narrated. Chapter 6 is called “The Odalisque” (or female slave or concubine in a harem) and contains Faten’s story of how she became a prostitute in Madrid. Martin is introduced as her outwardly empathetic client. After being arrested on the beach, she grants sexual favors to a guard and is released. Her only option is to start selling more sexual favors creating a clientele base in Madrid. She had been there 3 years and lived with a roommate named Betoul. Chapter 7 is titled “The Homecoming”, and it is the story of Aziz’s return home to his wife and hometown. The idealistic fantasies of his return do not match the reality of what he returns to find. Much has changed and his plans and obligations over his wife are lifted due to irreconcilable goals and wants. He feels freed. They both do. The final chapter is titled “The Storyteller”, and through this particular story we are shown through one scene how Murad feels about his return to Tangier and the Botbol Bazaar and Gifts. He is working at a shop selling handicrafts and carpets, but has not entirely left his hustling days behind. Murad wished to attempt a return, but his mother refused to sell her bracelets for the money. There is a juxtaposition in this chapter between the reality of the visiting tourists and the fantasy of the story told about Arbo, Jenara, Ghomari, and the Sultan. The book ends with Murad realizing that he should write the stories, as his own father told to his children. He begins to block out the reality of the shop in order to go into his mind and start writing.
              Because the book is structured in this way, the author is able to juxtapose paradoxes and the difficult choices that are made between the various characters. The ending story mirrors the opening scene of Murad being at the center of the boat trip. Murad’s stories are both last in both of the sections. Murad begins and ends the narrative, and so the reader is guided to Murad for the final say in what had taken place and, therefore, what it all means. If the novel starts out with a chapter in third person narration recounting Murad’s viewpoint, then we could surmise that he is the pivot point of the book. Why did Lalami choose Murad as the pivot point character? Could it be he is “the storyteller”? Could she have seen Murad as someone she herself understands?
              To understand the answers to these questions, a close reading is required. What exactly is she mirroring within the form of the book? If we take the Introduction (“The Trip”), Lalami begins this chapter and the novel with two words: “Fourteen kilometers.” She ends the chapter with Murad being fine with the knowledge that he actually attempted the trip and did make it across. So, “next time”, like Aziz, he will make it. Therefore, the reader sees the distance as the initial obstacle: a mere fourteen kilometers. What can we deduce from this measurement then? Murad from Tangier as potential storyteller with a hopeful future ahead attempting to traverse the Strait of Gibraltar.  
              Lalami places Faten, the fanatic, as the next layer of pivot. Her stories are part of the first and second stories in the before and after sections. She is the first voice we read in both parts. Faten is also saved by Murad on the trip over. Murad, the storyteller, saves Faten, the fanatic. Isn’t Faten also the storyteller? Doesn’t she also tell stories in her work as prostitute? Wasn’t she the fanatic “voice” that was punished for calling out the king in the first chapter? Her destiny was formed when Larbi Amrani has her expelled from university for cheating. The stories that are told by both Murat and Faten are stories of indigenous culture of the Moroccans, or Moors. The distance, fourteen kilometers, is symbolic of the Moorish invasion in 711. Both Murad and Faten attempt a crossing. Faten makes it though by using her female body to strike a deal, yet Murad is sent back to try again (after spending all that money in the first place).  Both characters have strong voices, but it is Faten’s body that allows for her successful emigration. At the end of the book, we are left with two characters, each on either side of the strait.  Faten was able to successfully “invade” Spain using her wit, charm, and storytelling ability. She is using her roots to persuade her few clientele to support her and fund her. Faten tells Arabian Nights-like tales to draw men into her own economy and capital. Faten is the one who can support herself on the other side. She did not need anyone to help her. If we consider the book from this vantage point, then compare Lalami’s ideas in her essays, we can start to fill in the big picture of what the book is attempting to tell us.
              Faten is a lower class, independent woman who does not ask for help, except for when she is saved by Murad. Murad saves Fatel and so, it is she who becomes “the chosen one”, or the Odalisque, who will make her way forward and “conquer”. Murad is actually the true enabler in the book, or true pivot point to allow for the emigration of, not him unfortunately, but of others including Faten. When she arrives, she is using sexuality and potential procreation (note the condom scene where she runs out of her supply (another commodity that needs to be bought)) to survive. It is only through the reproductive potentiality of Faten that her roots can be planted into the newly won soil.  It is her egg that could become a seed, or a child by a Spanish father. Prostitution prevents this, however. The potential seed lands within the latex condom and is tossed away. In the process of searching for the condom in Martin’s car, for instance, Faten finds a copy of the Qur’an. When she asks him what he is doing with it, ““I’m just reading up.” He said. He reached out and caressed her hair. “Can we get on with it?” “(Lalami, Hope 134) It was a moment of revelation for Faten and, in a moment, she realizes why he is taking such an interest in her. It isn’t to have a potential romantic relationship, but to fulfill the fantasies that she has been feeding him. This moment problematizes the book and cuts off any hope for her that she was holding with Martin. Faten thought she and Martin had been speaking the same language (“the game”) but as it turns out, he was actually playing the actual game.
              Backing up five years to 2000, when Lalami becomes a US citizen, she was also an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim in the U.S. (California). Lalami had written in her essay “Bright Stars”: “Millions of people in this country live with the terrible reality that their status is at least partially determined by the color of their skin, nature of their creed, their gender identity, or national origin.” (Lalami 41). Faten’s status also was determined by all of those things: her gender, her religion, her ethnicity, her race, and the geography of where she comes from (across the strait in the land of the exotic, dangerous Moors). Her book then seems to be a take on geographical and national movement and migration and why it matters. Why this travel through time from “old life” to “new life” changes more than just location. It changes everything.
 In Lalami’s case, she had emigrated to the U.S. because “Love had brought me to that moment.” (Lalami Bright Stars 41) Her situation was much different than Faten’s. She had made the choice from her heart, not out of necessity. Faten starts out as a “fanatic”, but turns to manufactured “Love” in order to survive the crossing and permanent placement in Madrid. She even found a higher-class roommate in the bargain who did not reject her immoral ways. Her two dual sides (fanatic vs. sensual and submissive odalisque) come together as she fights her way through her own story of survival. She uses her rebellious nature to avoid being pulled into Martin’s attempts to help her out of both pity and a desire for the unknown.  One could argue after analyzing and comparing her journey to those of both Murad and Lalami, that she was actually the character with the most physical agency in the book. Murad had a lack of physical agency due to the loss of masculinity he encountered by being jobless. He was not able to fulfill his role of breadwinner and take his rightful place in the Arab male social hierarchy. Because of both of their attempts at emigration, they would forever be lost in that liminal space of the dark water of the Mediterranean into which they were dropped: lost inside this space of conquest. As Lalami writes, “The waves are inky black, except for hints of foam here and there, glistening white under the moon, like tombstones in a dark cemetery.” (Lalami, Home 2)
In neither of their cases could they reject their gender roles: Murad could not reject his masculinity, and Faten could not reject her femininity. Because of their liminality, they are the characters with the most ability to weave tales in the book.  They are two sides of the same coin. Their placement in the narrative and their reflection of each other creates a duality. Faten’s story ends in a shared meal in a liminal space that is neither Moroccan, nor Spanish (she is using Spanish-made ingredients, after all), and Murad’s story ends in being lost in the imaginative part of his mind, also a liminal space. There is a fluidity of both time and memory in both of these spaces: Faten is bringing forth her culture and roots into the present moment and sharing it with another woman of a different class in a different country, whereas Murad is able to ignore the tourists in his shop and their focus on commodity and material culture in the present moment as he creates from scratch another narrative of his choosing.  They both create a form of power and creative force, ultimately. Both characters are “weaving a carpet of their own making” from their own sense of selfhood. Both refuse to submit as an object to be studied.  In the eyes of society, neither character had chosen the “acceptable” path. They are the two characters in the narrative who we can observe their life moving on in relative hope after the book ends. Hope, not in terms of potential happiness, but in terms of power and a better future for all through their agency.
Which character is in a better position? Neither character appears outwardly to have the upper hand. Faten made it across to Spain, but Murad has a stable position in Morocco and the safety of respectable employment in order to create. Both characters will struggle with class, gender, race, and religious issues in the end, but it is Faten who is given the chance to change things. She possesses physical mobility that he does not possess, and, like Murad, she not only “spins yarns”, but she can cook and create sustenance and nurturance. Like Tariq ibn-Zihad, Arab governor of Tangier, in 711, she made the crossing using her skills, roots, and character traits in order to conquer her clients, make money in a strange land called Spain, and to form a brand-new future. Murad, on the other hand, will form a new future through the mind and his voice, potentially spreading this voice across borders. Faten may have been the conquering force, but Murad is the personification of this hopeful future simply by standing still.

Through Lalami’s book, we learn as readers that hope is inevitably a dangerous pursuit. You could fall into the dark waters and never come back.

Further Reading:

Alami, Ahmed Idrissi, “’Illegal Crossing, historical memory in Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous
              Pursuits”, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Jan 2012, pp. 143-156.
Flesler, D., The Return of the Moor:  Spanish Responses to Contemporary Moroccan Immigration, West
              Lafayette:  Purdue University Press, 2008.
Fuchs, B., Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain, Philadelphia:
              University of Penn Press, 2008.
Kahf, Mohja, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman:  From Termagant to Odalisque, Austin:
              University of Texas Press, 1999.
Lalami, Laila, “Bright Stars: The unfulfilled promise of American citizenship”, Harper’s Magazine, April
              2020, pp. 39-43.
Lalami, Laila, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, New York: Harcourt, 2005.
Oliveira Martins, J.P., A History of Iberian Civilization, New York:  Cooper Square Publishers, 1969.

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