Early in Leaving Tangier, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s eye-opening novel of Arab illegals crossing from Tangier into southern Spain, the author describes a cat that sneaks aboard a ship headed across the Straits of Gibraltar: “Even the cat was fed up: he, too, wanted something else from life, and needed tenderness, caresses, a kind family who would spoil him. The cat wanted to go away because he knew instinctively that it was better ‘over there,’ and he had his obsessions like everyone else, coming stubbornly every day to try his best to jump onto [a] vessel bound for Europe.”
The cat is more likely to survive a crossing from Africa into Europe than are many men and women who take the plunge and risk their lives, aware that their chances of success are about one in ten. That’s the statistic if you agree to the smugglers’ terms, which also require a large sum of money. Yet, as one of Jelloun’s characters says, “One chance in ten? Better than nothing! A gamble, a long shot. On the other hand, if we just sit here is this café, nothing will happen to us, absolutely nothing, and we’ll still be here in ten years, drinking the same lukewarm café au lait, smoking kif, and waiting for a miracle! In other words: some work, a decent job—well paid, with respect, security and dignity.”
There are other ways, of course, for North Africans to gain entry into southern Europe legally. In many instances they offer more risk (and certainly more humiliation) than being smuggled across the Straits. These are the concerns of Jelloun’s brutally honest narrative which focuses as much on innocence corrupted as it does on the perilous situation of illegals today: the situation of millions of young men and women in nations around the world trapped between idealism and economic reality. Too often, there are no jobs to keep them in their own countries, where they have been educated and then forgotten.
Azel, Jelloun’s main character, has been to the university in Morocco and has earned his legal degree but can’t find any work. His sister, Kenza, who has acquired an education well beyond that of her female peers, is also stuck in a dead end. Both want to leave Morocco. As their would-be patron, Miguel, states, “When a country gets to the point that the ‘best’ of its children want to leave, it’s a terrible thing.”
Yet, Miguel, who is Spanish, also takes advantage of their vulnerability, and it is in their exploitation that Leaving Tangier takes a darker turn, bringing up a largely forbidden topic in Muslim societies: homosexuality. Miguel will help Azel get a work permit in Spain in return for sexual favors. Azel is naive enough to believe that it’ll just be a matter of time before he’ll be able to dump his patron and stay on in Spain, returning to his previously heterosexual life. Azel is even happy for a while, still plotting to break away from Miguel, whom he convinces to “marry” his sister so that she’ll be able to gain legal entry into Spain. Both siblings believe that sometime in the future, they’ll return to Morocco rich and successful.
It doesn’t take too long until Azel begins living a double life, sneaking away from Miguel–initially, to be with female prostitutes and then, eventually, developing a steady relationship with a woman, principally to convince himself that he’s still attracted to women. Intentionally, Azel becomes careless about these relationships, knowing that if Miguel learns of them, he’ll be hurt. More accurately, Azel wants to be caught because he wants to end his relationship with Miguel. Then, to his surprise, Azel discovers that he’s impotent with women.
Jelloun treats these sexual issues unflinchingly, clearly knowing that they will trouble many of his Middle Eastern readers. He also mentions the earlier variant of trafficking in virile, young men—not just Moroccans, but also Senegalese, Cameroonians, even Turks who play lesser roles in his story, particularly in their relationships with Azel’s sister. Ironically, a pattern has been reversed. In the past, it was European men who settled in North Africa where they could enter more discretely into relationships with other men than they could in their own countries. Today, this is often reversed: African males go to Europe, where they can be more comfortable with their homosexuality than at home. And women? Their degradation is similar.
There’s not a false note in Jelloun’s riveting story. I confess that I peeked ahead to the title of the final chapter (“Returning”) before I actually reached it. And I became a bit smug in my assumption that Jelloun was going to produce a happy ending for his bleak story. That was not the case, nor will I reveal more about his narrative, denying you the many interesting twists and turns of Jelloun’s often astonishing story. One important sub-plot, however, is the novel’s examination of Islamic fundamentalism, its attractiveness to restless youths in Moslem countries (and in Europe) who have little hope of economic success in a world often stacked against them.
Close to the end of Leaving Tangier, Azel reflects on his situation: “I was ready to do anything to get out of Morocco.” How many young men and women in other countries feel exactly the same? What is their lot today during an international economic collapse? Not surprisingly, Tahar Ben Jelloun provides an answer to that question in an almost magical ending to his novel, an extraordinary story of a compelling social problem in today’s complicated world.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.