I just finished reading a book of short stories about life and culture in Morocco entitled: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The book is Laila Lalami’s poetic debut, which begins with the illegal journey of four Moroccans across the Strait of Gibraltar. Moments away from the shores of Spain, the boat capsizes and the passengers are forced to swim for their lives, and their freedom. What follows is an exploration of the pasts that led to this passage, and the futures that emerge from this voyage.
Less a novel than a series of biographical sketches, the book seems at times like a tease. Lalami does such a beautiful job creating her characters that readers will undoubtedly be left wanting more, particularly in the chapter called Buses which is about a woman who is continuously beaten by her Moroccan husband (a cab driver) who uses whatever money that comes in to drink rather than put food on the table. When she seeks refuge at her mother’s house, she is reminded that is probably beaten because she speaks up and to go to a judge is only pointless. Imagine that lack of support while you’re trying to raise 3 children with welts on your face, arms and hide from regular beatings as an aside?
Each portrait in the book gives us a chance to not only engage with the character, but to gain an understanding of the religious, socio-economic, and emotional circumstances that compel each person to leave Morocco. Faten, a student who dons the hijab, is forced to flee when her religious beliefs start threatening the lives of influential educators. Murad, a serious, educated young man chances the crossing in search of a better life, where he doesn’t have to hustle tourists to make a living. In each scene, Lalami bring Moroccan culture to life, from the tree-lined suburbs of Rabat to the Douar Lhajja slum, “where couscous pots were used as satellite dishes.”
The four main characters of this linked series of fictional profiles are connected by a single goal: the desire to emigrate from Morocco to Spain, where there are jobs. Other examples include Aziz Ammor, who hopes to support his wife by finding work in Spain; and Murad, a college graduate who makes pocket money by taking Paul Bowles fans on informal tours.
This isn’t just a book about Morocco or crossing the Straight of Gilbratar. It is about anyone who has had a glimpse of a before and an after when making a move towards a better way of life, whether that be legal or illegal immigration, a move to another country for an opportunity or seeing refuge for a better way of life because the calling is so loud they just MUST.