Dangerous Crossings – Two Novels Tackle Arab Immigration West

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
By Laila Lalami
Harcourt, 2005

The Mismatched Braid
By Weam Namou
Hermiz, 2006

Let’s face it: immigration is hell. It’s even worse when you don’t have the proper visas and paperwork and are slipping across borders in borrowed vans or swimming to a shore teeming with the border patrol. These two novels attempt to unpack the nameless, faceless immigrants heading west from Arab countries and to provide some insight into their lives. Poverty and resignation loom large, as do the failures of globalization and the often-naïve dreams of “a better life.”

Laila Lalami’s first novel, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” explores the fate of four strangers – two men and two women, one with three children in tow – who find themselves together on a rubber raft, crossing the 14 kilometers of inky black sea that divide Morocco and Spain. In a series of sparse vignettes, Lalami sketches the tale of each of the refugees and the quiet desperation that spurred each to attempt the passage to Spain. Equally important is what happens afterwards, and Lalami allows these stories to unfold gracefully and without judgment.

Two of the characters manage to elude the police, cross the melting point and blend into Spain, with all its idiosyncrasies and far less promise than they had each imagined. Ironically, the two who are caught and returned to Morocco find more peace once they are back on native shores. Their lives are still hard, but not impossible – and the Spain they barely touched no longer casts its magical spell.

Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, tackles critical themes including poverty, domestic violence and the sheer weight of daily life in Morocco, ingredients of hopelessness shared by millions of people around the globe. Nonetheless, the stories are far from heavy-handed; she is not afraid to poke fun at the superstitions and foibles of her native land, relishing the ironic twists that fate delivers.

At the same time, her stories make it abundantly clear that the life of a refugee is far from rosy. One young woman, Faten, who had been a fanatical Muslim back “home,” winds up a prostitute, while a young man barely earns enough to eke out a living in his new European home.

Lalami is an accomplished writer, critic and scholar, whose literary blog, moorishgirl.com, is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary fiction. This book of stories is compelling and tantalizing. One yearns to learn more about these believable, achingly ordinary people and the future adventures that await them. And there may be hope! In a 2005 interview, Lalami explained that she had grown quite fond of the characters and might possibly revive them in a subsequent work.

Weam Namou, who was born in Iraq and came to the United States at age 10, has written a novel about another immigrant, Amel Aboona, whose odyssey takes him from Baghdad to Athens, from Greece to Canada, and finally across the border into the United States.
Where Lalami’s prose is sparse and occasionally leaves too much to the imagination, Namou’s work is far more intricate and detailed, perhaps too much so. She tends to spend too much time on her characters’ external details and their inconsequential dialogues, while failing to explore the deeper aspects of their souls and the motivations behind their often irrational actions.

Her main characters lack urgency and drive. Amel’s actions, and even his exile, are driven by his overbearing family, yet he fails to liberate himself from them – even when thousands of miles away. As readers on the sidelines, we silently encourage him to mature, take matters into his own hands and show some initiative, but he disappoints again and again.

Dunia, the young Iraqi-American who travels to Greece to study and there meets her cousin Amel, also fails to flower into the intriguing character she could become. We know of her obsession for Amel, but her feelings for him remain vague: does she love him, or is she just using him for comfort as she explores the world, free from her family’s gaze? She has an independent streak, but repeatedly reverts to the confines of what is expected of her.

The book provides a general glimpse into the challenges faced by Arab immigrants in Greece, but fails to introduce even one Greek character in any detail. 
The characters that dominate the novel are interesting, but not fully developed. Namou might consider adopting Lalami’s approach of telling the stories from different points of view thus providing the reader more insight into each of these characters and the complex, compelling circumstances of their lives.
Reviewers have widely praised Lalami’s book (which has been translated into four languages) but a worrisome undercurrent runs through some of the reviews. Several reviewers suggest her book serves as “a timely look at Muslim lives” (Glamour), while others see this bracing postmodern work as a portrait of a stagnant and miserable Morocco. Clearly, this was not Lalami’s intent, particularly given her obvious effort to represent the range and diversity of Moroccan lives.

As more works of Arab fiction are translated into English, and more Arab-American writers produce stories of their own, perhaps Western readers will abandon this tendency to seize upon one work as all-encompassing and representative of a diverse and rich civilization.


This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid