Saturday, December 21, 2013

Morocco: "Secret Son" by Laila Lalami

After reading about wealth in Pakistan, I wondered how ordinary people or poor people viewed those who were in power there. This book provides a bit of an answer.

In Secret Son by Laila Lalami, Youssef El Mekki is raised in near-poverty by his presumably widowed mother. As he enters university, he discovers that his father is, in fact, a quite-alive philanderer of the upper class. Youssef manages to meet his father, Nabil Amrani, at the same time that Nabil learns that his only known child, a 20-year old daughter, is creating her own life in the U.S. Thus, Nabil is casting about for someone to inherit his portion of his family's hospitality empire.

Youssef moves to his father's private apartment. He is at first very uneasy in this world of wealth but becomes accustomed to at least some of the privileges: material goods, the ability to attract young women and take them out (and take them to bed), and more. Yet he longs for his childhood home, his three comrades from the old neighborhood, and his mother's daily presence.

In time, Nabil offers Youssef a ground-level job at a luxury hotel. But Youssef declines because he is still in school.

"'It's for your own good,' [his father] said at last. 'You know as well as I do that your university degree alone won't lead anywhere in this country.'
     Again there was that needless reminder that, despite all the effort he might put into it, his schooling would amount to nothing. Real jobs were for people who went to higher institutes, or engineering school, or medical school--or anywhere abroad. For Youssef, there was only the prospect of a degree and maybe a third-rate job, if he was lucky."

After a year or so of juggling work and school, Youssef is suddenly turned out of the job and the apartment. He returns to the slum and in his despair about losing his father and his future in one blow, he is recruited by the only entity in the community that is trying to bring any kind of change. "The Party" provides a medical clinic, distributes free food, runs a community center with a tea shop and shows movies (followed by religious lectures).  Hatim, leader of "The Party" says,

"Our community's fall into disgrace started with our political leaders...They promised to build schools and hospitals, create jobs for the young, and improve our economy. Of course they did none of that. The years come and go, governments follow one another, but our literacy rate stays the same, our hospitals remain ill equipped, and our economy still depends on agriculture and tourism. Like sheep, our foreign-educated elite want to do whatever France or America wants them to do, without regard for whether it is good for the rest of us...They are a small number of people, those decadent few, but they are the real obstacles to progress."

Hatim demands that Youssef decide his loyalties--to his (deceitful but loving) mother and all she represents, including a suddenly revealed Berber heritage; or to his (corrupt and distant) father and all he represents. Youssef decides, with irreversible consequences.

"It occurred suddenly to Youssef that his innocence was irrelevant. It served no purpose in the overall plot ... He could see clearly now that he had been a small actor in a big production directed by the state."

Youssef likens himself repeatedly to film heroes, yet he realizes finally that scriptwriters are his mother, who controls his life story, and his father, who comes up with plan after plan that suits HIS needs but never considers Youssef's potential as a writer or reporter (his father has connections to an important journalist) or in any role other than "the son" to train to inherit. Hatim, the party leader, works on the plot, too. The right to self-determination never was Youssef's.

In addition to state-level constraints and societal expectations of individual actors, the theme of familial control has recurred in my reading as well. The uncle in Nervous Conditions is assigned a role that he seems to like by birth order and social pressure. The women in Masks create an elaborate charade to continue a family "bloodline."  The terrorist in House of Splendid Isolation acts in part for revenge for family. The grown children in Children of the Jacaranda Tree continue the struggles begun by their parents 30 years earlier, perhaps sometimes against their own preferences for an easier way.

As someone raised in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, when it seemed that except for the small biases imposed on short women, my right to self-determination was nearly limitless, it is important that I learn more about how people succumb to, cope with, or break out of these combined forces of state power, social pressure, and family obligations.  

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