Tahar ben-Jelloun was born in Fez in 1944, emigrated to France in 1962. He is the author of twenty-come books, including The Blinding Absence of Light about desert concentration camps for dissidents and suspected dissidents maintained by Moroccan King Hassan II (1929-99) of the Alaouite dynasty, a book which won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004. His novel La Nuit Sacrée won the Prix Goncourt in 1987.
Like an Imamura movie (“Pigs and Battleships” particularly) Leaving Tangier starts out with a male protagonist, the educated, unemployed, handsome Azel, who is gradually supplanted by a woman, his sister, Kenza.
At the start of Leaving Tangier, the reader learns that “Azel will do anything to get to Spain. It was an obsession, a kind of madness that ate at him day and night: how could he get out, how could he escape.” His cousin Nouriddene and 22 others have just drowned when an overloaded boat sank off the Spanish coast.
Azel’s ticket out is an art dealer from Barcelona named Miguel who maintains a house in Tangier, and has had earlier tempestuous affairs with predominantly heterosexual Moroccan men. Azel is willing to do what it takes, though the cost is higher than he imagined, beginning with being brutally raped by two Tangier policemen.
“Men they’re not my thing,” Azel confides to a friend, “but when you got to, you got to: close your eyes and think of your girlfriend, it’s a question of imagination, and then remember what it’s going to get for you, it’s just being practical.”
Anyway, falling in love is a luxury for those without income and without anywhere to take a willing sexual partner (without even considering the obstacles of the tight surveillance kept on wives and daughters in North African societies). The housing shortages in Latin America and residues of the circum-Mediterranean honor cult make similar difficulties for young males in Latin America, as I have written about elsewhere. And, as for being gay for pay, there is a positive will not to know — “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to think about it,” and inside the family, sex in any form was not talked about —, as I have also written about elsewhere.
Miguel does import Azel to Barcelona and keeps Azel in grand style despite knowing that Azel does not love him and prefers women: he has relationships with two Moroccan women there. Azel cannot manage the privileged captivity, becoming petulant and abusing alcohol and kif. As the harshness of his life in Tangier fades from memory, Azel becomes less and less able to do what he has to do to keep his end of the bargain. (Miguel and, even more, his protective housekeeper have seen the increasingly brazen misbehavior before.)
Miguel converts to Islam in order to marry Azel’s sister Kenta and bring her into citizenship in the European Union. I guess the reverse side of the gay for pay emigration of Azel is the unconsummated marriage of Kenta and Miguel. Unlike her brother, however, Kenta gets a job. Miguel has no sexual interest in her, though is concerned about her romantic illusions about an undocumented Turk named Nazim.
Ben-Jelloun also portrays a girl, Malika, slightly younger than Azel who also desperately wanted to leave for Europe but was ground down in a factory (processing shrimp from Thailand en route to Europe), and a number of other characters, including a drug ganglord in Tangier, a Cameroonian osteopath with whom Azel strikes up a conversation, a friend who is disappeared into an Islamist training camp in Pakistan after trying to help a young woman evade an arranged marriage, and the devoted mother of Azel and Kenta.
Although not all that much happens, the novel is episodic, with chapters on various characters juxtaposed. The sad story of Malika seems to me to get in the way of the narrative arc involving Azel, Kenta, Miguel, and the other relationships of Kenta and Miguel. It seems to me that Ben-Jelloun tires of juggling the many characters and throws them away rather brusquely (some just disappear from the narrative) and brings the book to an end with survivors rushing to Morocco upon the death of King Hassan II. Miguel had ties to the court, but none of the Moroccans had shown any devotion to their king (and I know that Ben-Jelloun has been outspokenly critical about the human rights violations of the kingdom).
For me the primary interest of the book is the perspective of a client/boytoy of the white/northern patrons. Most of the discourse (one could include Joe Orton’s diary sexploits) is from those with the money to get the sex they want with Moroccan studs (as earlier generations of northern Europeans did from those on the north side of the Mediterranean). The book is also good at showing the complexity of motivations… and misunderstandings in intercultural relationships (including the Kenta/Nazim one between Muslims from different backgrounds).
There are terrorism links that I will not reveal (rising late in the book).
Although the text is only 261 pages, I found it easy to put down and did so many times, though I read the last half straight through.
Linda Cloverdale’s translation won the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and presumably made the book more accessible to the IMPAC Dublin judges.
©18 October 2009, Stephen O. Murray