Saturday, 6 October 2018

Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jalloun

Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jalloun
First published in France in French by Gallimard in 2006. English language translation by Linda Coverdale published by Penguin in March 2009.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Looking Out To Sea

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository
Wordery (unavailable)
Waterstones (unavailable)
Amazon US / Amazon UK

Leaving Tangier, in the early 1990s: Young Moroccans gather regularly in a seafront cafe to gaze at the lights on the Spanish coast glimmering in the distance. Facing a future with few prospects in a country they feel has failed them, their disillusionment is matched only by their desire to reach this paradise - so close and yet so far - not least because of the treacherous waters separating the two countries and the frightening stories they hear of the fates of would-be illegal emigrants.

Azel, the protagonist, is intent upon leaving one way or another. At the brink of despair he meets Miguel, a wealthy Spanish gallery-owner, who promises to take him to Barcelona if Azel will become his lover. Seeing no other solution, and although he has a girlfriend to whom he is promised, Azel agrees to Miguel's proposition and thus begins a different kind of hell for the young Moroccan - shame and self-disgust at his own helplessness gradually overcome him and he finds himself once more in a hopeless situation. Azel and others like him, including his sister, begin to wonder if the reality of life in Europe will live up to their dreams.

I wasn't initially sure I would enjoy reading Leaving Tangier because it took me quite a while to get into this novel. I'm not sure how close the translation is to the original French text, but at times sentences seemed clumsy. I also wasn't convinced by some of the dialogue, especially when different characters launch into speeches in remarkably similar voices! However, those points aside, Leaving Tangier gave me insights into the many reasons why North African people - mostly Morocccans here - feel compelled to abandon their homes and risk a treacherous sea crossing in order to reach Spain and, perhaps, a new life. I also learned about Spaniards making the reverse journey for exactly the same reasons decades earlier to escape poverty under Franco's regime. How come those stories of emigration aren't widely told these days?!

I appreciated meeting a reasonably large cast of characters which allowed me to understand a range of viewpoints, Moroccan and Spanish. Jalloun portrays desperation well, but also illustrates the fear and, surprisingly to me, the extreme boredom experienced by illegal immigrants who, having theoretically attained their goal, are unable to legally work or even perhaps to live with any semblance of dignity. Leaving Tangier movingly shows us people risking and giving up everything they have then, sadly for most of them, not being able to succeed. The novel does include violent sexual scenes and a strong theme is sex as currency. I was left feeling quite cynical at the way humans use and manipulate those they perceive as weaker than themselves.

Imagining how easy it would be to find oneself in Azel and Kenza's situation, especially with what I discovered about Spanish emigration to Morocco, makes Leaving Tangier my third Scary October read.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Tahar Ben Jalloun / Contemporary fiction / Books from Morocco


  1. I love learning about people and why they choose to do things. It is a shame it appeared poorly translated. I do think I would enjoy this story though.

    1. I'm picky with my criticisms! Overall Leaving Tangier is well worth a read :-)

  2. It's not my kind of book but I'm glad you enjoyed it.