Tahar ben Jelloun’s leaving tangier reads like an elegy for the hopes of the youth of Tangier and Morocco. Azel, short for Azz el Arab, (the pride, the glory of the Arabs) is highly educated in the law, which makes his reflections on the corruption in Tangier and Morocco reverberate through the alleys and crummy bars from which he observes his country. Although well-educated, Azel is unemployed, living with his mother and being supported by his sister, Kenza, who worked her way through nursing school. Azel dreams of crossing to Spain at any cost, of crossing to a better life. However, he has seen what can happen when young men and women try to cross illegally. His friend and cousin, who was also his sister’s fiance, drowned on such a failed mission. Azel drinks, whores, and smokes kif to escape the reality of his life and to bolster his sense of masculinity, which is terribly challenged by his lack of gainful employment. He talks about the outlet offered to young men like himself by extremists, but the Islam of Azel and his family and friends is largely cultural, like the Christianity of many Americans.
After a brutal scene in which Azel is repeatedly raped by two policemen, Azel finds his way to Spain the person of Miguel, a well-to-do homosexual Spaniard. Miguel sees heartbreak down the road in his relationship with Azel, but, experiencing his own crisis of identity due to age, cannot stop himself from becoming involved nonetheless. Azel’s mother and sister encourage his relationship with Miguel. They are willing to turn a blind eye to what this ticket to Spain, which they hope will become their tickets, will cost their son and brother. Azel’s friends are less discreet about what the relationship means, but covet the escape that Azel’s submission to Miguel brings. Azel defends his masculinity to his bar and whoring friends by affirming that even with a man, he is the man. His rape is never again discussed within the confines of the novel by other characters or in his own self reflections. The text colludes in his repression of his penetration as he fights to retain his masculine identity.
After some time with Miguel in Spain, Azel’s sexuality becomes blurred, even to himself, and he becomes impotent with both men and women. With impotence comes depression and he spirals downward as he loses his sense of self. Even the arrival of his sister, Kenza, who has married Miguel in order to enter and work in Spain, does not revive him and he seeks his Moroccan identity among the illegals of the seamier side of Miguel’s hometown.
Kenza thrives, having found a job and her own apartment. She falls in love and keeps contact with her Moroccan identity by dancing two nights a week in an ethnic restaurant. However, even Kenza falls prey to depression when she discovers that her lover is married and, in her mind, all hopes of marriage, a family and stability have vanished.
Both siblings attempt suicide. Azel fails, but finds his end, left like a sacrificial lamb, at the hands of the Muslim extremists he was informing against to stay out of trouble with the Spanish police. At the end of the novel Kenza and Miguel, along with several of the supporting characters of the novel, join a boat of death that promises to take them back to Tangier.
This is a novel of no hope. No one finds a happy ending, even those who realized their dreams of coming to a new world and making a new start. Leaving Tangier is not Under the Tuscan Sun, where an unsatisfied American divorcee finds spiritual fulfillment and love in the beautiful Italian ruins with the help of pasta. For ben Jelloun, those who leave Morocco are in self-imposed exile. As he thinks about Azel’s fate, Miguel muses that “there was something terrifying about the lineliness of immigration, a kind of descent into a void, a tunnel of shadows that warped reality….Exile revealed the true dimensions of calamity” (239).
Perhaps this is because Azel and Kenza leave Tangier to escape a life without any hope to a place in which they expect little, but see it as better than what they are leaving behind. They leave poverty and despair for slightly less poverty and, ultimately, more despair. ben Jelloun paints a dark picture of modern North Africa and the situation for young people created by the governments and the economies of those countries. Perhaps we should read it as a cautionary tale. Azel, the glory of the Arabs, whores himself to Europe for economic improvement and becomes spiritually bankrupt. This reading of the novel creates an interesting lens through which to view ben Jelloun’s own story as a Moroccan who emigrated to France in 1961 at the age of 17.
Surprising, perhaps, for American readers unfamiliar with North Africa except through news stories from western media, ben Jelloun’s characters are young people with whom many American young people can identify. They pursue vices common to western young people–sex, alcohol and drugs. Muslims extremism does not dominate ben Jelloun’s Tangier or his Spain. It is a player on the board, but simply one of many.
ben Jelloun’s other works, The Last Friend and This Blinding Absence of Light, seem to further explore his interest in masculinity and the challenge to maintain one’s definition as a man in the cultures of N. Africa.
ben Jelloun, Tahar. Leaving Tangier. Trans. Linda Coverdale. Penguin. 2009.