Having spent an ‘interesting’ time in Argentina, it’s time to leave South America behind (for now!) and head off to Morocco. However, our stay in Africa will be a brief one, as the people we’re joining are about to set off for Europe once more. There’s a spare seat in the car, and a full tank of petrol, so it’s time to roll off the ferry and head north. A last piece of advice, though, before we depart – whatever you do, don’t open the boot…
The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa
– Scribe Publications, translated by Sam Garrett
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Ilham and Thouraya, two young Dutch women, are coming to the end of an extended holiday in Morocco, their parents’ homeland, when an acquaintance gives them an opportunity to solve the financial problems that have been plaguing them ever since they got there. Saleh, another second-generation Moroccan, takes them to a slum house outside the city, where they are introduced to Murat, a gentle young man who wants to cross over to Europe – illegally. Ilham is initially horrified at the idea of smuggling him over in their boot, but under pressure from her friends, and Murat’s family, she reluctantly gives in.
However, it’s a decision she soon comes to regret. When the ferry docks in Spain, they open the boot to find the tragic sight of a man dead of asphyxiation, and before the women have time to react, Saleh’s already gone – with their money. While they manage to get off the ship without any difficulties, the reality is that they’re more than two-thousand kilometres from home with less than a hundred Euros to their name, and a body in the boot. So what do they do now?
From the above description, The Death of Murat Idrissi might sound like an action novel, a Thelma and Louise set in Spain, but it’s actually a very short psychological piece musing on immigration and the difficulty of balancing between two cultures. Murat may be the title character, but his role is (inevitably) a rather passive one, a reminder to Ilham and Thouraya of their roots. Instead, Wieringa uses the tragedy to make Ilham examine her own life and work out just who she is and what she wants to do.
The first chapters show the women as very Dutch in their behaviour, warily negotiating daily life in Rabat and retreating to McDonald’s when it all gets too much. The visit to Murat’s house comes as an eye-opener for the sheltered Europeans:
Saleh led the way. The shacks were built of perishable material, wood, plastic sheets – prey to any storm. Corrugated roofs held in place by car tyres, chunks of cement, broken ceramic tajines, television sets. The houses were huddled together; Ilham peeked inside as they passed. How did these people live? How could you live like this, for god’s sake?
pp.22/3 (Scribe Publications, 2019)
Ilham and Thouraya are united in sensing that this is not who they are or where they belong (Thouraya, in her designer clothes and flashy sunglasses, looks particularly out of place…).
Yet the shock of Murat’s death makes Ilham reconsider. As the two drive through the Spanish countryside, still traumatised by the discovery of the body, her thoughts drift back to her life in the Netherlands, her refusal to obey her parents and the attempts to ‘Europeanise’ herself. In truth, though, she knows she’ll never fit in, with events like the attack on the twin towers shutting out the possibility of assimilation. Instead, there’s a growing temptation of submission, surrender:
At times, she wasn’t all that far from giving in – all she had to was nod and her life would take on its form. Before she knew it, there would be a Moroccan Dutchman at her side, she would have henna tattoos on her hands, and she’d be a watermelon on stilts. Even though her husband had sworn he was as modern as the next man, it wouldn’t be long before they’d be having arguments about the wearing of the hijab. And that would be her last argument. (p.76)
It’s something she’s always run from, but in her moment of crisis, she wonders if she’s really made the right decision by running away from her roots.
It’s interesting to compare Ilham with those around her. Thouraya is ballsy and seemingly bullet-proof, never doubting her own decisions to break with her family, confident enough to sleep with strangers (and scam them afterwards…). Saleh is a charming, no-good hustler who has negotiated a position between the cultures, and on the fringes of the law. The closest character to Ilham, though, is Nourredine, another second-generation Moroccan the travellers meet along the way. She sees herself in the way he appears cultured, having adapted to the country he grew up in, yet she comes to realise that there’s another side to this. Compared to the others, he seems empty, fake, the consequence of having betrayed his roots.
Of course, we mustn’t forget Murat himself, who acts as a reminder of where her family came from and another mirror for her to see herself in. Saleh uses the guilt she feels for being a privileged westerner against her to make her change her mind about the crossing:
“Let me tell you something,” Saleh said. “Everybody made the crossing at some point – my parents, yours too – and you’ve got a good life because of it. But you’re not willing to help him. What kind of a person are you? You only think about yourself, really.” (p.35)
Even after his death, Murat still haunts Ilham, but then it’s hard to ignore him. Wieringa is very clear about the smell pervading the car, a reminder of the tragedy unfolding.
The Death of Murat Idrissi is a beautifully written short piece, powerful at its best. It’s a reflection on how tiny gaps, like the Strait the characters cross, can actually become huge gulfs – it’s just a matter of perspective. Don’t expect any real conclusion here; the book is far too short for the writer to be able to examine his topic in any great detail. However, it does all make for a fascinating story, with some rather uncomfortable truths.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
While I enjoyed this (twice!), there are several issues here, many of which you may have seen discussed online. One is the blatant ‘fridging’ of the title character, with the writer killing off a Moroccan man for his own purposes. Another is the way the writer depicts his two female characters. Some readers have been a little uneasy with Wieringa discussing the lives of two young second-generation women; for me, it’s more a matter of how well he does so. At times, it can move in the direction of cliché (Thouraya), and Ilham’s character is surprisingly underdone, perhaps as a result of her being the focal point of the work. I suspect that others will have stronger feelings on this than I do, but while The Death of Murat Idrissi is well constructed, I’m not convinced it really says or does anything new or compelling.
Will it make the shortlist?
Having chosen Wieringa’s book for the longlist, you’d have to think that the judges have already discussed these issues, and in far more depth and detail than I’ve done here. If they saw fit to include it in their first selection, there’s no reason to think that they’ll change their minds on a second read (I actually thought it improved second time around). I would not be at all surprised to see this one battling it out for the main prize come May.
We’ve ditched the Audi and moving on once more. This time we’re heading East, and a century into the past, to spend some time in the company of some young men seeking respite from a war. However, while it’s always possible to find a quiet place and a moment in the sun, peace never lasts too long. Conflict always seems to find you in the end, no matter where you hide away…