14 April 2009

Leaving Tangier, Tahar Ben Jelloun

Likely the most notable aspect of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s newest novel to be translated from French into English, Leaving Tangier (2009), is his unique storytelling through the series of “character sketches.” People of all backgrounds and experiences and relations to Tangier are made real and alive through their speech, reflections, and cultural mannerisms. Most of their tales are quite tragic: stories of prostitution, drug-dealing, and trafficking run rampant in Tangier’s seedy coastline locale. New people are introduced abruptly; their narratives are then weaved together through the highly ambivalent relationship between Azel and Miguel, separately from Morocco and Spain, who together represent the portal city of Tangier. Leaving Tangier shows Tahar Ben Jelloun’s developed understanding of what it feels like to straddle two nations and how difficult it is to completely sever the ties to one’s homeland. His knowledge of expatriation is as vast as his characters are numerous.

In this novel of simultaneous descent and brief bouts of enlightenment, migrants are torn about their past and national identity. Azel, the protagonist, is described at one point as “street trash” by his rich Spanish “lover,” who is all too willing to take the Moroccan man’s body even without receving his heart. Their acts flow parallel to the Strait of Gibraltar, claiming the Moroccan lives that sorely strove to reach new prospects in the glamorous land over the water. Drowning becomes a purgatory move in this sense, cleansing years of raw history.

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