I’ve been raiding the “international authors” section of my public library for about a month and I must say, I’ve found a number of interesting works of fiction. One such novel, Leaving Tangier by Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun impressed the heck out of me. I am quite indebted to my library for allowing me the opportunity to not only read a good book, but a book from another country. I am always grateful for these opportunities to learn about other cultures through eyes of a native.
The picture Jelloun paints of Morocco is a bleak one. Politically stifling and economically stagnant, few if any desirable opportunities exist for the country’s young people. With few prospects other than hanging out in coffee shops all day dreaming of entering Spain illegally by leaky boat, (called “burning up the straits” by the locals), or succumbing to the seductive offers of Islamists bent on recruiting foot soldiers in the fight for global jihad, the young Azel accepts an offer to leave Tangier and move to Spain to live with wealthy but mercurial Miguel as his assistant and considerably reluctant lover. Not only does Jelloun’s book follow Azel’s bitter adventures in his adopted land, but also those of his sister and other characters who have gone to Spain in search of a better life. Without saying too much, when it’s all said and done there are no happy endings for anyone.
Leaving Tangier reminded me a lot one of my favorite American novels, The Sheltering Sky by the late Paul Bowles. In the Sheltering Sky, an American couple naively leaves the mundane but relatively safe United States to seek adventure and freedom in Morocco, only to be overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed by its harsh and unforgiving landscape. In Jelloun’s novel, it is the visiting Moroccans who are crushed by the West. To me, this begs the question of which world is more civilized and accommodating-North or South ?