A Novel

by Diane Skelly Ponasik (Morocco 1965–67)
January, 2006
428 pages

Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 1979–81)

    THE MOST EXCITING PART of Tangier, A Novel begins on page 184, when Kassim spies Lili, Ted and Tariq riding horses past a café in Taza where he is drinking coffee. He sends a boy after them, giving him a coin and offering him more coins for telling him the final destination of the three.
         Taza, a city in Morocco, is about to be attacked, defeated and sacked by the army of Sultan Moulay Abdul Aziz IV. Tariq is one of the commanders of the army. Following the defeat of the city, the novel moves very quickly to the discovery of what has happened to the friend Lili had gone to help in Taza, Meriam, and to her aunt, Rebecca, who is unwell after a difficult pregnancy and delivery, and her baby, sons and husband. This story within a story is very compelling, showing the strong compassion of both Lili and Meriam, the wickedness of Kassim, the courage of Rebecca’s husband and sons, and the strength of anti-Semitism in Morocco in the late 19th and early 20th century.
         This novel, more than anything, is about the weakness of men and the strength of women who are left unprotected by their husbands and lovers, both physically and emotionally. Ted allows his wife, Meriam, to live unprotected in Taza so that he can go to Algeria to further his journalistic career by spending an extended amount of time accompanying and interviewing General Lyautey. Later he wants Meriam to abandon the baby that she has after being raped by soldiers in Taza. Lili is emotionally abandoned by her husband Arthur nearly every night as a result of his drunkenness and subsequent sexual impotence. She is also abandoned at one point by her lover, Tariq, who marries the woman his parents have chosen for him because he is unwilling to pursue a woman who appears uninterested in him. Tariq leaves Malika, his wife, and their children with her family in order to marry Lili after Arthur dies in an earthquake in San Francisco. He eventually follows her to Paris to resume their life together after the birth of their child.
         Tangier is also about how men and women don’t communicate with one another. As Tariq tells Lili:

    Here marriage is a contract between two families. We are not involved. Even after the ceremony, aside from the marriage bed, the husband continues his life with his men friends, and the women do the same. If we are lucky, we respect each other, but love, such as they describe in Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre, or some of the other books Ted and I read with Miss Higgins, I do not see that in my family. My cousin and his wife, for example, hardly speak.

         Many of the terrifying things that happen in the novel are recounted in such an emotionally flat way that the terror is completely drained from them. When Ted holds a lamb barbeque to celebrate his upcoming wedding to Meriam, Al-Raisuni, the Robin Hood of Morocco at the time of the novel, and his band of robbers arrive and hold up everyone at gunpoint, taking all of their money and jewelry. The robbers depart, and at the end of the evening, the fathers of the bride and groom apologize to the guests, “They finished the evening, Matt and Brahim passing from table to table to express their embarrassment and regret at the incident. Once the initial shock had worn off, most guests seemed inclined to shrug it off.” Earlier in the novel, Kassim has a confrontation with a shopkeeper in Tangier, observed by Meriam and Lili:

    “Hmm, rather rude,” Meriam murmured, obviously not wishing to pursue the subject. That was often her way, Lili thought. Just ignore the unpleasant and maybe it would go away. “Let us go now.”

         When Kassim buys a black woman slave at the market, the extent of her terror is described thus: “She was shaking with fear.”
         I found most of the novel to be very descriptive of events but very unemotional. I longed to hear how the characters felt about what happened to them, and rarely did this occur. The dialogue is descriptive but not emotional. All in all this novel provides a lot of excellent historical information about Morocco and about issues related to Islam, Judaism and Christianity in countries in North Africa and the Middle East, but not a lot of complex and developed characters to move the history towards the novel side of the equation.

    Martha Martin is an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University, of recent NCAA Final Four fame. She runs competitively up to marathon distance and is working on a creative non-fictional account of her years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica.