Reluctant 'terrorist'

Reluctant 'terrorist'

Like other postcolonial novels that are about the conditions of and in nation-states after independence, Laila Lalami’s Secret Son criticises the failures of postcolonial government and examines the causes of such failures without nostalgia for the colonised past. In Lalami’s novel set mostly in Casablanca, Morocco, Youssef El Mekki — “a half-Berber and half-Arab” and a “full-blooded Moroccan” — is the illegitimate son of Nabil Amrani, a rich businessman who had a clandestine affair with his wife’s nurse while his wife was pregnant.

Youssef grows up in Hay An Najat, a slum and among its people (who are like the invisible colonised Moroccans in the old World War II Hollywood movie Casablanca) that Casablanca’s elites see but don’t see, recognising them only as a problem that could be addressed tomorrow because “this is not the best time,” to explore solutions. Youssef, who used to think that his father is dead, tries to build ties with him once he discovers the connection. He fails. Although he had once dreamt of raising the Moroccan flag as the nation’s hero, he eventually turns into a ‘failed terrorist’.

Youssef does not turn into a ‘slumdog millionaire’. His life scarily imitates that of the people in a film he watches (Boyz n the Hood) before the arrival in his neighborhood of an Islamic organisation (some of whose beliefs seem to resemble those of the Hizbollah) that is opposed to the government and all the political parties, and that distributes relief materials in Hay An Najat after a flood when even the government fails to do so.

The leader of the organisation, Si Hatim, asks Youssef to choose between the elites (including his biological father) of Casablanca, and the Hay Al Najat of his mother. Youssef is asked to kill a journalist, Farid Benaboud, who had criticised Hatim and his organisation. He wonders why Hatim cannot bring out an article against Benaboud instead of killing him. At stake in Lalami’s novel is the question of freedom of expression in a democracy.  

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy in which Islam is the state religion. The role of the police in this democratic state should be, as Youssef imagines it to be, to enforce the laws of the state against extrajudicial action against citizens, including journalists.
Youssef is a ‘failed’ policeman who is not recruited by the police after he drops out of college. Until his arrest, Youssef hopes that the police will take action to prevent Benaboud’s killing. One of Youssef’s friends eventually kills Benaboud but Youssef gets arrested.   

The police must capture the truth and punish the guilty. What punishment will be handed to the ‘failed terrorist’? The investigation will be limited by questions of evidence: Will the evidence be manipulated for the wrong purpose? Is there evidence that will not be considered? Similar questions limit Lalami’s text and other fiction — how much does it capture and represent about subjects like Youssef? Is there a story that is related to his story that Lalami has not told? The limits of human effort and human language seem to make all quests for truth imperfect even though they are necessary for learning about life and for ethical living.

I recommend this novel to all those who are interested in contemporary ethics, the prevention of violence, and the resolution of problems in democracies.

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