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`Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits': a Vivid Story of Immigrants in Search of Better Lives

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``Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits'' by Laila Lalami; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill ($21.95)


"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" is a small book that asks big questions: Would you risk everything for the chance to change your life? What drives people to take that kind of gamble? And in the end, what is greater, the risk or the reward?

Laila Lalami explores this idea of radical life change in her debut novel, which follows four Moroccans yearning to flee the poverty, corruption and abuse in their homeland. Her characters make the decision to roll the dice of fate, leaving behind family and friends for a shot at a better life in Spain. Their desire to go is so powerful they will take their chances with human smugglers, saving and borrowing to secure a spot on a boat crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

The risks on this journey are huge. Thousands of Moroccans try to illegally immigrate to Europe each year in small boats; the Spanish border police estimate they catch more than 12,000 of them each year. Some don't live to make it that far.

Lalami, who was born and raised in Morocco, distills the experience of these immigrants into four vivid characters: Murad, an English-speaking tour guide who lives with his mother and can't find steady work; Halima, an abused wife who wants to get her children out of the slums; Aziz, a married man consumed by his unemployment; and Faten, a fanatical young Muslim woman who is pushed out of college by a man opposed to her religious views.

Lalami is known for her literary (and sometimes political) blog,, and she packs her short chapters with action, suspense and characters that seem to come off the page. She opens her story at the center of the characters' physical and emotional journey, the crossing of the strait. Lalami has a gift for setting, and through skillful description and tight pacing, she puts readers on the boat with Murad, Halima and the others as it moves across the water. We see the passengers huddled together in the tiny vessel, smell the vomit when one gets seasick, feel the fear when the boat's motor stalls. And when the smuggler orders the passengers out of the boat 250 meters from land, Lalami puts us into a moment of sheer panic:

"Someone makes an abrupt movement to reason with Rahal, to force him to go all the way to the shore, but the Zodiac loses balance and then it's too late. Murad is in the water now. His clothes are instantly wet, and the shock of the cold water all over his body makes his heart go still for a moment. He bobs, gasps for air, realizes that there's nothing left to do but swim."

The decision to risk their lives to sneak into Spain plays out differently for all four characters. Some make it to Europe; others are caught and sent back home. None ends up living the life he or she had imagined when dreaming of the future, and none is unchanged by the journey. Those who succeed find they have to give up parts of themselves they didn't imagine they'd have to; and those who get sent back find a transformative power in having taken action to alter fate.

But before we find out what happens to Murad and the others, Lalami takes readers back to the characters' lives before they decide to emigrate. She paints individual pictures of desperation for her protagonists that lead us to the moment they know they must go.

That decision comes from attacks to the spirit both big and small. Halima is beaten with an extension cord and must find a way to escape a violent husband, while Aziz's decision stems more from a sense of wounded pride because he sits idle while his wife holds a job in a factory.

Aziz, who must convince his family that immigration is a good idea, "had weighed their warnings against the prospect of years of idleness, years of asking them for money to ride the bus, years of looking down at his shoes or changing the subject whenever someone asked what he did for a living, and the wager seemed, in the end, worthwhile."

Illegal immigrants are unlikely heroes in Western fiction, especially nowadays. More often, we read non-fiction accounts of the pressures European countries feel to shut their borders, burdened by an influx of such outsiders. The immigrants, who often do the menial work in wealthy Western countries, are blamed for overloading social systems and, in extreme cases, for presenting a danger. Moroccans living in Spain - the dreamland destination of Lalami's characters-were blamed for the Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 last year.

But Lalami's characters aren't terrorists. They're simply people who dream of a better life and feel the need to leave their country to make their lives better. She is a sharp observer of the human condition, and she infuses her characters with universal emotions that make us see ourselves in these others.

In a fine example of this, Halima is cleaning the floor of an office when she is overcome with envy for her employer, who has stopped to say hello:

"I could have been her, Halima thought, as she did almost every time she was in Hanan's presence. I could have been her, had my luck been different, had I gone to a real school, had I married someone else."

Really, no matter our circumstances, who hasn't felt that way?

Not all the characters are equally sympathetic. Faten, whose back story is told through the eyes of an influential government minister horrified at her influence on his secular daughter, is harder to like than Murad or Halima. But by bringing us inside the heads of these four Moroccans - really detailing the hopes and pains of people who chose to break laws and risk everything for the dream of a better life - Lalami has us rooting for them, hoping in the face of harsh reality that somehow they'll find their way to the life they're looking for.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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