FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Leaving Tangier

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.

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
January 17, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: No Woman, No Cry
Kathleen Wallace
Hijacking the Struggles of Others, Elizabeth Warren Style
Robert Hunziker
The Rumbling Methane Enigma
Frank Joyce
Will the Constitution Fail Again?
Pete Dolack
Claims that the ‘NAFTA 2’ Agreement is Better are a Macabre Joke
Andrew Levine
Biden Daze
Vijay Prashad
Not an Inch: Indian Students Stand Against the Far Right
Ramzy Baroud
Sealed Off and Forgotten: What You Should Know about Israel’s ‘Firing Zones’ in the West Bank
Norman Solomon
Not Bernie, Us. Not Warren, Us. Their Clash Underscores the Need for Grassroots Wisdom
Ted Rall
America’s Long History of Meddling in Russia
David Rosen
The Irregulators vs. FCC: the Trial Begins
Jennifer Matsui
The Krown
Joseph Natoli
Resolutions and Obstacles/2020
Sarah Anderson
War Profiteering is Real
James McFadden
The Business Party Syndicate
Ajamu Baraka
Trump Prosecutors Make Move to Ensure that Embassy Protectors are Convicted
David Swanson
CNN is Trash
Rev. William Alberts
Finally a Christian Call for Trump’s Removal
Dave Lindorff
The ERA Just Got Ratified by Virginia, the Needed 38th State!
W. T. Whitney
Mexico Takes Action on Coup in Bolivia and on CELAC
Steve Early
How General Strike Rhetoric Became a Reality in Seattle 
Jessicah Pierre
Learning From King’s Last Campaign
Mark Dickman
Saint Greta and the Dragon
Jared Bernstein - Dean Baker
Reducing the Health Care Tax
Clark T. Scott
Uniting “Progressives” Instead of Democrats
Nilofar Suhrawardy
Trump & Johnson: What a Contrast, Image-wise!
Ron Jacobs
Abusing America’s Children—Free Market Policy
George Wuerthner
Mills Are Being Closed by National Economic Trends, Not Environmental Regulations
Basav Sen
Nearly All Americans Want Off of Fossil Fuels
Mark Ashwill
Playing Geopolitical Whack-a-Mole: The Viet Nam Flag Issue Revisited
Jesse Jackson
New Hope for One of America’s Poorest Communities
Binoy Kampmark
Harry and Meghan Exit: The Royal Family Propaganda Machine
Ralph Nader
Trump: Making America Dread Again!
Rob Okun
A Call to Men to join Women’s March
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
We All Need to Be Tree Huggers Now
Tom Stephens
The New York Times’ Delusions of Empire
Julian Rose
Fake-Green Zero Carbon Fraud
Louis Proyect
The Best Films of 2019
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: Into Kosovo
Colin Todhunter
Gone Fishing? No Fish but Plenty of Pesticides and a Public Health Crisis
Julian Vigo
Can New Tech Replace In-Class Learning?
Gaither Stewart
The Bench: the Life of Things
Nicky Reid
Trannies with Guns: Because Enough is Enough!
James Haught
Baby Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark
David Yearsley
Brecht in Berlin
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail