Leaving Tangier, By Tahar Ben Jelloun, trans. Linda Coverdale

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The Independent Online

Forget the Morocco of holiday resorts, luscious oranges and high-priced footballers. Forget even being on the shuttle run of infamous US/UK "renditions". Instead, Tahar Ben Jelloun gives his readers a Morocco seen from within his native coastal Tangier, forever looking north to Spain, while feeding on the cultural influences of the east and southern Mediterranean.

In a style reminiscent of the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi, Leaving Tangier interweaves chapters as if in verses of a ghazal, alternating the names and stories of the players in a daily drama. The drama is that of the birds of passage who look to burn their boats in taking flight to the land of Ibn al-Araby, the Iberia that for seven centuries was a land ruled by Moors and populated with cities where the monotheistic faiths not only lived side by side but shared and debated the three Books on which their faiths depend. Today, however, moros is exclusively a term of abuse, reserved for the Maghrebi adventurers who reach Spanish shores to run the gauntlet of capture by "la Migra" or torture, often by foreign fundamentalists hungry for new recruits.

Azel's story is that of a contemporary everyman. After failed attempts at escaping the lack of opportunity, creativity, ambition – even a livelihood – in his home country, he finally allows himself to be bought by a wealthy gallerist and brought to live in Barcelona. Too late he discovers that you cannot sell your body without also selling the soul within it, and so he begins a new downward spiral of reversals and compromises involving not only his family on both sides of the Straits, but all of those with whom he becomes involved.

Ben Jelloun threads a tale of casual violence and expedient deceptions with another, about the life of the imagination. There is unexpected humour jostling alongside the horror, in magical-realist passages illuminating the clash of traditional and modern.

He never allows simplistic divisions in which the past becomes the repository of romanticism, the present of wrongdoing. For people change very little over the centuries, and Arab mothers here movingly, amusingly, resemble their Jewish or Latin counterparts.

The pace of the plot, initially Azel's story, which acquires a growing cast of narrators (his sister Kenza; his mother, Lalla Zohra; the gallerist Miguel, and Miguel's great friend, the doctor Gabriel), moves fastest while Azel is still in Morocco. It changes as it acquires an increasingly oneiric aspect, with Azel mired in Spain, where the clash between what is desired and what can be achieved becomes unbearable.

Ben Jelloun is arguably Morocco's greatest living author, whose impressive body of work combines intellect and imagination in magical fusion.

It has to be an indictment of its neo-feudal system that its outstanding artists also become "birds of passage". Like Milan Kundera, Ben Jelloun now writes in French, a language which Linda Coverdale ably translates – all the more challenging where style and idiom remain characteristically Maghrebi. A helpful set of end-notes explain some references, connecting to earlier verses by Nazim Hikmet and Sheik Nefzouai, or popular singers Ibrahim Tatlises and Farid al-Atrash, even to Ben Jelloun's own earlier novels.

Leaving Tangier is a wholly original feat of form and imagination. The final passages move the genre away from fiction – even the fictions we invent to render the real world palatable or our own actions acceptable – to another level of parallel reality. Everyman becomes Odysseus and the outward-bound Ship of Fools, bent on seeking a better world, returns as a ship of death as the dynastic cycle repeats itself as yet another king is crowned absolute ruler of Morocco.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation