Leaving Tangier By Tahar Ben Jelloun, trans. Linda Coverdale ARCADIA Pounds 7.99 (229pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop 0870 079 8897
Forget the Morocco of holiday resorts, luscious oranges and high- priced footballers. Forget even being on the shuttle run of infamous US/UK renditions. Instead, Tahar Ben Jelloun gives his readers a Morocco seen from within his native coastal Tangier, forever looking north to Spain, while feeding on the cultural influences of the east and southern Mediterranean.
In a style reminiscent of the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi, Leaving Tangier interweaves chapters as if in verses of a ghazal, alternating the names and stories of the players in a daily drama. The drama is that of the birds of passage who look to burn their boats in taking flight to the land of Ibn al-Araby, the Iberia that for seven centuries was a land ruled by Moors and populated with cities where the monotheistic faiths not only lived side by side but shared and debated the three Books on which their faiths depend. Today, however, moros is exclusively a term of abuse, reserved for the Maghrebi adventurers who reach Spanish shores to run the gauntlet of capture by la Migra or torture, often by foreign fundamentalists hungry for new recruits.
Azels story is that of a contemporary everyman. After failed attempts at escaping the lack of opportunity, creativity, ambition even a livelihood in his home country, he finally allows himself to be bought by a wealthy gallerist and brought to live in Barcelona. Too late he discovers that you cannot sell your body without also selling the soul within it, and so he begins a new downward spiral of reversals and compromises involving not only his family on both sides of the Straits, but all of those with whom he becomes involved.
Ben Jelloun threads a tale of casual violence and expedient deceptions with another, about the life of the imagination. There is unexpected humour jostling alongside the …