A tapestry of exile and loss
Tahar Ben Jelloun
In his latest work to be translated into English, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Morocco’s best-known novelist, examines how much people are willing to sacrifice to start a new life in Europe, and the consequences of taking flight. Mr Ben Jelloun is no stranger to these issues, having left Morocco himself in 1971 to study in Paris. He has won numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Goncourt in 1987, an award he now judges.
In Leaving Tangier, the author draws on his research as a social psychiatrist that also inspired an earlier novel, Solitaire, as a way of exploring psychological and sexual dysfunctions that arise as a result of migration. Azel, an educated, heterosexual young man from Tangier, is unable to find work and becomes obsessed with his desire to escape from Morocco. He spends every evening at the Café Haha, gazing longingly at the lights twinkling on the Spanish coastline just 20 miles (32km) away. When he meets Miguel Lopez, a rich Spanish homosexual, Azel seizes the opportunity and leaves his family and his country behind to become Miguel’s lover in Barcelona. However, he underestimates the extent to which this decision will destroy both his sexuality and his sense of self.
In 40 short chapters Mr Ben Jelloun weaves together a tapestry of exile and loss as he follows his characters through the dream and reality of leaving Tangier. Al Afia, “the fire”, smuggles boatloads of illegal emigrants across the strait, unashamedly profiting from an enterprise that often ends in arrest or drowning. Azel’s sister, Kenza, enters into a marriage of convenience with Miguel and obtains a job and a resident’s permit in Spain, but her dream of finding “love, true love” is snatched away. Back in Tangier, the most touching figure is Malika, an imaginative young girl who dies before any of her dreams can be realised.
The invisible, omnipresent character in the text is Morocco itself, as Mr Ben Jelloun demonstrates the difficulty of ever really “leaving” your country. Although most of the plot takes place in Spain, the characters’ thoughts continually turn back to Morocco, a country that remains the “dearest and greatest” of their anxieties. Leaving Tangier is a brave, unflinching look at the issues underlying economic migration from North Africa — and the hard choices people make between roots and wings.