Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Leaving Tangier
Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Published by Arcadia Books Ltd

Reviewed by Max Fincher


Honest, informative and moving, Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a novel that explores the struggles facing young Moroccan people who want to leave their country in search of a better life. It is a novel that explores dreams, aspirations, isolation, and the need to find a better existence, but leaves us with an overwhelming sense that these dreams are eventually disappointed.

The central character, Azel, has studied law and lives with his mother, Lalla Zohra, and his sister, Kenza, in Tangier. Unemployed, he feels disaffected, and frustrated at not fulfilling his potential. His sister, Kenza, works as a nurse in a private clinic for a miserly surgeon. Azel spends his days in the local cafe where: ‘Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold, enticing bees that eventually tumble in, a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinselled reverie’ (p.1). Jelloun evokes a sense of endemic apathy in Azel’s community, where everyone yearns for what they think is a better life across the 8-mile stretch of water to mainland Spain. Azel’s narrative voice is dream-like. He exhorts the young people of Tangier not to ‘give in to the siren call of sadness’ but to believe in the figure of Toutia, a mythical, redemptive woman who offers them hope to cross to Spain.

Al Afia, a local crook and pot dealer, also arranges for people to be smuggled across the water. He is hated by Azel, who holds him responsible for the tragic death of his cousin Noureddine in a boat crossing, along with several others who drowned. A brutal, hard man, Jelloun’s description of Al Afia’s regime of corruption is portrayed with unflinching honesty: ‘he buys everyone, of course, this country is one huge marketplace, wheeling and dealing day and night, everybody’s for sale, all you need is a little power, something to cash in on’ (p.6). ..we stink of corruption, it’s on our faces, in our heads buried in our hearts’ (p.6). Jelloun captures the sense of powerlessness that young men like Azel feel against the corruption of men like Al Afia, who can arrange freedom for a price who dominates their lives: ‘a man so feared, so loved, - or rather, protected – by those who lived off his generosity’ (p.9). Corruption extends everywhere. When Miguel is beaten up by the police who arrest him on a false drugs charge, the police use the opportunity to rape him in prison. Azel calls on Miguel, a wealthy Spanish art dealer who picked him up in the café, to come to his rescue. Employed as a waiter at one of Miguel’s parties, Miguel arranges for Azel to live with him in his villa in Barcelona. For Azel, Miguel epitomizes elegance and luxury, and as Azel hopes, his salvation to a better life abroad.

Miguel’s characterisation follows a long line of gay men, both literary and factual, who enjoy Moroccan men as exotic commodities, as sexually available for a price. We are told that Miguel ‘loved the ‘awkwardness’ of Moroccan men, by which he meant their sexual ambiguity’ (p.32). Azel is entranced and blinded by Miguel’s glamorous lifestyle in Tangier, only to be deeply disappointed when he arrives in Barcelona and is treated like a house boy. Azel encounters prejudice from Carmen, Miguel’s old housekeeper, who represents the conservative traditionalist fears about immigrants. Unhappy, he secretly seeks affection from a prostitute, Soumaya, also an emigrant from Tangier.

Azel and Miguel’s relationship gives us an insight into contemporary Moroccan attitudes to homosexuality that points up how difficult it is to grow up gay in Muslim culture. Azel repeatedly refers to himself as a ‘prostitute’ or a ‘whore’ to Miguel, while at the same time pursuing a relationship with Soumaya where he attempts to prove his masculinity to himself. Azel’s confesses that his relationships with girls were episodic but straightforward: sex was the object, nothing else’ (p.20). He admits to his girlfriend, Siham, that he doesn’t like anal sex: ‘When I was a kid, in my times, I did it a few times with boys, never with girls. I don’t like it much’ (p.25). What emerges in the novel is the overwhelming disdain that Moroccan men, even gay men Moroccan men, feel for the figure of ‘a zamel, a passive homosexual. The ultimate shame!’ Al Afia is a contradiction to Azel’s mind: ‘A man so powerful, so good, lying on his belly to be sodomized!’ That Siham confesses that she can take it both ways, and prefers anal sex because it preserves her virginity, may be one explanation for Azel’s disgust. When Abdeslam, Noureddine’s brother confesses to Azel that he likes having sex with men and to keep it a secret to himself, Azel is shocked: ‘You’re a homosexual’. Abdeslam denies the label, arguing that for him it’s a matter of what he prefers at any given time: ‘I switch back and forth’. What emerges is that Azel views his sexual relationship with Miguel purely as an economic transaction, as another part of his job. There is a culture of secrecy and repression in Moroccan society over men admitting that they desire each other, especially passively, which is associated with Western-European society: ‘In our country, the zamel is the other guy, the European tourist, never the Moroccan, and no-one ever talks about it but it’s not true, we’re like all the other countries, except we keep quiet about those things’ (p.107). Internalized homophobia and repression still operate powerfully in the minds of men like Azel, who admits to not loving Miguel and to their relationship being one based on selfish reasons on both sides.

Azel confesses to Siham, that he feels guilty about having sex with Miguel. He feels desperate that he will end up ‘doubting my own sexuality’. It is difficult to gauge how far Azel is bisexual, confused or suffering from denial and internalized homophobia (p.66). At one point in his diary he notes his complex feelings about being Miguel’s lover, and his fears over what he thinks his mother would think of him: ‘How can I tell her that her son is just an attaye, a faggot, a man who crawls on his belly, a cheap whore, a traitor to his identity, to his sex?...One can’t talk about such things’ (p.68). Later, Miguel reflects that ‘He was always watching himself, afraid of his impulses and couldn’t manage to be spontaneous when they made love’. However, the novel shows that Miguel’s treatment of Azel, treating him like a slave, commanding him to perform the role of a submissive servant and sex object hardly helps matters. We discover that Miguel has adopted two twins, and admits that the ‘gesture is both selfish and generous’, as he is afraid of dying old and alone. His need for Azel is just as selfish: to make him feel younger and desired. Nevertheless, Azel also uses Miguel: he asks him to marry his sister, Kenza, in order that she can secure a visa. As Miguel observes: ‘...there was something in Azel’s eyes that was difficult to put into words, a kind of pseudo-smile, an implicit way of revealing and inadmissible form of deception’ (p.92). By agreeing to marry Kenza though, Miguel hopes to ‘make Azel more manageable’. At no point does the reader feel that Miguel is a victim of a fortune hunter like Abbas, a man whom Azel become friendly with in the barrio of Barcelona, and who later confesses to cynically exploiting rich old gay men, one of whom turns out to be Miguel’s friend.

Jelloun is aware of how, historically, Morocco has lured Western gay writers, like Jean Genet, because Moroccan men have been seen as sexually available. Miguel self-consciously compares himself to Genet at one point in the novel, but one feels that this is a fantasy Miguel indulges in as a self-consciously civilized, middle-class aesthete: ‘Azel thinks I’m Jean Genet, you know – that French writer who used to come to Tangier, a rebel, a great poet, a homosexual who had served time prison for theft....It’s curious – even though I’m sure Azel hasn’t read Genet, he must think he’s pleasing me by acting like street trash. (p.132). Earlier, we are told that ‘Miguel had read the works of Jean Genet and wondered why he loved to say that Tangier was the city of perfidy’ (p.92). Perfidy, or deceit, is the essential theme to many of the lives and stories told here, most notably for how Jelloun feels that the socio-political conditions of Morocco has frustrated and disappointed their dreams and aspirations. Both Azel and Kenza practice deceit, and are in turn deceived by a dream of a paradisal European life that turns into nightmarish struggle to survive economically and socially.

Tahar Ben Jelloun

A multitude of stories are told in Leaving Tangier, of lives lived under the yoke of poverty, oppression and corruption. The stories of Azel’s family – his protective mother, Lalla Zohra who survives selling contraband luxury products, his sister Kenza, his wife, Siham and his friend Malika, educated but enslaved in the local shrimp factory – all give the reader an insight into how hard life can be. As we later learn, even Miguel’s story is similar to Azel’s own. Miguel’s friend Gabriel tells Azel that Miguel’s family were poor and that ‘like you, he had to follow a man, a rich and powerful English lord’. Each of the characters’ narratives in turn draws out unexpected congruences and parallels between each other, and each story fits into the web of shared experiences.

Leaving Tangier is also important for how it explores some of the potential causes and reasons for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco. We are shown how intelligent, talented young people can be twisted by desperate circumstances to believe in fundamentalist rhetoric that, while seeming to offer freedom and independence, is ultimately restrictive and oppressive. Unconvinced by the arguments of a man he meets in the café, who tries to recruit him to an Islamist cause, Azel is warned that he will miss Tangier once he leaves: ‘You’ll miss your culture, your religion, your country. We are against emigration, legal or clandestine, because our problems are things we have to solve here and now, without counting on others to fix them for us’. Mohammed Labri, Azel’s friend, joins a fundamentalist cause when he experiences life in Brussels, to disappear to Pakistan ‘never to be seen again’.

Importantly, the novel does not give us a one-dimensional perspective of how and where racism occurs. Azel is shocked and disgusted when he discovers that Kenza is having sex with Nazim, a Turkish man living in Spain whom she befriends. After abusing Nazim to Kenza, she asks him which other nationalities he hates and if this includes Arabs. His reaction shows that he is filled with self-loathing: ‘Arabs? I could never stand them. I’m an Arab who doesn’t like himself’ (p.144). Despite being treated badly by people like Carmen, and ultimately Miguel, Azel’s emotional immaturity and possessive attitude to his sister’s relationship prevent him from him seeing that his own view of Nazim is no different to the way that some Spaniards think of him. More broadly, the novel shows that crossing the water is two-way traffic; the Spanish or ‘Spanoolies’ as they termed who have emigrated to Morocco suffer from the same kind of attitudes that Moroccans encounter in Spain. Jelloun’s reminds us of how fragile a country’s social-political conditions can be and how these conditions can change with time. Not so long ago, it was Morocco that was perceived as a haven for the Spanish from the repressive tyranny of Franco’s regime in Spain. We see Miguel discovering a journal of his father that gives and account of the lives of political refugees in Morocco in the 1950s, and Miguel’s surprise at discovering that it was the Spanish who were the ‘illegal aliens’. When Kenza tried to commit suicide, Miguel finally understands the devastating psychological effects of unhappiness and broken dreams: ‘Miguel now realized that there was something terrifying about the loneliness of immigration, a kind of descent into a void, a tunnel of shadows of warped reality’ (p.199).

Fittingly, the novel finishes on the theme of return with a poetical, dream-like chapter that depicts a universal voyage back to Tangier under the guidance of Toutia, and which symbolizes an infinite number of journeys that have been both desired and undertaken for centuries. As in other of his novels, Jelloun employs the everyman figure of Moha, ‘a holy fool’, an itinerant storyteller who appears and who symbolizes Morocco’s hopes and dreams. As Don Quixote explains to the captain and those assembled: ‘He’s the immigrant without a name! This man is who I was, who your father was, who your son will be...we all hear the siren call of the open sea, the appeal of the deep, the voices from afar that live within us, and we all feel the need to leave our native land, because our country is not rich enough, or loving enough, or generous enough to keep us at home’ (p.219).


Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.

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