Laila Lalami's first collection of short stories, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, opened with four Moroccans attempting to exit their beleaguered homeland across the Strait of Gibraltar, in hope to (illegally) enter into that European diasporic "paradise" that her North African predecessor Tahar Ben Jelloun has long dramatised in French. In her debut novel, Secret Son, she explores what it means for her characters to stay rather than flee from the socio-political morass that is modern-day Morocco. It is a refreshing starting point by Lalami, a Moroccan-born American émigrée, to concentrate on the divided worlds and hopes of reinvention within Morocco's own borderlines.
Lalami explores the other side of the Moroccan dream, inside the Casablanca slum of Hay An Najat, where 19-year-old Youssef El-Mekki lives with his mother, Rachida. After Youssef guesses his mother's secret - that his absent father who she said was long dead - is Nabil Amrani, a blue-eyed businessman, very much alive and living among Casablanca's elite, he cannot but hope for a fast exit from his mother's tin-roofed home.
He knows from the gilded "Mercedes and Marlboro" clique at his university that another Morocco exists, but his father's parallel universe brings home just how close, and yet painfully unreachable, his slum-dwelling poverty is to a world of concierged penthouses and chauffeured cars that the Amranis have at their disposal.
Youssef's longed for "chance to rewrite his life" turns tawdry when Nabil installs his bastard son in a secret apartment, as if he were, Youssef reflects, a kept woman and not a long lost son. When his Amrani heritage is denied him, he plunges into a state of disaffection. Youssef's Morocco as an El-Mekki is a hostile land, riven by crude class divisions, corruption, nepotism, where the monarchy has limited freedom of expression and in which the radical Islam of The Hizb (The Party) is gaining ground, with its rabble rousing chairman who preys on the slum's most disillusioned to offer them a way out through religious "purity".
Youssef's journey to find his father represents the eternal search for himself, and as fascinating as he is as the slum-dwelling everyman, it is the older generation whose half-told stories prove the most compelling, and a richer back-story of Morocco may have come to life if they had been more fully developed by Lalami. His mother takes the well-worn Berber "journey of displacement" from the country to the city and faces with it, the alienation of internal migration, a point Lalami tacitly makes, although this could have been further explored. Even more intriguing is Nabil, a man who betrays the ideals that led to Moroccan independence in 1956.
The discovery of his son sends him back to the fiery anti-establishment ideals and political activism which he traded in for a gilt-edged life among Casablanca's government-aligned elite. Lalami has said she originally intended the book to an ensemble of voices, not just Youssef's, and one wishes she had followed through. In the end, the story is a fast, plot-driven one with characters who could have benefitted from having more flesh on their bones, and an ending – that sees Youssef's last-minute conversion to an Islamic fundamentalism which has, until now, only floated on the fringes of his consciousness – that appears rushed.Reuse content