An Intellectual Moment

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Last week closed with the usual once-a-month school graduation ceremony and party for all students. I passed my exam and will officially be moving from Advanced Arabic 1 to Advanced 2. Anyways, I came home from the celebration to a bit of a surprise. There was a strong farm animal stench when I opened the door. I recalled how my host family had been talking about the goat or sheep of some sort that they will be slaughtering on the upcoming biggest holiday of the year, “Ayeed al-Adha.” But I wasn’t totally prepared to open the kitchen door and find a live Ram –big horns and all– dipping its head into some munchies in the cat feeder…
Since the holiday means we will get off school Monday and Tuesday, I thought I could take a bit of time to do some pleasure reading in English. Well, to satiate my guilt about reading instead of working on grad school applications, studying languages, or preparing lesson plans for the orphanage, I chose a book that I expected would combine a captivating story with cultural learning about Morocco. I have an American friend to thank for lending me the book: “Secret Son,” by Moroccan writer, Laila Lalami, who lives in the U.S., and writes fiction about Morocco in English.

It was an easy read that took me only a day to get through, mainly because I was so enticed by the story that I didn’t want to take a break from it. Laila Lalami is like a next-generation Fatima Mernissi (transformed into a fiction writer), continuing the tradition of talented, liberal, Moroccan female writers, who know both how to tell a good story and to poignantly analyze the underlying societal issues and questions of her country. There are also strong parallels to be drawn with Alaa Al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building,” which provides the same kind of critique-through-fiction of very much similar societal issues, but in Egypt instead of Morocco. Some parallels could also be drawn with parts of Khaled Hoseeini’s novels about Afghanistan, especially the secret/illegitimate son or daughter concept.  I am definitely going to ask my friend for Lalami’s other book, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.”

On the downside, despite Lalami’s acclaim abroad, I was a bit surprised when I mentioned her to some Moroccan friends and found that only one had heard of her. My more traditional host family definitely hasn’t heard of her. It’s also interesting that she chose to write in English, unlike Al-Aswany who wrote in Arabic. And I wonder why Lalami’s books have only been translated into French and not to Arabic. Maybe the Arabic translation is forthcoming? Who knows?

Recommended books:
1. Morocco: Laila Lalami, Secret Son
2. Morocco: Fatima Mernissi, Tales of a Harem Girlhood
3. Egypt: Alaa Al-Aswany, The Youcobian Building
4. Afghanistan: Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner

"Secret Son" by Laila Lalami

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