Monday, November 20, 2006


By Daniel Olivas

Under cover of night, with the aid of a high-priced human smuggler, a frightened group of men, women and children attempt a dangerous trek from their homeland to another country -- all in search of a better life.

Who will succeed in entering the foreign land and improving their daily circumstances? And who will be apprehended by the authorities and returned to desperate poverty or other oppression? Such is the premise of Laila Lalami's debut novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, now available in paperback from Harvest Books ($13).

But the immigrants Lalami writes about are not Latinos attempting to get into the United States. Her protagonists are four Moroccans who huddle with about 20 others in a small boat to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Their hope: to avoid the watchful eye of the authorities as they travel 14 kilometers to their haven, Spain.

Lalami notes that this "more recent phenomenon of dangerous sea crossings ... is a result of the rising unemployment in Morocco combined with the tightening of visa regulations in Europe in the 1980s." The story will sound familiar to people in the United States: "Desperate to find jobs, people began to cross the short distance between Morocco and Spain on small boats, which has led to the loss of several thousand lives."

Authors such as Luis Alberto Urrea and Reyna Grande have written books that eloquently recount similar dangers faced by Latinos trying to enter the United States through the unforgiving deserts of northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. But hope springs eternal.

When her novel first hit the bookstores in hardcover last year, Lalami not only enjoyed critical acclaim but also had the "very pleasurable experience" of meeting and chatting with readers while on tour. "The only disturbing dialogue was when a woman at a book reading told me, point-blank, that 'Moroccan immigrants refuse to adapt and integrate.' And I, a perfectly 'integrated' immigrant, was standing before her. She couldn't see the irony."

Born and raised in Morocco and now living in Oregon with her family, Lalami earned her bachelor of arts in English from Universite Mohammed V in Rabat; a master's degree from University College, London; and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Oregonian, the Nation, the Washington Post and elsewhere. She is living the American dream, to be sure.

But Lalami has never forgotten her roots. Before the novel's publication, most readers knew of Lalami through her blog,, which reflects her Moroccan roots by often covering -- and confronting -- literary news relating to the "other" in our society. Latino writers have received a generous share of Lalami's coverage. Not surprisingly, Lalami is "just thrilled" that her novel has also come out in a Spanish edition translated by Monica Rubio under the title Esperanza y Otros Sueños.

Lalami sees "many similarities" with the way undocumented immigrants are viewed in the United States and Europe, "particularly the tendency to periodically blame immigrants for everything that ails society." All the while, "these immigrants are keeping the service industry afloat, they are taking jobs citizens consider too low-paying to take, and they contribute millions to retirement plans and other benefits that they will never get to receive."

But perhaps by humanizing undocumented immigrants through her fiction, Lalami can help the public become more compassionate and less fearful.

One can only hope.

[This profile first appeared in the El Paso Times in slightly different form.]

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