From the dingiest of slums to the elegance of privileged Casablancan society, Laila Lalami brings contemporary Morocco to life in her debut novel, Secret Son. Literature like this helps to form a bridge between different cultures, fostering understanding of the unknown and illustrating the similarities between all of us, whether we live in poverty or wealth, in a Christian, Islamic, or secular society. In the end, we’re all just trying to get by, and perhaps hoping for something that makes the next day worth experiencing.
Youssef El Mekki has been raised by his widowed mother in Hay An Najat, a slum of Casablanca. Though they have little except the roof over their heads, Youssef’s mother has raised her son to be honest and thoughtful, and even to dream of a life outside of the slum. Every week he goes to see a foreign film in the decrepit local theater, his sole luxury. Youssef dreams of a life with Hollywood endings, where heroes and villains are easily identifiable, as is the appropriate young woman the hero should end up with. Secret Son is rife with role-playing worthy of the silver screen, but Youssef is not as clever at identifying acting as he would like.
There are few possibilities for young men in Lalami’s Morocco, and even fewer for Youssef and his friends, with their bad address. Following a freak flood in the area, a group of Islamic extremists comes to aid the locals and surreptitiously gain a toehold in furthering their own agenda. Of the coming storm, Lalami writes, “It was raining a little more steadily now, and the clouds hung low, shrinking the horizon in all directions.” For young men with few prospects, the possibility of belonging to the Party, as it is called, can be appealing when everything else is going wrong.
Drawn into a student protest inspired by pending bus fare hikes, Youssef finds himself in the middle of the action though he doesn’t believe that the protest will accomplish anything. Ribs broken by police simply for being in the wrong spot at the wrong time, Youssef can’t go to a hospital for help.
Seeking assistance from the Party when there is nowhere else to turn, Youssef becomes a tool when his photo is suddenly snapped as evidence of police brutality and though he is assured that his identity will be concealed, his words are twisted in the accompanying article and his face is identifiable. The Party leader’s “words were like a labyrinth in which Youssef was losing his way. His anger blinded him; he could not find the exit on his own and instead began to take each turn that presented itself without question.” A constant theme through Secret Son is that of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of being out of control of one’s destiny.
Struggling to carve out his own opportunities and escape the slums, Youssef yearns to fit in with one or another of the student groups on campus during his first year of university. A wealthy young woman named Alia catches his eye, and he longs to be seen as the person he is rather than the location he calls home. Youssef’s friend Amin warns him, “‘Everyone should know the size of his teapot.’” Amin means that there is no use hoping to fit into a lifestyle one was not born into, and the possibility of social mobility is an illusion.
Youssef believes his prayers have been answered (even if he is something of an unobservant Muslim) when he discovers that his father is not dead after all. A wealthy businessman, Nabil Amrani has a family and an opulent lifestyle, but no son to call his heir. Nabil takes Youssef out of the slums and offers him many of the things he has dreamed of, without considering how he can acknowledge Youssef as his own flesh and blood in a conservative society.
Granted all the opportunities he has been craving, and the easy money he covets, Youssef’s landscape is transformed overnight from one where cigarettes are purchased individually from the corner shop to one where a job, plentiful food, and easily-impressed young women are easy to come by. Youssef still feels himself an actor playing a role, however, as he attempts to fit into Nabil’s world.
The loss of control now that he has handed himself over to his father, who wants a son to be proud of, makes Youssef nervous but he remains hopeful. Nabil is accustomed to running his life and business as he sees fit, and doesn’t consider Youssef’s life so far.
Youssef felt helpless ... he was his father’s creature, waiting to be trained before it could be shown to the world. Yet he was ready to put up with all of it if, in the end, his father kept his word. There was no reason not to believe him.
Lalami’s story of a young man torn between family members and betrayed by the God for whom he is finally tempted to sacrifice everything is tender even as it is horrifying. The author possesses a keen sense of careful phrasing and precise language as she scripts the events that shape Youssef’s passage into manhood.
Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco writes that Lalami’s “carefully wrought characters allow us [to] lift the veil of media headlines and gain a greater empathy and understanding of the competing protagonists in today’s sundered world.” Authors like Lalami provide a gateway through which readers can hope to understand more about the driving forces in disparate global cultures. Like Youssef’s, our human needs are so very basic: enough food to live, and a family (in whatever form) to accept us as we are.
Lalami blogs about writing in her third language, North African literature, and her experience as a Muslim living abroad on Laila Lalami.com.