Ben Barka Lane

Written by Kay Heikkinen (trans.) Mahmoud Saeed
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1964, al-Sharqi, an Iraqi political refugee, arrives in Mohammadiya, a town on the Moroccan Mediterranean coast. Finding a high-school teaching position and an apartment in a modern concrete building, he feels like a stranger who has “stumbled upon a paradise that Adam himself would envy.”

Al-Sharqi is described as one who’s “never far from sex or politics.” He soon discovers unattached male friends and joins them in the la-dolce-vita in town and in neighboring Casablanca. While many fun-loving girls partially fulfill al-Sharqi’s carnal desires, he learns of Moroccan political strife through befriending a former activist, al-Habib, who dwells in the same building. King Hassan is cracking down on the opposition. Al-Habib was imprisoned but, having a weak heart, was released.

While al-Sharqi wishes to live in peace, his tranquil life is soon disturbed when a voluptuous young woman, Ruqayya, come to reside in the same building. Her beauty immediately besots al-Sharqi, but she does not return his amorous advances and prefers to remain only in a friendly relationship. Ruqayya’s deep love for the ailing al-Habib, is a mystery for al-Sharqi. When, following a murder, al-Sharqi learns of the reason for Ruqayya’s infatuation, he faces a dilemma, whether to be deceitful or stay true to his principles.

Originally published in Arabic in 1970, the novel’s theme of survival from remnants of colonial misery, anguish and dejection, during a time of disorder from political change, is still current today, particularly following the Arab Spring. Mahmoud Saeed’s tale of infatuation, reprisal and treachery, with evocative descriptions of North African scenes and life, entices us. Also, his writing style will remind readers of Camus’ celebrated The Stranger. The wonderful lines, such as “Can you discover a forest the first time you walk through it?” will surely beguile readers into a second perusal. Highly recommended.