Friday, February 9, 2018

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Before and After. That's how the world divides. Until he is nineteen, Youssef does not know himself to be a secret son. When heavy rain floods a Casablanca slum called Hay An Najat, he views it as another mektoub, a fate that would "split someone's life into Before and After, just as his father's death had done to him."

Youssef's mother Rachida can never return to the time before she fell for her employer's assurances that he'd leave his sick and pregnant wife to marry her. Youssef can never return to the time before he learned his father was alive, wealthy and living nearby. Nor, once his mother has explained why she raised him as an orphan, can either of them go back to the relationship they had before the mother revealed to her son the stark choices that made up her history.

Neither can Youssef's real father, Nebil Amrani, block out the knowledge that he has a son. On discovering he'd impregated his pregnant wife's maid, he'd let Rachida go, assuming she'd obey his instructions to have an abortion.

For Nebil's daughter Amal, the news that she has a brother is almost as upsetting as her parents' demands that she return home to Morocco. Once she's completed her degree in America, they expect her to leave her American boy friend to return "home." Torn between cultures, loves and loyalties, Amal seeks out her brother, only to have access blocked by another wall of lies.

For 19-year-old Youssef, the shocking revelation that his father is alive proves too much. Which parent should he choose? How can he abandon the mother who has sacrificed so much to give him a good life to follow the wealthy father who seems thrilled to learn he has a son?

Forced into a series of false choices, Youssef is alienated from the life he knew Before. Bewildered, unemployed, and powerless, he falls into despair. He had wanted to be an actor since childhood. Yet until it is too late, he he has no idea of the ghastly role he is manipulated into playing, nor the dreadful drama that will come After.

Author Laila Lalami reveals another Casablanca that lies behind the smooth facades of the touristic hotels that host elegant international conferences. While poor Moroccans can barely afford bread, wealthy businessmen and corrupt government officials display their expensive cars, clothing and watches as they sell off their country's resources to foreign companies. Meanwhile, tourists are encouraged to visit Morocco, "the most beautiful country in the world."

In Nabil's hotel, the reality of life for ordinary Moroccans is kept well-hidden. A strict employee dress code means that while bellhops wear identical white jellabahs and red fezzes, other men must wear suits. Skullcaps, tribal tattoos, and "qualms" about alcohol are not allowed. Women in headscarves may work only behind closed doors, invisible to the guests. In this "sanitized" Morocco, "the restaurant was called Al Minzah, but the menus were printed in French."

Language is deployed in a complex system of social codes designed to maintain the status quo. Nabil normally speaks French with his wife, "using Darija Arabic only with the maid and the driver." But they resort to Arabic in front of their daughter's boy friend because they do "not want to risk being understood, in case Fernando spoke some French." In the end, keeping up his elaborate facades cannot protect Nabil from the sharp insight he must face: "life had caught up with him and dealt him a sentence of unendurable fairness."

With a sure touch, Lalami portrays ethnic, cultural, and economic gulfs in Moroccan society. Using judiciously chosen words, she describes The Party that arises in the slums, recruiting young men who have no income and nothing to do. At university, she baldly lists the divisions: the "headscarf and beard faction," with its girls looking "at once virtuous and threatening," the Marx-and-Lenin group, the Berber Student Alliance, and the Saharawis, who rally round the coffee machines under "a banner in support of the independence of the Sarharan territories." Skillfully, she deploys words like shame, blood, honour, respect, insider, betrayal, hope, and "appearances to keep up." And of course, there is always mektoub, fate.

This novel brilliantly evokes contemporary Morocco. Reading it, I learned a bit more about the country, and felt I was moving around the different areas of Casablanca with the characters. This story could have taken place in many other settings; the real power lies in its universal themes.

Secret Son was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2010. In 2014, this talented young novelist published The Moor's Account, which won several prestigious prizes.

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