Secret Son, Moroccan-born author Laila Lalami's debut novel, is a work of fiction inspired by a reality - the social, political, religious and economic complexities of contemporary Morocco. The book examines how class differences and social injustice contribute to a sense of alienation and desperation among youth.
The novel's main character, Youssef Mekki, lives in a tin-roofed shack in Casablanca with his mother. He has always had a feeling that she was hiding something, but he didn't know what.
"She had told him that his father was a fourth-grade school teacher who was very respected and beloved in the city of Fez, that he died on the day of Eid when Youssef was only 2 years old," Lalami says.
Then, Youssef discovers the truth: that his father is still alive and not a teacher, but a wealthy businessman. He also discovers that in this class-conscious society, he is the illegitimate son of an upper class man and a woman far below his status.
"So he decides to go find him [his father]," Lalami says. "But in the process of going find him, a lot of events happened that sort of shaped this personal story and make it also political story."
Exploring potentially dangerous social divides
Youssef's father seems eager to connect with the son he never knew and Youssef enters the luxurious world of Morocco's upper class. He starts to play the role of the privileged son until a reversal of fortune sends him back to the slum.
"Youssef, in this book, has the opportunity to live both kinds of lifestyle, which is not something that many people get to do, to experience both things," Lalami explains. "And it is that kind of sharp contrast that fills him with anger, that fills him with resentment. Now, whether those kinds of differences exist in other countries in North Africa and the Middle East? Yes, of course. In many other places after the colonial powers left, they left behind them an elite. That elite tends to think and treat its people in the same way as the colonial power used to treat them."
Now aware of the stark differences between the lives of the rich and poor, Youssef becomes an easy target for a local Islamic fundamentalist group that wants to recruit him for a terrorist attack against a liberal writer. In this section of her novel, Lalami explores why young people join such groups and become terrorists.
"Some of them might do it because they have finally found a group that gives them a sense of identity," she says. "Or they might do it simply for that fact that this is a group that gives them three square meals a day and before that, they couldn't have that. Or it could be because they deeply and passionately believe in the ideology of a particular group. Or it could be because of revenge, if the person whom they are attacking represents somebody who attacked their own family."
Lalami says no two terrorists are alike. But especially in developing countries, she says, the total lack of hope for a better life creates a bitter feeling of alienation and desperation among disadvantaged young people.
"I mean, you don't see kids from middle-class families doing it," she says. "This is a very different kind of terrorism than the one we saw, for example, on 9/11, where the 19 hijackers were all well-educated young men who had lived in the west."
A call to action based on real-world observation
Lalami spent about a year in Morocco doing research on the terrorist attacks that took place there in 2003 and 2007.
"In Morocco in 2003, there were four coordinated suicide attacks," she says. "This was the country's first experience with terrorism in the modern age. All of the young men who had participated in the attack, every single one of them, came from a slum called 'Sidi Moemen' in Casablanca. Then, about two years ago, in 2007, there were some foiled attacks. Those youngsters also came from the same slum. In the intervening years - four years had passed - and yet, very little had changed in the day-to-day life of that slum."
Lalami expects that terrorism will remain a threat until society successfully addresses its roots.
"Even though the government had started building these apartment buildings," she says, "when you have these huge slums, it really takes a national action in order for it to be dealt with in terms of education, in terms of health care, in terms of economy, in terms of jobs. It's not just a problem with the fact that you have a tin roof as opposed to real roof, it's everything that goes with it."
As a writer, Laila Lalami says she hopes readers will walk in the shoes of her characters and enjoy the story. As an idealist, she hopes Secret Son will show readers the high price society pays for ignoring poverty and social injustice.