There is very little under the sun one can tell a Moroccan about sex if, as is likely, he or she has been exposed to an uncensored edition of The Thousand Nights and One Night. The fabled collection is full of forced coupling and pimps, swords used for erotic purposes, “kisses, bitings, huggings, twistings, great strokes of the zabb, variations, first, second, and third positions, and the rest.” It’s not just a carnal cornucopia; sex is the great nexus for jealousy, longing, and love. Sex, in these tales, is about power.
For the past thirty years, Tahar Ben Jelloun has managed to bring such a literary presentation of sex into a complicated, twenty-first-century context. Just as John Updike reminded Americans of the guilt and vertigo they sort out between the sheets, Ben Jelloun has chronicled the shame and secrecy surrounding sex in a Morocco of creeping fundamentalism and diminishing opportunity. The explicitness of the sex in his work is powerful and often beautifully erotic; it’s what it signifies, however, that unsettles.
It is precisely this point—where sex amplifies the degradations of postcolonial economic reality—that Leaving Tangier lands like a hammer blow. The main character is a straight, well-educated Moroccan named Azel, who has begun to drift. “I’m twenty-four,” he tells girls who are interested in him, “I have a diploma but no money, job or car. . . . [I’m] ready to do anything to get the hell out of here, leave this whole country behind except for some memories and a few postcards.” One of Azel’s best friends drowned while being smuggled to Spain. Azel knows there’s a faster way. So he tumbles into an affair with a much older, wealthy Spaniard named Miguel, who has a penchant for fallen young Moroccan men and “the olive sheen of their skin.”
Ben Jelloun is a direct and Orwellian writer when it comes to sex: “He loved their availability,” he writes of the Moroccan men Miguel takes under his wing, “which marked the inequality in which the relationship was formed, for the lover by night was thus the servant by day, casually dressed to do the daily shopping, wearing fine clothing in the evening to stimulate sexual desire. The old concierge in an apartment building where an American writer and his wife lived had said it best. . . . ‘A package deal, and between two pokes, tokes on a nicely packaged pipe of kif to help the American write! Tell me your story, he says to them, I’ll make a novel out of it, you’ll even have your name on the cover: you won’t be able to read it but no matter, you’re a writer like me, except that you’re an illiterate writer, that’s exotic—what I mean is, unusual my friend!’”
Ben Jelloun is here responding to Paul Bowles, a connection made clear in interviews where the Moroccan expresses a distaste for the American’s erotizing of poverty: “I didn’t like Bowles, the man or the writer. He loved young Moroccan boys and preferred them illiterate. He’d write books in their words; it was an ambiguous relationship.”
Leaving Tangier would read like a blunt political instrument for such sentiments were Ben Jelloun not such a wonderfully specific writer. Many scenes of agonizing depravity convey the desperation of poverty. Azel gives in to Miguel’s beneficence after being rounded up by Moroccan police, who hold him down on the interrogation-room floor and take turns violating him. The trauma takes a heavy psychological toll. When Miguel brings Azel to Spain, the young man begins sneaking off to couple with his girlfriend, who has been hired to take care of a disabled child. Eventually, he becomes impotent and falls in with a druggy crowd of petty criminals.
From such bracing particulars, Ben Jelloun fashions political fiction of great urgency. As Dos Passos did in the USA trilogy, the Moroccan author fans outward to tangential characters whose lives illustrate the economic web that ensnares them all. A young girl’s father yanks her out of school so she can work shifts at a shrimp factory even though she is ill. A quiet young man of devout bent obtains a visa and emigrates to Belgium, where a chance encounter propels him to the front lines of jihad in Pakistan. And finally there’s Kenza, Azel’s sister, who follows her brother to Spain—also under Miguel’s steam—and does well, until she meets a handsome young Turkish immigrant who’s been chased to the same country by a past he hides from everyone.
Leaving Tangier was originally published in France, where Ben Jelloun lives most of the year, as Partir, or “To Leave”—a far more accurate title for this disturbing, elliptical little novel, which has been elegantly translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. Ben Jelloun has long written in the language and is aware, as many exiles are, of the possible duplicity in this act. “Arabic is my wife,” he has said, “and French is my mistress; and I have been unfaithful to both.”
Cultural negotiations also animate the lives of his emigrant characters, in the grisly day jobs soldiered through by young men and women who would be overqualified were it not for their being Moroccan. It is indeed a book about departures—leave-takings made under pressure so strong it steamrolls willpower. The lucky return and survive; others are unlucky. By pointing up the limited paths for Morocco’s sojourners, Ben Jelloun might redeem a promise of a better life at home.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta