Monday, August 17, 2009

laila lalami's novel 'secret son'

Secrets and lies in Casablanca

Early in Moroccan writer Laila Lalami’s first novel “Secret Son” a young man brought up by a supposedly widowed mother in a Casablanca slum discovers that his father is not only still alive, but is a wealthy businessman. From this premise Lalami [pictured below] weaves an engrossing multi-stranded story to reveal a society of inequalities which bear down particularly harshly on the younger generation.

Lalami was born and grew up in Morocco, but has lived for many years in the US. She obtained a PhD in linguistics from the University of Southern California, and is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

She is one the few North African fiction writers who choose to write in English rather than Arabic or French. Her 2005 debut work “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” consisted of interlinked short stories whose characters are desperate, for various reasons, to make the hazardous voyage to Europe. One of the stories, “The Fanatic”, was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

In “Secret Son”, published in the US by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Lalami again scrutinizes Morocco through the prism of its young people. Eighteen-year-old Youssef El-Mekki and his mother Rachida, a hospital clerk, live in the Hay an-Najat slum. Their house consists of “one room with no windows and a roof made of corrugated tin held down by rocks.” Youssef is a clever boy, and Rachida is ambitious for his education.

The already miserable conditions in the Hay worsen when storms break a three-year drought and cause severe flooding. Local bureaucrats are ineffectual in dealing with the emergency, and the Hay’s people are instead helped by the Islamist Hizb or Party.

Youssef has always dreamed of being an actor and cherishes his weekly visits to the Star Cinema. But after the cinema is flooded out, the building becomes the headquarters of the Hizb, chaired by charismatic Si Hatim. The Party’s help to the people boosts its standing, but beneath its socially benevolent front lurks a militant agenda.

Rachida has always told her son that his schoolteacher father died in an accident in Fes when Youssef was two. But after Youssef passes his final school exam, and is preparing to major in English at university, she reveals that she was not married to his father, who was not schoolteacher Nabil El-Mekki but a lawyer, Nabil Amrani. The couple had been due to wed, but he was killed in a car crash.

When Youssef sees an interview with a transport tycoon named Nabil Amrani in the Casablanca Magazine he suspects his father is still alive. The picture of Amrani in the magazine closely resembles Youssef, down to the unusual blue eyes, and when confronted Rachida admits that the man in the picture is his father.

Even then she does not tell Youssef that Nabil had already been married when, as a trainee midwife, she met him when she went to tend his pregnant wife Malika. And there are other secrets she keeps from Youssef about her background and identity.

Nabil has no idea he has a son, and is stunned when Youssef tracks him down and tells him of their blood relationship. But he is not displeased. On the contrary: he has been having problems with his daughter Amal, his only child by Malika, and has been wishing he had a son. While studying in the US Amal has acquired an American boyfriend and a furious Nabil has cut off the money for her studies.

Nabil decides to keep Youssef’s existence a secret from his wife, but gives him the keys to an apartment. Youssef moves in and begins to live a life of privilege, like the “Mercedes-and-Marlboro” set of spoilt young people he has observed at university. He wears designer clothes, has a maid and indulges in flings with girls who would previously have been out of his league.

A pivotal character in the novel’s plot is investigative journalist Farid Benaboud of the Casablanca Magazine, whom Youssef first meets when he comes to the apartment to interview Nabil about tourism. On a subsequent visit Farid tells Nabil that Casablanca Magazine is threatened with closure for upsetting a minister and asks him to sign an open letter supporting freedom of expression. Nabil refuses.

It is not only the government that is exasperated by Benaboud’s journalism. Hatim constantly fulminates against Benaboud for his published reports on the Party.

Nabil gets Youssef a part time job in the Grand Hotel, in which he owns a large stake, and the course of his future seems clear. When he finishes his degree Nabil will send him to London on an internship, after which he will be awarded a position in the Amrani group and Nabil will tell his wife about him.

But Youssef’s plans are shattered when he is thrown out of his job and apartment, with no explanation. His evasive father eventually admits that his wife and daughter have found out about him. Youssef’s rejection by his father is complete when security guards bar him from Nabil’s office.

Youssef returns to the Hay, alienated and angry. He tries in vain to find a job, going from city to city and company to company. He fails to get into the police academy, and loses his money in a lottery scam promising visas to the US.

Hatim sympathizes with him, saying: “This country is like a car going down a ravine, and everyone’s asleep in the backseat.” He begins to manipulate Youssef, asking: “Are you on your mother’s side, or your father’s?” and showing him videos of violence against Muslims abroad. Will Youssef succumb to Hatim’s influence, or will his innate wisdom prevail?

Lalami writes in clear, economical prose. Her plain style may be a reaction against the lush exoticism with which Morocco has tended to be viewed by foreigners, but one might have hoped for rather more vivid use of language.
“Secret Son” is deftly plotted, with many twists to the plot, and is rich in perceptions of Moroccan society. Lalami controls the narrative with skill, and sustains the narrative tension to the last paragraph.
Susannah Tarbush

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