Leaving Tangier: A Novel

Paperback | March 31, 2009

byTahar Ben JellounTranslated byLinda Coverdale

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From one of the world's great writers, a breakthrough novel about leaving home for a better life

In his new novel, award-winning, internationally bestselling author Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the story of a Moroccan brother and sister making new lives for themselves in Spain. Azel is a young man in Tangier who dreams of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. When he meets Miguel, a wealthy Spaniard, he leaves behind his girlfriend, his sister, Kenza, and his mother, and moves with him to Barcelona, where Kenza eventually joins them. What they find there forms the heart of this novel of seduction and betrayal, deception and disillusionment, in which Azel and Kenza are reminded powerfully not only of where they've come from, but also of who they really are.

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From one of the world's great writers, a breakthrough novel about leaving home for a better life In his new novel, award-winning, internationally bestselling author Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the story of a Moroccan brother and sister making new lives for themselves in Spain. Azel is a young man in Tangier who dreams of crossing the Strai...

Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco, and immigrated to France in 1961. A novelist, essayist, critic, and poet, he is a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Républica, El País, and Panorama.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 7.05 × 5.09 × 0.59 inPublished:March 31, 2009Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143114654

ISBN - 13:9780143114659

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Read from the Book

1ToutiaIn Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath. Cats from the cemetery, the terraces, and the chief communal bread oven of the Marshan district gather round the café as if to watch the play unfolding there in silence, and fooling nobody. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold, enticing bees that eventually tumble in, a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinseled reverie. In the back of one room, two men meticulously prepare the key that opens the gates of departure, selecting leaves, then chopping them swiftly and efficiently. Neither man looks up. Leaning back against the wall, customers sit on mats and stare at the horizon as if seeking to read their fate. They look at the sea, at the clouds that blend into the mountains, and they wait for the twinkling lights of Spain to appear. They watch them without seeing them, and sometimes, even when the lights are lost in fog and bad weather, they see them anyway.Everyone is silent. Everyone listens. Perhaps she will show up this evening. She’ll talk to them, sing them the song of the drowned man who became a sea star suspended over the straits. They have agreed never to speak her name: that would destroy her, and provoke a whole series of misfortunes as well. So the men watch one another and say nothing. Each one enters his dream and clenches his fists. Only the waiters and the tea master, who owns the café, remain outside the circle, preparing and serving their fare with discretion, coming and going from terrace to terrace without disturbing anyone’s dream. The customers know one another but do not converse. Most of them come from the same neighborhood and have just enough to pay for the tea and a few pipes of kif. Some have a slate on which they keep track of their debt. As if by agreement, they keep silent. Especially at this hour and at this delicate moment when their whole being is caught up in the distance, studying the slightest ripple of the waves or the sound of an old boat coming home to the harbor. Sometimes, hearing the echo of a cry for help, they look at one another without turning a hair.Yes, she might appear, and reveal a few of her secrets. Conditions are favorable: a clear, almost white sky, reflected in a limpid sea transformed into a pool of light. Silence in the café; silence on all faces. Perhaps the precious moment has arrived . . . at last she will speak!Occasionally the men do allude to her, especially when the sea has tossed up the bodies of a few drowned souls. She has acquired more riches, they say, and surely owes us a favor! They have nicknamed her Toutia, a word that means nothing, but to them she is a spider that can feast on human flesh yet will sometimes tell them, in the guise of a beneficent voice, that tonight is not the night, that they must put off their voyage for a while.Like children, they believe in this story that comforts them and lulls them to sleep as they lean back against the rough wall. In the tall glasses of cold tea, the green mint has been tarnished black. The bees have all drowned at the bottom. The men no longer sip this tea now steeped into bitterness. With a spoon they fish the bees out one by one, laying them on the table and exclaiming, “Poor little drowned things, victims of their own greediness!”As in an absurd and persistent dream, Azel sees his naked body among other naked bodies swollen by seawater, his face distorted by salt and longing, his skin burnt by the sun, split open across the chest as if there had been fighting before the boat went down. Azel sees his body more and more clearly, in a blue and white fishing boat heading ever so slowly to the center of the sea, for Azel has decided that this sea has a center and that this center is a green circle, a cemetery where the current catches hold of corpses, taking them to the bottom to place them on a bank of seaweed. He knows that there, in this specific circle, a fluid boundary exists, a kind of separation between the sea and the ocean, the calm, smooth waters of the Mediterranean and the fierce surge of the Atlantic. He holds his nose, because staring so hard at these images has filled his nostrils with the odor of death, a suffocating, clinging, nauseating stench. When he closes his eyes, death begins to dance around the table where he sits almost every day to watch the sunset and count the first lights scintillating across the way, on the coast of Spain. His friends join him, to play cards in silence. Even if some of them share his obsession of leaving the country someday, they know, having heard it one night in Toutia’s voice, that they must not lose themselves in images that foster sadness.Azel says not a word about either his plan or his dream. People sense that he is unhappy, on edge, and they say he is bewitched by love for a married woman. They believe he has flings with foreign women and suspect that he wants their help to leave Morocco. He denies this, of course, preferring to laugh about it. But the idea of sailing away, of mounting a green-painted horse and crossing the sea of the straits, that idea of becoming a transparent shadow visible only by day, an image scudding at top speed across the waves—that idea never leaves him now. He keeps it to himself, doesn’t mention it to his sister, Kenza, still less to his mother, who worries because he is losing weight and smoking too much.Even Azel has come to believe in the story of she who will appear and help them to cross, one by one, that distance separating them from life, the good life, or death.

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONAcross the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangier lies a land that holds the possibility of a better life for Azel, a frustrated and poor young Moroccan: Spain—a refuge from the poverty and political corruption that infest Morocco. Azel’s only goal is, as he puts it, to “burn up” the ocean between the two countries. But, beguiled by this dream, Azel doesn’t anticipate what will happen when he tries to leave his past in the ashes. This is the conflict at the heart of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Leaving Tangier, his thirtieth book and a searing portrait of the immigrant journey toward a new life, one where terrible compromises are made, character is tested, and illusions are lost.Ben Jelloun’s novel sheds a cold light on a side of North African life that is often overlooked and at times unimaginable; he is unflinching in his commitment to expose the sacrifice and pain inherent in the struggle to rise above poverty and move within the Western world. Leaving Tangier centers on the paths of Azel and his sister, Kenza, as they seek to reinvent their lives, in Barcelona, and how their paths diverge once they get there. Each sibling’s ambition rests in the hands of Miguel, a mysterious wealthy older Spaniard, and a man generous and loving one moment, demanding and cruel the next. Miguel’s power lies in what he can offer the siblings—and in what he can take away. Azel and Kenza, both romantically linked with Miguel, are forced to face their own characters: They must define the limits of their ambitions, their integrity, and what lines they are willing to cross to achieve their goals.While Azel and Kenza are each seduced by the promise of Spain and what it represents, only one of the siblings achieves their dream; the other descends into nightmare. Through broken trust and broken hearts, sister and brother learn that personal reinvention can mean letting go of the best of one’s self. Yet Leaving Tangier doesn’t look only at Barcelona; it also reflects on those left behind in Morocco—the parents left hoping for the best, the children forced to work in factories, the aimless men falling prey to religious extremism. Dreams haunt everyone in the novel, sometimes leading to despair as they crumble, sometimes providing solace in times of woe. A masterful blend of poetic imagery and powerful language, Leaving Tangier is a meditation on power, destiny, and love. With its authentic rendering of people and cities both daring and dangerous, and its honest look into the complexities of the human heart, Ben Jelloun’s novel is a challenging read; it defies the conventions of polite society and dares to examine the limits of ambition and striving, expressing both sympathy and anger over a dark struggle that still exists today.ABOUT TAHAR BEN JELLOUNTahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco, and immigrated to France in 1961. A novelist, essayist, critic, and poet, he is a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Républica, El País, and Panorama. His novels for Penguin include This Blinding Absence of Light and The Last Friend.A CONVERSATION WITH TAHAR BEN JELLOUNQ. You write in French but your books have been translated into many languages. What do you see as the challenges of publishing your work in translation? What is the relationship between author and translator when re-creating a text in another language?Writing in a language that is not my mother tongue occasionally produces phrases or even turns of thought which are unusual in French. Some of my translators, particularly those from Nordic countries, often ask me to make clear how my characters are related. Others, like the Japanese, ask me to translate some Arabic words or specify the location of certain geographical places. In general, those familiar with North Africa and the Mediterranean do not ask me many questions. The only translation I can read and correct is the Arabic, when it is not one pirated by Syrian publishers.Q. Is Leaving Tangier a reflection of the current situation in that city? If so, is Spain still the dominant destination for Moroccans? Do you see any shifts in the pathways of North African immigration?Tangier is a port, a border town where one can see the Spanish coastline. It is not just Moroccans who come to Tangier to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. It is mainly the south Saharan Africans who started to come to Tangier in the early nineties. Now there are fewer and fewer. Monitoring of both sides, and Spanish-Moroccan police collaboration, has discouraged many candidates for exile. They now go to the Canary Islands. Morocco fights against illegal immigration because the main victims are illegal immigrants themselves, who are being scammed by Mafia smugglers.Q. The novelist Georges Simenon once said, “I am at home everywhere and nowhere. I am never a stranger and I never quite belong.” Do you believe this statement is an apt description of the immigrant experience? As a Moroccan in France, what has been your own experience as an expatriate? Do you remain the person you were in your former country, or do you reinvent yourself in your embraced nation?I understand the position of Georges Simenon, but I am at home in Morocco, without a doubt. In France it is another thing; I feel good in France, but sometimes I feel foreign. It depends on the political situations. And yet, France has given me a lot, and if I criticize it, it is because I am attached to it. For an immigrant, life is very different. He is a symbol of the human condition unloved, not recognized, a condition that places each human being at the level of his ability to work. Being poor and foreign is not conducive to well-being. In France, immigration is a direct result of colonization. This is not an enviable condition. My novel Leaving Tangier has a message for the young: Immigration is not a pleasure trip; it is not a fun weekend; it is hard and difficult, because there is racism, humiliation, and loneliness.Q. Azel’s sexuality is a vehicle for power, used both by him and against him. Do you see his sexuality as something Azel can adapt to serve his goal of emigration, or is his sexuality more a statement on the exploitation of his desperation to leave Tangier? Is this trade of one’s own body for opportunity common?Azel is a young heterosexual man. He likes to make love to women, but his desire to leave his country and find work is stronger than the assumption of his sexuality. At least in the beginning he thinks he can assume the two sexualities. Soon he realizes that by selling his body, he is losing his soul. He cannot move from the bed of a woman to that of a man; he tries to but ends by failing and losing himself. This form of prostitution exists everywhere there is poverty. It is not more common in Morocco than elsewhere.Q. Do you see the characters in your novel as disappointed and disillusioned more by their own actions or by the actions of others? If Kenza and Azel are lured by the dream of a new life in Spain, are they also betrayed by it—or by themselves?I think they are disappointed in themselves. Especially Azel, who is intelligent but is overwhelmed by remorse. He cannot stay the course because he is not cynical enough; he is innocent, and that is why he fails at everything. Kenza was disappointed by the Turk, but she is strong enough to move on; in any case, stronger than her brother. She is a positive character whom I like. The two are examples of the complexity of life when fate is diverted from its path.Q. Your novels are all brutally honest and occasionally disturbing. What reaction has your work received, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East? Is there a marked difference in the response from readers and critics in Europe as opposed to North America?This novel was widely read and discussed in Morocco, where I introduced it upon its release. I do not know if it has caused young people tempted by exile to reflect. The role of literature is limited; a novel cannot change things, but at best it makes people think. Leaving Tangier was well received in countries very different from Morocco, like Finland, Sweden, and Korea, and I hope it will help American readers to better understand what happens, for example, at the Mexican border. The problems are the same; only the countries are different.Q. Leaving Tangier is a wrenching and transportive read, but was it equally emotionally affecting to write? What are your relationships with your characters?This is a novel that I rewrote three times by changing the construction. I worked a lot, because I wanted to reach a level where any reader from any country can identify with one of my characters. I remember the only advice Jean Genet had given me: “In writing, think of the reader; take him by the hand and tell him your story.” To think of the reader is to respect him. I like my characters, because I identify with each one and put myself in his skin like an actor. Fortunately, after the publication of the book I forget.Q. Many people anxious to flee to the West are taken advantage of by characters such as Al Afia, smugglers who make a profit off others’ despair; women are especially vulnerable to the dangers involved in illegal immigration. Remarkably, Kenza navigates this path more successfully than Azel, who flounders. Why did you choose to present the siblings this way?Women in Morocco are more interesting, more combative, more demanding. Kenza could have chosen the easy solution and fallen into prostitution, but she has values and principles and is realistic at the same time. That’s why she does better than her brother, who will not be strong enough to withstand the difficulties of life.Q. Edward Said argued that literature and criticism from the West about the East creates false impressions of Arab and Eastern countries and reinforces a divide between the cultures. Do you agree with this? Where do you feel you are within this divide? What cultural concerns do you feel your work addresses?He is right. The view that the West imposed on the Arab world has always been one of superiority, resulting in colonization. However, there have been very talented Orientalists, honest people like Jacques Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Louis Massignon, etc. They tried to talk about the Arab world from the inside. They spoke Arabic and were acquainted with the basic texts of the language. Today we are witnessing a vision based on prejudice and mediocrity. Arab culture is devalued, poorly understood, even ignored. This is because of political problems and nondemocratic leaders, and then also because of the oil that has distorted the true meanings of this civilization.Q. Could you discuss the character of Moha and the significance of the timing of his appearance halfway through the novel?Moha is my favorite character—my double who runs through all of my books. He is speech, the voice of justice; he is my Zarathustra! He speaks frankly, because he is regarded as insane or wise. He intervenes at the end to give the novel its literary and surrealist color.Q, This is your thirtieth book—how are you able to be so prolific? What is your writing routine? How do you prepare for each work? Of all the forms in which you write, which do you feel suits you best?I work every day; it is a daily discipline. I have many stories to tell, because I come from a society that has a great wealth of tales; it’s enough to just listen to people talking in a café to put one to work. I am proud and happy to belong to the Moroccan society because it feeds my imagination and provides me with good subjects. Right now I’m working on a book calledMorocco-Novel, where I try to say everything, just tell what I see, what I hear. I’ve been working on it for two years, and I still have a year to go. It is inexhaustible.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThe characters refer to crossing the Strait of Gibraltar as “burning up” the ocean. What does this expression convey about the feelings Moroccans have toward the journey between Spain and Tangiers?Does Kenza achieve her goals in Barcelona? Why does she return to Morocco?What is the appeal of extremist religions such as the radical Islamist organization that attempts to recruit Azel? Why did they target him? Why does he react the way he does?Is Miguel a sympathetic character? What is his purpose in the novel? Does he ultimately help or hurt the siblings?Can Kenza and Azel really leave Tangiers? They physically leave, but what about culturally and emotionally? What examples from the novel support your opinion?Is it possible to reinvent yourself? If not, why? If so, is it necessary to leave your friends, home, or country in order to do so?Who is the old woman in Malika’s dream? What was your reaction to her death?The United States is a country built by immigrants, yet many people feel the country is currently plagued by illegal immigration. Is there ever any justification for illegal immigration? Do you sympathize with Azel and Kenza’s desire to leave? Would their stories have been different had they immigrated to the United States? Would your response to their situation have been different?The perspective from which Leaving Tangier is told switches from character to character, chapter to chapter. How does each chapter shift the development of the overall story line of the novel?Discuss the final chapter. What does it mean? Why does each character return in the manner that he or she does?The image of fire occurs frequently throughout Leaving Tangier. How does it function as a metaphor for the novel? Why is Al Afia’s name appropriate for his work as a smuggler? What is the “ultimate flame” mentioned in the last line of the book?

Editorial Reviews

"A brave, unflinching look at the issues underlying economic migration from North Africa-and the hard choices people make between roots and wings." -The Economist "[A] penetrating tale." -The New York Times Book Review "Ben Jelloun is arguably Morocco's greatest living author, whose impressive body of work combines intellect and imagination in magical fusion. . . . Leaving Tangier is a wholly original feat of form and imagination. . . . There is unexpected humour jostling alongside the horror, in magical-realist passages illuminating the clash of traditional and modern." -The Guardian "Artful and compassionate, Leaving Tangier evokes a milieu of self-exile and great expectations." -The Washington Post "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 . . . where sex amplifies the degradations of postcolonial economic reality that Leaving Tangier lands like a hammer blow. . . . Leaving Tangier would read like a blunt political instrument . . . were Ben Jelloun not such a wonderfully specific writer. Many scenes of agonizing depravity convey the desperation of poverty. . . . From such bracing particulars, Ben Jelloun fashions political fiction of great urgency." -John Freeman, Bookforum "Tahar Ben Jelloun lifts the veil on an astounding world of a thousand and one nights." -Le Point "Of the thirty books Tahar Ben Jelloun has written, this is undoubtedly one of the most courageous."-Le Monde des Livres