- - Thursday, October 8, 2015



By Mhani Alaoui

Interlink Books, $18, 350 pages

Mhani Alaoui’s “Dreams of Mariam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms” is not always straightforward reading. Quite often in prompts such questions as “What’s happening here?” “Where are we now?” Where is this going?” These mysteries are generally quickly answered, though they linger throughout the narrative as the author laces together legend and myth, epic and quest, realism, fantasy into a complex novel, rich with meanings.

The four tales at its heart are those of Scheherazade, who entertained a king for a thousand and one nights with her stories, the apocryphal tale of Adam and Lilith and the opposing Genesis record of Adam and Eve, plus the 20th-century history of Adam and Leila Tair. “[They] were never meant to be. Leila was urban and wealthy and upper class. Adam was poor and orphaned. They were from different castes and had they remained in Morocco they would have never met.”

In fact, they met in Paris, where he was studying, then returned to Casablanca, where his talents and their hopes withered away. Leila felt culpable for bringing them back to Casablanca. She believed her punishment was childlessness. Yet when she and Adam are arrested and tortured after the Bread Riot of 1981, she conceives and has a daughter, Maryam. Readers — who are privy to Scheherazade’s confidences — know that Maryam is her daughter, too. She is a special child, the recipient of the gifts of perception, thought, and heart, and characterized by the aroma of orange blossoms that always surrounds her.

Throughout the novel the history of Maryam and her parents is almost always in sight. Brought up by her grandparents and godmother in their crumbling mansion, she rides to school on her bike, traveling past the crumbling buildings and rusting factories of Casablanca. But realistic description of daily life in Casablanca is but one element in this narrative skein of legend and fable. Maryam’s bike is a magic bike. Casablanca is not just a harshly policed city of neglected buildings, it’s also a mythic place whose denizens include witches, djinns, and giants. Then there are its demons, who take many forms including that of the torturers who work over Leila and other prisoners.

In all this Mhani Alaoui shows us a society that is warped, and that warps all its people, even those like Leila and Adam whose abilities and assets should have led to better lives. What has caused all this? Political and social oppression is one answer. So, too, is religious and social custom, especially the subjugation of women and the intolerance of difference and dissent. But significantly for the trajectory of the narrative, Ms. Alaoui avoids the path of the historical or political novelist, who must trace cause and effect chronologically. Rather, she shows historical and contemporary issues in occasional episodes and the climate of anxiety, while often returning to Scheherazade and her powers. These are deployed in such long-term operations that events seem inevitable and history almost timeless.

This sense of history largely obviates any political or human intervention in its movements. Yet the flashes of anger and rumblings of thunder in “The Dreams of Maryam Tair” alert the reader to expect a resolution that will dispel the omnipresent fear and decay. The promise throughout the novel is that Maryam will provide this ending; in other words, that she is a kind of savior.

That role creates two problems. The first is that saviors are unimpeachable heroes or heroines, and so can be sentimentalized because the reader is forced willy-nilly to be an unconditional admirer. Mhani Alaoui has avoided this by the shifts in narrative and also by making the blue-booted bike-riding Maryam charming as well as mysteriously potent. The other problem is that a savior or powerful heroine at the center of a novel limits the possible endings. Plus, in this case the multiple strands of story-telling are hard to tie into a tight conclusion.

The difficulty of reaching a robust ending afflicts many novels, especially the most ambitious — and “Dreams of Maryam Tair” is nothing if not ambitious. Mhani Alaoui solves it by modern technology and traditional affirmation of human agency. Readers may not find this entirely credible given the long perspectives of the narrative. Certainly, they will have different responses to it, as they will to the novel’s stories and narrative strategies. It is packed with ideas and challenges, and while sometimes their development could have been more controlled, usefully reducing the length of the book, everywhere the writing sings of the literary talents and acuity of its author. Hers is a new voice to listen out for.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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