Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the author of five books, most recently, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, which was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Her other books include, The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the longlist for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award in Fiction. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times. She has been awarded fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program, and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles.
From Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
Fourteen kilometers. Murad has pondered that number hundreds of times in the last year, trying to decide whether the risk was worth it. Some days, he told himself that the distance was nothing, a brief inconvenience, that the crossing would take as little as thirty minutes if the weather was good. He’d spend hours thinking about what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house. Other days, he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he’d have to borrow, and he’d wonder how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries, but two wholly different universes.
Tonight the sea appears calm, with only a slight wind now and then. The captain has ordered all the lights turned off, but with the moon up and the sky clear, Murad can still see around him. The six-meter Zodiac inflatable is meant to accommodate eight people. Thirty huddle in it now-men, women, and children-all with the anxious look of those whose destinies are in the hands of others-the captain, the police, God.
Murad has three layers on: undershirt, turtleneck, and jacket; below, a pair of thermal underwear, jeans, and sneakers. With only three hours’ notice, he didn’t have time to get waterproof pants. He touches a button on his watch, a Rolex knockoff he bought from a street vendor in Tangier, and the display lights up: 3:15 AM. He scratches at the residue the metal bracelet leaves on his wrist, then pulls his sleeve down to cover the timepiece. Looking around him, he can’t help but wonder how much Captain Rahal and his gang stand to make. If the other passengers paid as much as Murad did, the take is almost 600,000 dirhams, enough for an apartment or a small house in a Moroccan beach town like Asilah or Cabo Negro.
He looks at the Spanish coastline, closer with every breath. The waves are inky black, except for hints of foam here and there, glistening white under the moon, like tombstones in a dark cemetery. Murad can make out the town where they’re headed. Tarifa. The mainland point of the Moorish invasion in 711. Murad used to regale tourists with anecdotes about how Tariq Ibn Ziyad had led a powerful Moor army across the Straits and, upon landing in Gibraltar, ordered all the boats burned. He’d told his soldiers that they could march forth and defeat the enemy or turn back and die a coward’s death. The men had followed their general, toppled the Visigoths, and established an empire that ruled over Spain for more than seven hundred years. Little did they know that we’d be back, Murad thinks. Only instead of a fleet, here we are in an inflatable boat-not just Moors, but a motley mix of people from the ex-colonies, without guns or armor, without even a charismatic leader.
“Which Victims of 9/11 Get Remembered?” by Laila Lalami. The New York Times. 10 September 2021
“Conditional Citizens Examines What It Means To Be An American” by Petra Mayer. NPR. 22 September 2020
“The Other Americans by Laila Lalami review – the political is personal” by Aminatta Forna. The Guardian. 29 March 2019