As a journalist, I dislike the sweeping generalization, but I’m pretty convinced that too many Americans take for granted things that people in other parts of the world risk their lives for — including some very basic things like a job and a decent place to live.
That’s one reason I think that college students should be exposed to these ideas, and at Wingate that’s been a theme of our “common reading” for first-semester freshmen for the past several years. The incoming students are assigned to read a book over the summer, it’s discussed in their “Gateway” orientation classes and the author comes in for a campus visit and a lecture during the semester.
This year’s book is Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a collection of short stories from 2005 by Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-born writer who teaches creative writing at the University of California-Riverside. She visited our campus last week for a public lecture and reading, and faculty members also had the opportunity to have lunch and a discussion with her. She’s pictured here with Kevin Winchester, the director of Wingate University’s Writing Center. The two were colleagues at the prestigious Bread Loaf writer’s workshop a few years back.
We enjoyed a Moroccan lunch of spiced beef and couscous with sauteed green beans before Lalami read an excerpt from her book and answered questions from the audience.
“Every time I have a scene in the book, there’s food in it,” she joked. “Cuisine is very important in Arab culture.”
The stories in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which Lalami began writing in 2002 while working for a software company in Los Angeles, are interconnected. The main characters are four people who are among a group of 30 crammed into an inflatable boat to make an illegal crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco to the hope of a new and better life in Spain.
The main character of the book, a young man named Murad, wonders, “How 14 kilometers could separate not only two countries but two universes.”
Lalami says the issue of immigration is one that she’s lived, as she’s an immigrant herself, having left her home country for a university education in France and then in the United States. Her husband is American. But the experience she describes in the book is something else again.
“I saw a news report about a refugee boat from Morocco that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea,” she said. “I wondered why people would take such risks. Even if they did make it and find a job it wouldn’t be a great job. But it would be better than they could do back home.”
It’s not really a spoiler to say they don’t make it — the first story reveals that the boat’s shady captain makes the passengers get out and swim the last several hundred yards, One drowns and the others are rounded up by soldiers and sent back to Morocco.
From there, the book flashes back to what brought these desperate people together, and the reasons sound familiar to anyone who knows what life is like for many young people in the Arab world — lack of opportunity, even if you’ve done what you were “supposed to do” and get a college education, And in the Muslim world that can be especially difficult for women. One of the characters hesitates to leave an abusive marriage because she’s barely making it economically even with the occasional income her husband brings in.
The book, obviously, was written seven years before this year’s “Arab spring” of democratic revolutions. But the themes in it anticipate this year’s uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.
“It’s the same complete desperation of young people who have done everything required of them, but still can’t achieve their dreams,” Lalami said. “It’s opened up a huge reservoir of discontent by a generation disillusioned with the post-colonial governments of their countries. It’s an exciting time.”
Morocco is one Arab country which has escaped the turmoil. Lalami says, because the king has “co-opted” the revolutionary movements by agreeing to constitutional changes to promote more democracy. (Just today, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made a similar move, decreeing that women will have the right to vote and to run for municipal offices by 2015.)
“It remains to be seen whether young people will be satisified with the changes,” Lalami said. “Elections in November will tell us a lot.”