October 5, 2005
When I started this Book Notes series, one of the first authors I pursued was Laila Lalami. I have been reading her literary blog, Moorish Girl, for several years, and her writing has always inspired me. When she announced that her book was to be published, I knew it would be good.
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is literary magic, weaving its stories into a fantastic tapestry of struggle, love, and most importantly, hope. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and one I will recommend to friends and family for a long time.
In her own words, here is Laila Lalami's's Book Notes submission for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits:
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is about a group of immigrants who try to cross the Straits of Gibraltar on a lifeboat. The book opens in media res and we’re introduced to each of the four main characters: Murad, a street hustler; Halima, a woman on the run from her husband; Aziz, an out-of-work mechanic; and Faten, a religious fanatic. Each of the following chapters then focuses on their lives before the trip, exploring the reasons for their choice, and then we jump forward in time to see what happens to them after the trip and whether the rewards were worth the risks they took.
1. The Trip
"Barra Barra" by Rachid Taha
This song is the opening track on the album “Made in Medina” and it’s incredibly infectious. It blends traditional 'oud with electric guitar, and is a sublime example of the fusion of rai and rock. It starts off quietly, and then builds up in emotion—like the opening story to Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I can't recommend Rachid Taha enough. I wish he were better known here in the U.S.
2. The Fanatic
“Gharnati” by Amina Alaoui, accompanied by the Ahmed Piro orchestra
The narrator in this story is a middle-aged, upper-class man, the sort of person I imagine would listen to Tarab Gharnati, which is a musical genre that has been transmitted in Morocco for centuries, and which was performed during Muslim rule in Andalusia. ('Gharnati' is Arabic for 'Granada.') Amina Alaoui performs some great tracks here, and she’s accompanied by the Ahmed Piro orchestra of Rabat. If you’ve never heard Tarab Gharnati, you’re in for a treat.
3. Bus Rides
"Fakarouni" by Oum Kalsoum
Oum Kalsoum is the greatest Arab singer of the first half of the twentieth-century. She was (still is) worshipped in the Arab world for her unique voice, full of emotion and a kind of soulfulness. This particular song was written by Muhammad Abdul-Wahhab, an amazing poet, musician, and singer in his own right. It's a love song, a song about standing by your man, which is what the character in my story is trying to make up her mind about.
“Homage a Boujema” by Nass el Ghiwane
Nass El Ghiwane was founded by four musicians (and sometime theatre actors) from Casablanca. They were huge in the late 1960s and 70s, and their songs dealt with political and social themes. I loved that they used the guenbri and other traditional instruments to create modern music. This particular album is an homage to one of their vocalists and songwriters, Boujemaa, who died in 1974. The characters in "Acceptance," Aziz and Lahcen, are also from Casablanca, and I think they’d be fans of Nass El Ghiwane.
5. Better Luck Tomorrow
"Ya Rayah" by Rachid Taha
This is a cover of an old song by Abderahman Amrani, (also known as Dahmane Al Harrachi) and it appears in the album Diwan. The song is essentially a warning to would-be immigrants, telling them what really awaits them on the other side, in Europe. (Amrani was himself a first-generation immigrant in France.) Murad, the character in "Better Luck Tomorrow," has essentially made up his mind to try to cross the Straits, and "Ya Rayah" was written for someone exactly like him.
6. The Saint
"Splendid Master Gnawa of Morocco"
There is a long, vibrant tradition of sufi music in Morocco. Among the many brotherhoods that still exist are the Gnawas, who, originate from the Sudan, and perform music in a trance-like state. Sometimes you see them perform before big holidays, like Eid. This album features one of the masters of the genre, Mahmoud Guinia. This story explores the role of mysticism in Halima’s life, something that was hinted at in "Bus Rides."
7. The Odalisque & 8. Homecoming
"Aisha" and "Wahrane, Wahrane" by Cheb Khaled
I’m a huge fan of Cheb Khaled, and I quite like this album of his, Sahra. The first song is about a guy declaring his love to a girl, but she feels suffocated by his attention. I thought it was appropriate for “The Odalisque,” in which Faten, now living in Spain, meets Martin. The second song is about an immigrant feeling homesick for his hometown of Oran, the way Aziz feels about Casablanca in “Homecoming.” Every time I listen to this piece my skin breaks into goose bumps. Khaled’s voice slays me.
9. The Storyteller
"Master Musicians of Jajouka"
This story features two American tourists who are huge fans of the writer Paul Bowles. Bowles was an accomplished musician and, as an ethnomusicologist, he’d spent some time traveling the Rif Mountains where he would listen to horn players from the village of Jajouka. When Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones became a fan, there was an immediate interest in Jajouka, resulting in people traveling there to listen or record them.