The first chapter of Hope has thirty people crammed into a lifeboat, waiting in tense silence to reach the southern shore of Spain. The boat is designed for eight people to sit comfortably, presumably while they await rescue from an accident or other disaster. The vessel is a last resort. But here it strains under the weight of thirty people who have planned the trip for months, or years. The protagonists of this story have gambled all the money they could borrow for a mere chance at the privilege of being an illegal immigrant in Europe.
As its title hints, the story is set up such that it will have the most depressing effect. Only a couple of characters avoid deportation, or death.
Faten is the most idealistic of the characters, though not in her ambitions for a new life in Europe. She wants to stay in Morocco. The reason she ends up in a boat bound for Spain? Her best friend’s father, a corrupt bureaucrat who wishes for his daughter to go to NYU, feels threatened by Faten’s influence on his girl. On many levels, his daughter has begun to reject her father’s faith in “the West.” She starts to wear the hijab, and expresses the ambition of becoming a teacher in Morocco. The father, Amrani, curiously has the same name as a similar character in Secret Son, a middle-class sell-out who fiercely defends the status quo. Amrani pulls some strings to have Faten expelled from school.
Faten had flunked her exams the first time because she refuses to cheat. Amrani condescendingly tells his daughter that she must not have been prepared. Neither were those who cheated, she retorts. The breaking point for Amrani, who regularly accepts bribes and doles out favors for friends in the department where he works, is finding out that his daughter helped Faten cheat on an exam. Amrani is happy to punish Faten, sparing his daughter.
A friend of mine who grew up in Morocco complained that not only did her classmates cheat and plagiarize, but that the professors seemed to accept this tacitly by not making an issue of it. I remember her resignedly piecing together an assignment at the last minute from passages she picked up online. Once again, there is no way to win. If everyone is pushed into breaking the rules simply because it is so easy, they also become vulnerable. Once the rules have become irrelevant, whether or not people are held to account depends on the whim of people in, and protective of, power.
There are plenty of characters to choose from in this story, but Faten stuck out at me because her story feels so clichéd. My complaint with Lalami is that her characters hint at so much depth, but the way she writes about them falls flat. We meet Faten for the first time, through the eyes of another character sitting near her in the lifeboat, as an aloof and self-righteously pious hijabi. We know only that she doesn’t want to be in that boat.
From Amrani’s point of view, Faten is an arrogant zealot who refuses to shake his hand. She holds a bizarre power over his daughter. This power is never explained. Is she a simple follower? Does she actually have a nuanced understanding of the kind of Islam she thinks Morocco needs?
The last chapter on Faten is as unsatisfying as it is shocking. The young student, member of the university Islamic group, has become… a prostitute. She caters to men who are either indifferent to her as a person or make a fetish of her culture and religion. We seem to meet her when her transition is complete. She has already learned not to “think too much” and we are treated to a description of her daily routine.
For all Lalami’s slams on American and European tourists who love “exotic” Morocco but seem to hold its people in contempt, the author doesn’t offer much in terms of character depth. I find that I can appreciate this book as I write about it and think about the implications of what she writes, but the writing itself is banal. It seems to coast on the real and raw tragedies it describes, without adding much. I’m a bigger appreciator of the topical, rather than the literary, so I constantly wonder about the but what is she trying to say with this?
At the same time, Lalami gives no pretense of offering us more than a good story. It gives us broad strokes, which works for a novel that wants to describe how the movements of individuals make up a larger Movement. Lalami’s work reads like it was written by a sociologist who, overwhelmed by the complexity of an issue, wanted to simply present us with the stories of people.