Sept. 2009 WLT
Many of Laila Lalami’s childhood memories while growing up in Morocco feature books written in French. This early exposure led her to write in French at a young age and almost exclusively throughout her teens and early twenties. Wanting to cast off the colonial baggage that accompanied writing Moroccan stories in French but feeling her literary Arabic was not good enough to produce a novel, Lalami tried her hand at English, a linguistic shift that enabled her to approach her stories with a fresh perspective.
Not long ago, while cleaning out my bedroom closet, I came across a box of old family photographs. I had tied the black-and-white snapshots, dog-eared color photos, and scratched Polaroids in small bundles before moving from Morocco to the United States. There I was at age five, standing with my friend Nabil outside Sainte Marguerite-Marie primary school in Rabat; at age nine, holding on to my father’s hand and squinting at the sun while on vacation in the hill station of Imouzzer; at age eleven, leaning with my mother against the limestone lion sculpture in Ifrane, in the Middle Atlas. But the picture I pulled out from the bundles and displayed in a frame on my desk was the one in which I was six years old and sat in our living room with my head buried in Tintin and the Temple of the Sun.
A great many of my childhood memories, like this photograph, feature books. Every night, my father would sit on one end of the living-room divan and my mother on the other, both of them with books in their hands. Neither of them had gone to college, but they read constantly—spy thrillers, mystery novels, science fiction, comic books, the newspaper, magazines, biographies, memoirs. I don’t know how or why my parents came to love books so much; perhaps books provided them an education about the wider world, a sense of adventure that was missing from their lives, or an escape from the dreary official speeches that were regularly broadcast on state radio and television during the reign of King Hassan.
It was perhaps only natural that my siblings and I learned to do the same from an early age. I remember how we passed copies of Astérix to each other, how we lent to or borrowed from friends the latest issues of Pif magazine, how we fought about whose turn it was to read Boule et Bill. When I began to read children’s novels, I found in Rabat’s many bookstores regular new offerings from the Bibliothèque Rose or the Bibliothèque Verte, which included series by the Comtesse de Ségur, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Georges Bayard, and many others.
Once, when my best friend Nawal and I finished reading Les petites filles modèles by the Comtesse de Ségur, we wondered why the title page said “née Rostopchine.” After much discussion, Nawal surmised that this must have been a disease with which the author had been afflicted since birth. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that women in France might take on the names of their husbands, since our own mothers, following Moroccan tradition, kept their maiden names. After reading The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo, we used our bedsheets to make capes, pretended our plastic rulers were swords, and faced off while screaming, “En garde!”
Of course, none of the characters in these books looked or spoke like anyone I knew. In those days, in the late 1970s, nearly all of the children’s literature that was available in Moroccan bookstores was still in French. The characters’ names, their homes, their cities, their lives were wholly different from my own, and yet, because of my constant exposure to them, they had grown utterly familiar. These images invaded my imaginary world to such an extent that I never thought they came from an alien place. Over time, the fantasy in the books came to define normalcy, while my own reality somehow seemed foreign. Like my country, my imagination had been colonized.
I began to write when I was nine years old. Unsurprisingly, the stories and poems I wrote were in French and featured characters who said things like “En garde!” I had just started the fifth grade when Mère Elisabeth, the school’s director, pulled my father aside one morning and asked him which junior high school he had in mind for me. She suggested the Lycée Descartes, where much of Morocco’s elite—business leaders, doctors, lawyers, intellectuals of every persuasion, government ministers as well as their political opponents—sent its offspring. My father said no; he could not afford the school fees at Descartes. In fact, he had only agreed to send me to Sainte Marguerite because it was relatively inexpensive and because my mother had insisted. When my father saw that I was upset about not going to the same school as my friends, he tried to explain his decision. “Your father is not a minister,” he said in a soft, apologetic tone. Oum el-Banin, the public junior high near our house, would be fine.
At the new school, I excelled in all the subjects that were taught in French (mathematics, physics, biology) but struggled with the ones taught in Arabic (history, geography, civics). Still, the change meant that I finally started to receive proper Arabic-language instruction. The curriculum focused on excerpts from the classics of Arabic literature—the Mu’allaqat, al-Mutanabbi, al-Khansaa—and slowly moved on to modern authors like the Egyptians Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Husayn; the Lebanese Khalil Gibran and Elia Abu Madi; and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. Because our school did not have a library, some of our teachers set up their own “lending clubs.” This involved each student donating one book—any book—in order to form a classroom collection from which we could borrow Arabic novels. I don’t remember ever being assigned fiction by Moroccan authors; perhaps Moroccan authors were being taught to Egyptian, Lebanese, or Palestinian schoolchildren.
It was not until the age of fourteen, when I started to read adult literature on my own, and independently from school, that I came across novels and stories featuring Moroccan characters in a Moroccan setting. The first of these was Driss Chraïbi’s La Civilisation, Ma Mère!, which featured a heroine that was so much like the women in my family—feisty, funny, and with a sharp sense of repartee. I have a very vivid memory of my cousin Hamid giving me a copy of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Harrouda, a book that felt deliciously transgressive because of its frank treatment of sex. The work of Leila Abouzeid was also a revelation. To read ‘Am al-Fil was to discover that the ordinary stuff of our lives was as fertile ground for fiction as any other.
And yet, because of my early exposure to French in literature, nearly everything I wrote in my teens and early twenties was in French. This did not seem to me especially odd at the time; after all, many of Morocco’s writers used the colonial tongue: Abdellatif Laâbi, Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Driss Chraïbi, Fouad Laroui. My parents thought that my writing was “adorable,” and praised it the way one might praise a child for a particularly good magic trick or a well-told joke, but they made it clear that writing was not a serious option for the future. I was expected to do something sensible with my life, and train in a profession that could guarantee a decent living in Morocco: medicine, engineering, or business.
Of course, their warnings did not stop me. I continued writing poems and stories and reading anything I could get my hands on at the Kalila wa Dimna bookstore in downtown Rabat or from the used booksellers in Agdal. Still, my parents’ pragmatic talk had all but convinced me that writing could merely be a hobby and not a vocation, and so I went to college to study linguistics. Since I could not make a living from using words in a creative way, at least I would be able to do it by using them in an analytical way.
After a bachelor’s degree at Mohammed-V University in Rabat, I applied for, and received, a British Council Fellowship to do a master’s degree at University College London. I arrived in Britain shortly after Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait. I had been fairly apolitical until then, but the dislocation and racism I experienced in London, the classes I took at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and my exposure to the work of people like Edward Said changed all that. Every time I went back to Morocco, I couldn’t help but notice how much and how often we moved between French and Arabic. All of us, whether we wanted to or not, went through life switching between codes: Moroccan Arabic or Amazigh in our homes, with our friends, in our places of worship; but in job interviews, in fancy stores, in formal soirées, French was de rigueur.
Two years later, I arrived in Los Angeles, to do a PhD in linguistics. I spent most of my days working on research articles and conference papers that had to be written and delivered in English, which made me think even more about the relationship between Arabic and French in Morocco. French was not just a prominent language in Morocco. It was the language of power; an indicator of social class; a means to include or exclude people. The education I had received had emphasized the importance of French to the detriment of Arabic. French was used in our media, our government, and our businesses. Nearly half of the shows on Moroccan television were bought from and dubbed in France. There were no neighborhood public libraries, so we often had to depend on cultural centers, like the one sponsored by the French government, for free access to books. The role of French in my life became clearer. Writing in French came at a cost; it inevitably brought with it a colonial baggage that I no longer wanted to carry. I started to suffer from a peculiar case of writer’s block: If I could not write in Arabic, perhaps I should not be writing at all.
I went about the business of living. I had a degree to finish, after all, and I needed to find a job after graduate school. I tried to steer clear from writing, but writing wouldn’t steer clear of me. I think that in some way we do not choose stories, but that stories choose us. A braver writer—a Ngu~gı~, say—might have immediately cast aside the colonial tongue and returned to the native one, but my literary Arabic was not good enough to allow me to produce a novel. The Arabic language is often referred to as “al-lugha al-’arabiyya al-fusha” or “the eloquent Arabic language.” I sorely lacked that eloquence. One day I thought, Why not try my hand in English? I was already spending my days writing my dissertation in English, so perhaps I could use English for my fiction too. After a few tries, I noticed that the linguistic shift enabled me to approach my stories with a fresh perspective. Because English had not been forced upon me as a child, it seemed to give me a kind of salutary distance. The baggage that, to me, seemed inherent in the use of French to tell a Moroccan story seemed to lessen when I used English to tell the same story.
I have always written, because I have always had the urge to tell stories, but I cannot pinpoint the exact time when I decided that I should try to be published. I know now that it had something to do with reading work after work in which men of my race, culture, or religious persuasion were portrayed as singularly deviant, violent, backward, and prone to terrorism, while the women were depicted as silent, oppressed, helpless, and waiting to be liberated by the kind foreigner. I think I had had enough of “surrogate storytellers,” to use Sherman Alexie’s phrase in his introduction to Percival Everett’s Watershed.
The surrogate storytellers told a version of Morocco—mysterious, exotic, at once overly sexual and sexually repressed—that seemed entirely removed from my reality or indeed the reality of others around me. Until I came of age and started rereading the works I had approached with great innocence as a child—books such as Tintin in the Land of Black Gold, for instance, or Tintin in the Congo—I had not had the desire to go through the trouble and sacrifice it takes to be a published writer. Still, as I was finishing graduate school, my writing path became quite clear to me. I had always told stories, but now I wanted to be heard.
Los Angeles, California