December 2005

Joey Rubin

fiction

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

Immigration is a fundamental component of the Great American Story. How we got here, how our parents got here, how the founders got here; these are the celebrated tales of American becoming, the first step in the coveted process of grasping the American Dream. But leaving one's homeland in pursuit of a better life -- especially in today's "global," and economically divided, world -- is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In the first novel of literary blogger Laila Lalami (moorishgirl.com), Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, it is an unfamiliar immigrant experience she has chosen to recount: the tale of Moroccans heading toward Spain. But to American readers, it should still be a familiar story.

Moroccan-born and British-educated, Lalami has made the US her home since coming to study linguistics at USC in 1992. Her focus in Hope, however, is not her own experience, but those of characters without the opportunities of emigration she had. Hope begins on a boat as it pushes away from the Moroccan coast, illegally crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, toward Spain, the nearest chunk of the West. Aboard, a diverse assemblage of Moroccan characters is embarking on that single journey for a range of different reasons. Hope is about these reasons, and the effect these reasons have on those trying to leave their homeland.

The eight chapters that follow the opening -- a short descriptive chapter entitled "The Trip" -- flash back and forth in time, to the months leading up to the boat trip and to the months and years after the attempted, and for some successful, immigration. Each chapter tells the story of a different Moroccan: Faten, the determinedly religious teenage girl, Halima, the abused wife, Murad, the over-educated, chronically unemployed university graduate, and Aziz, the dedicated husband with unexpressed potential. The overly-convenient representation of so many Moroccan social types (unmarried, married; uneducated, educated; secular, devout; male, female) exposes what seems to be a clear social/political "lesson:" be sympathetic toward the plight of the immigrant. However, the novelty of this faraway world being depicted in English language literature makes the book interesting regardless of this weakness.

Lalami's book is most convincing when it animates Morocco with tenderness and lucidity, as a complex post-colonial culture equally unsure of the value of its own traditions as it is of Western influence. While Lalami fails to hide the strings, she has no trouble placing her puppets in front of a forceful backdrop. They inhabit a realistic and modern world -- one Arab, African and Western. And in this world, she depicts their trials as part of a universal plight.

Hope is not a tale of desperate immigration, nor of destructive encroachment. It is a tale of human potential; a story about the desire for improvement, and the difficulties inherent in the pursuit of such a dream -- whether that dream be American, Moroccan, or just plain human.  However, we are lucky in this case it is Moroccan; it is a landscape Lalami knows quite well.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565124936
208 Pages