Moroccan Heaven, Moroccan Hell: A Trip Down ‘Ben Barka Lane’

This summer, an English translation of Mahmoud Saeed’s 1970 novel, Ben Barka Lane, came out from Interlink Books, trans. Kay Heikkinen:

Ben Barka LaneBen Barka Lane follows an unnamed Arab, called al-Sharqi (The Easterner), who has come to Morocco to work as a teacher. Like the author, the narrator fled oppression in Iraq, and is now on his summer vacation in a small town on the Moroccan coast that — on its surface — seems like paradise. The novel is set in the mid-1960s, during Morocco’s “leaden years:” this was the name given to the time that followed King Hassan II’s dissolution of parliament, leftist leader Ben Barka’s assassination, and other crackdowns and arrests.

The book’s setting has the veneer of heaven — beautiful and charming young people, lovely beaches, the warmth and delights of a summer holiday — but as al-Sharqi digs at this postcard-veneer, he turns up layers upon layers of corruption, poverty, and violence.

The English-language reader has a lot to elbow through in the first twenty pages. The characters’ names have much more density in translation, as an English-language reader must memorize names like “al-Sharqi,” “al-Shaqra,” and “al-Jazai’ri,” rather than seeing them as “The Easterner,” “The Blonde,” and “The Algerian.”

We are also introduced to multiple names for the city (Mohammediya / Fadala), the street where the protagonist lives (Zuhur Street / Ben Barka Lane), and his landlord (the Chinaman / M. Bourget) in the first two pages. These multiple namings are important, as they reflect contested identities, but they also create an initial barrier for the reader.

None of this matters after page 20. Once Ruqayya arrives, the novel’s pacing rapidly increases, and it moves into its strength: The love and life entanglements of characters who are all struggling (or have struggled) over the country’s future.

The narrator falls immediately in love with the beatuiful, playful, difficult-to-grasp Ruqayya, who for her part declares her love for al-Habib, one of Morocco’s former leaders, now under strict control by the king’s government. But there is yet another party to this love trapezoid: A former patron of al-Habib’s, the now-uber-wealthy Si Idris, who wants to prove money conquers all.

As the narrator is caught in the struggle between Si Idris, Ruqayya, and al-Habib, he begins to learn more about his adopted country. He sees terribly impoverished farmworkers out on Si Idris’s luxurious estate and, on another day, a cluster of tin shacks, where:

Two children slept near one, in the shade, bathed in sweat, and naked except for the layer of dirt. An emaciated young woman, her eyes hollow, fanned them with a small piece of cardboard. Her pale cheeks were tight over a hidden pain.

But paradise’s pain isn’t just in the form of poverty; it’s also in hopelessness. On an idyllic beach, full of young people, al-Sharqi sees a young man who he imagines “was waiting for a magic stroke of luck that would make one of the European women fall in love with him and extricate him from unemployment, ruin, and the killing wait for something that does not come.”

The translation is generally solid, although not always as light as it might be. There are some jokes that feel closed-off to the English reader — such as calling the protagonist al-Lubnani (not al-Sharqi), as Lebanon is at the absolute edge of the known (Arab) universe. There are also a few parts that could have been more loosely translated or tightly edited, such as: “They began to laugh together in the intimacy she habitually created with anyone she conversed with.”

But, taken as a whole, the book works as both a portrait of a Moroccan coastal town in the pivotal summer of 1965 and as a romantic murder-mystery with larger-than-life characters.