Youssef El Mekki, the main character in this novel by Laila Lalami, lives in the slums of Casablanca with his mother. His father, a fourth-grade teacher, died when Youssef was only two, so his memories of him are few and faint. He is close to his mother, has friends in the neighborhood, and loves to go see movies in the neighborhood’s makeshift cinema, where old movies were shown and rats scurried about. Whatever was showing, Youssef would see it:
All his life, he had dreamed of becoming an actor. He had performed in the only play his high school had ever put on, a reenactment of the Green March, and he had spent long afternoons playing football, hoping to have the athletic chest that was appropriate for the moment when, shirtless, he would raise the Moroccan flag and lead his fellow civilians to reclaim the Spanish border post in the Sahara. He loved inhabiting the life of the hero, loved feeling his triumph, and when the audience applauded, a surge of euphoria, much like the one he had felt when he had tried hashish with Amin and Maati, ran through him. Of course, Youssef knew that his dream was unachievable—no different than wanting to win the lottery when you can’t even afford to buy a ticket—but it provided a refuge from the more sobering turns he knew he life would, by necessity, have to take: finish high school, go to university, and, with any luck, find a steady job that would finally get his mother and him out of Hay An Najat.
As planned, Youssef qualifies for university, but then his life takes an unexpected turn—or, rather, he learns that his life was never quite what he thought. His mother reveals that his father was actually a lawyer named Nabil Amrani whom she met when she was in training to become a nurse. She tells Youssef that he died before they could get married, and she had to leave her training in disgrace. However, Youssef soon learns that wasn’t true—that Nabil Amrani is alive and wealthy. Realizing that his life as Youssef El Mekki is altogether different from the life he could have had as Youssef Amrani, he decides to seek out his father and become the person he was meant to be: “If he could be Youssef Amrani, he would not have to play any part at all. He could be, at long last, himself.”
At first, Nabil Amrani welcomes Youssef into his life, or at least into part of it, and Youssef becomes that other person. He lives in a fine apartment, begins working at his father’s hotel, and waits patiently for his father to tell his family about his secret son. Nabil, having just become estranged from his daughter, seems prepared to make Youssef part of his family.
Lalami spends most of her time focusing on Youssef, but we do get glimpses into other characters’ minds. We learn how Nabil really feels about his son, and we spend several chapters with Nabil’s daughter, Malika, who is attending college in America. The characters in this book are trying to take control of their lives, but they cannot. At first glance, it seems that the power differential is about rich versus poor, but that doesn’t quite work. Nabil cannot do what he wants, although the effects are less devastating for him than for people from the slums. Wealth brings options, but it doesn’t bring control.
Information seems to be the real source of power. The poor of Casablanca attempt to improve their lot through demonstrations, but arrests and swift and the media quiet. If no one knows of their demonstrations, do they even matter? But Youssef’s mother, poor as she is, controls Youssef’s fate throughout his life, based on what she chooses to tell and whom she chooses to tell it to. Youssef’s mother is perhaps the most interesting character in the book, and I would have liked more time in her head. Her motivations, guided always by love, seem so pure, but there’s a selfishness in her way of loving. Love, too, is a source of power, and it must be wielded with care.
As the political situation heats up toward the end of the book, the role of knowledge becomes paramount. Those who have knowledge are dangerous—they are targets and potential saviors, depending on your point of view. The final chapters, which focus on Youssef’s growing involvement with political causes, move too swiftly and screech to a too-sudden stop. The family drama, with little warning, becomes a political drama. And one with a tricksy ending. It fits thematically with the whole notion of manipulation and role-playing and knowledge, but there was insufficient lead-up to the final events, and they felt like a tacked-on shock ending. This is a short book, and a few chapters with Youssef’s friends or even with Youssef as his joins their cause would have helped it feel more organic to the story told throughout, more like The Lowland or Half of a Yellow Sun where family drama and political drama coalesce seamlessly. The seam was too evident here.