Leaving Tangier: A Novel

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From one of the world's great writers, a breakthrough novel about leaving home for a better life

In his new novel, award-winning, internationally bestselling author Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the story of a Moroccan brother and sister making new lives for themselves in Spain. Azel is a young man in Tangier who dreams of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. When he meets Miguel, a wealthy Spaniard, he leaves behind his girlfriend, his sister, Kenza, and his mother, and moves with him ...

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From one of the world's great writers, a breakthrough novel about leaving home for a better life

In his new novel, award-winning, internationally bestselling author Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the story of a Moroccan brother and sister making new lives for themselves in Spain. Azel is a young man in Tangier who dreams of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. When he meets Miguel, a wealthy Spaniard, he leaves behind his girlfriend, his sister, Kenza, and his mother, and moves with him to Barcelona, where Kenza eventually joins them. What they find there forms the heart of this novel of seduction and betrayal, deception and disillusionment, in which Azel and Kenza are reminded powerfully not only of where they've come from, but also of who they really are.

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Editorial Reviews

Dennis Drabelle
…short but ambitious …Artful and compassionate, Leaving Tangier evokes a milieu of self-exile and great expectations in relatively few pages.
—The Washington Post
Alison McCulloch
Whether they are leaving, trying to leave or being left behind, all the characters in this penetrating tale, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, come to suffer what Ben Jelloun has called the "wounds of migration."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

As several expatriate Moroccans learn in Jelloun's latest, it doesn't matter how difficult life may be in the home country, a whole new set of difficulties waits in the promised land. Most of the novel focuses on Azel, a young Tangier native and a self-described "Arab who doesn't like himself." Desperate to escape, Azel agrees to become the object of affection for a wealthy Spaniard named Miguel, who takes him in after a brutal police beating. Leaving behind his family and girlfriend for the good life he's imagined in Spain, he soon learns that daydreams can be misleading-and that the life he's always wanted is causing him, despite his benefactor's best intentions, to self-destruct. Before long, Azel's sister Kenza, a nurse, weds Miguel to gain Spanish citizenship, then falls in love with an expatriate Turk who comes with his own set of problems. This harsh, unsentimental view of the risks and regrets of emigration-as well as the stunning realities of life under Islam law-is a stark, straightforward tale that readers can't help getting caught up. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

An International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner for his previous novel, This Blinding Absence of Light, Ben Jelloun here examines the notion of emigration as a means to escape adversity. Already a best seller in France, this work centers on Azel, a young Moroccan man who, though well educated, is unable to fulfill his promise in Tangier's corrupt society and thus dreams of leaving Morocco for Spain. He encounters Miguel, a wealthy Spaniard, who offers to help Azel obtain a visa if he agrees to work for him in Barcelona. Miguel later agrees to marry Azel's sister, Kenza, so that she, too, can emigrate. Once they arrive in Spain, however, loneliness and disappointment lead to a desire to return. Although this is mainly Azel's story, Ben Jelloun places it in the context of the protagonist's friends and acquaintances, some of whom have emigrated or tried to emigrate while others have stayed. Their connection to Azel gives the novel a realistic and relatable quality. A captivating study of one man's search for identity in terms of sexuality, religion, values, nationality, and class; recommended for all fiction collections.
—Cristella Bond

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114659
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 3/31/2009
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 904,120
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco, and immigrated to France in 1961. A novelist, essayist, critic, and poet, he is a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Républica, El País, and Panorama.

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Read an Excerpt



In Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath. Cats from the cemetery, the terraces, and the chief communal bread oven of the Marshan district gather round the café as if to watch the play unfolding there in silence, and fooling nobody. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold, enticing bees that eventually tumble in, a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinseled reverie. In the back of one room, two men meticulously prepare the key that opens the gates of departure, selecting leaves, then chopping them swiftly and efficiently. Neither man looks up. Leaning back against the wall, customers sit on mats and stare at the horizon as if seeking to read their fate. They look at the sea, at the clouds that blend into the mountains, and they wait for the twinkling lights of Spain to appear. They watch them without seeing them, and sometimes, even when the lights are lost in fog and bad weather, they see them anyway.

Everyone is silent. Everyone listens. Perhaps she will show up this evening. She’ll talk to them, sing them the song of the drowned man who became a sea star suspended over the straits. They have agreed never to speak her name: that would destroy her, and provoke a whole series of misfortunes as well. So the men watch one another and say nothing. Each one enters his dream and clenches his fists. Only the waiters and the tea master, who owns the café, remain outside the circle, preparing and serving their fare with discretion, coming and going from terrace to terrace without disturbing anyone’s dream. The customers know one another but do not converse. Most of them come from the same neighborhood and have just enough to pay for the tea and a few pipes of kif. Some have a slate on which they keep track of their debt. As if by agreement, they keep silent. Especially at this hour and at this delicate moment when their whole being is caught up in the distance, studying the slightest ripple of the waves or the sound of an old boat coming home to the harbor. Sometimes, hearing the echo of a cry for help, they look at one another without turning a hair.

Yes, she might appear, and reveal a few of her secrets. Conditions are favorable: a clear, almost white sky, reflected in a limpid sea transformed into a pool of light. Silence in the café; silence on all faces. Perhaps the precious moment has arrived . . . at last she will speak!

Occasionally the men do allude to her, especially when the sea has tossed up the bodies of a few drowned souls. She has acquired more riches, they say, and surely owes us a favor! They have nicknamed her Toutia, a word that means nothing, but to them she is a spider that can feast on human flesh yet will sometimes tell them, in the guise of a beneficent voice, that tonight is not the night, that they must put off their voyage for a while.

Like children, they believe in this story that comforts them and lulls them to sleep as they lean back against the rough wall. In the tall glasses of cold tea, the green mint has been tarnished black. The bees have all drowned at the bottom. The men no longer sip this tea now steeped into bitterness. With a spoon they fish the bees out one by one, laying them on the table and exclaiming, “Poor little drowned things, victims of their own greediness!”

As in an absurd and persistent dream, Azel sees his naked body among other naked bodies swollen by seawater, his face distorted by salt and longing, his skin burnt by the sun, split open across the chest as if there had been fighting before the boat went down. Azel sees his body more and more clearly, in a blue and white fishing boat heading ever so slowly to the center of the sea, for Azel has decided that this sea has a center and that this center is a green circle, a cemetery where the current catches hold of corpses, taking them to the bottom to place them on a bank of seaweed. He knows that there, in this specific circle, a fluid boundary exists, a kind of separation between the sea and the ocean, the calm, smooth waters of the Mediterranean and the fierce surge of the Atlantic. He holds his nose, because staring so hard at these images has filled his nostrils with the odor of death, a suffocating, clinging, nauseating stench. When he closes his eyes, death begins to dance around the table where he sits almost every day to watch the sunset and count the first lights scintillating across the way, on the coast of Spain. His friends join him, to play cards in silence. Even if some of them share his obsession of leaving the country someday, they know, having heard it one night in Toutia’s voice, that they must not lose themselves in images that foster sadness.

Azel says not a word about either his plan or his dream. People sense that he is unhappy, on edge, and they say he is bewitched by love for a married woman. They believe he has flings with foreign women and suspect that he wants their help to leave Morocco. He denies this, of course, preferring to laugh about it. But the idea of sailing away, of mounting a green-painted horse and crossing the sea of the straits, that idea of becoming a transparent shadow visible only by day, an image scudding at top speed across the waves—that idea never leaves him now. He keeps it to himself, doesn’t mention it to his sister, Kenza, still less to his mother, who worries because he is losing weight and smoking too much.

Even Azel has come to believe in the story of she who will appear and help them to cross, one by one, that distance separating them from life, the good life, or death.

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