Laila Lalami's name on the cover and the hint of sly humour the title suggests.
Fouad Laroui's work is not widely available in English. He left Morocco as a young man to pursue further studies in France, and now teaches literature in the Netherlands. Lalami helped have this collection translated.
Shot through with sharp yet gentle ribbing, these versatile works contain many references to history and politics. The hilarious title story features a tall Moroccan government economist whose pants are stolen shortly before he is to attend an early-morning meeting in Brussels to buy wheat; he's obliged to show up in charity shop golf pants. The play "Fifteen Minutes as a Philosopher" delivers drama in a dozen pages. The final short piece is a chilling nightmare.
"Dislocation" employs a bittersweet tone, and "What was not said in Brussels" is also narrated in a serious voice. Like so many writers from his region, Laroui studied abroad and lives away from his original country, and these stories allude to the poignant feelings of dislocation that result. "Why," wonders one Moroccan, now married to a Dutch woman and living in Utrecht, "does man distance himself from home...make himself a foreigner?"
"Bannini's Bodyguard," "The Invention of Dry Swimming" and "Born Nowhere" evoke student days in the Cafe de l'Univers in Casablanca. On a hot and slow-moving afternoon, the table is littered with glasses of coffee, mint tea, and pomegranate juice. While half a dozen young men talk philosophy, make jokes, and tell stories that poke fun at the antics of the government, the reader sits invisibly listening, unnoticed like the cat who sleeps on a nearby chair.
In the course of their conversation, the students look back on the days "when you could drink a beer without triggering a heavy fire of fatwas, without provoking questions from Parliament." Setting the context, one storyteller reminds his audience that in the early seventies, when all matters "related to the Palace made the masses tremble with fear." This was a time when the man who buttoned the shirt cuffs of Hassan II "had more power than a minister," and the king's bootblack commanded generals.
In the context of dry swimming, the youths also wonder why, if everything is divine creation, people "rhapsodize and roar...when faced with a waterfall, a beautiful tree, or a cloud, and say nothing when staring at a pebble or listening to a braying donkey."
Getting back to pants, the writer waxes poetic as he evokes the vicissitudes of history, trade, and social life through a pair of pants worn by a character called Jilali. "Originally corduroy," they've been modified by "rubbing against the back of CTM bus seats...the abrasion suffered from rough chairs" and "entryways waiting for a door to open." The trousers have also spent time sitting on the sidewalk, "waiting for the forces of Law and Order to hand over an identity card," and made contact with "the trees on the boulevard; the stadium bleachers; the deteriorated, discouraged walls" and even "the asphalt, if there was a skirmish."
This veritable poetry of pants is followed by a similar flight of fancy on Cherki's shirt, which begins "in the age of the Hittites, falling cleanly on Assyrian buttocks," and going downhill from there to reach its sadly worn condition of today.
Thanks to my students at SFU for suggesting the idea of a reading list, now under construction. Fouad Laroui will definitely be on it.