The African Library: Aya Dane by Mhani Alaoui

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Mhani Alaoui: Aya Dane (2019)


This highly sophisticated novel conveys – partly because of its unusually small cast of characters, and partly because so much of the text traces the combination of memories of Morocco with enigmatically evoked present-day experiences in Aya Dane’s inner world – a sense of insularity and isolation.


Mhani Alaoui is a Moroccan academic and novelist who lectures in anthropology in the Casablanca School of Architecture. Her PhD in anthropology was awarded by Princeton University; she resided in the USA for 12 years. Alaoui’s doctoral studies focused on the experiences of “illegal” migrants from Morocco to Europe and involved fieldwork conducted in France. Alaoui’s “migratory trajectories” focus evidently fed in some ways into her literary creativity, even though the “American” life led by her central character would also differ in crucial ways from the migrant lives that are the focus of her doctoral work and possibly (in some ways) more closely resemble the author’s own stint in the USA as a temporary “migrant”. This highly sophisticated novel conveys – partly because of its unusually small cast of characters, and partly because so much of the text traces the combination of memories of Morocco with enigmatically evoked present-day experiences in Aya Dane’s inner world – a sense of insularity and isolation. This “voice” is simultaneously that of Aya Dane herself uttering or recording her own thoughts, and an instance of what is technically known as “free indirect speech” – that of an observer with privileged access to the character’s inner world describing, reporting or analysing her experiences, thoughts and feelings. Aya is a painter, and the gradual creation of her most ambitious painting structures the evocation not only of her life in the USA, but especially of the earlier Moroccan existence from which a wealthy patron allowed her to move. The narrative is multilayered and non-chronological; the text is “difficult” yet compelling, as carefully deployed clues to Aya’s (auto)biographical story are slowly revealed – many crucial points being made known only very late in the novel. Aya records that she wrote down what she recorded because of memories making themselves irresistibly known after 15 years, during which she repressed them and thought she had forgotten them. She writes: “They came back in the guise of a voice that whispered to me in the dead of night … transform[ing her I] into she” (9).


The opening section is, accordingly, simultaneously enigmatic, concise and challenging.


The opening section is, accordingly, simultaneously enigmatic, concise and challenging. The narrative opens on a scornful note in Aya’s own words, sneering at whoever the snooper (her analyst?) may be who is searching her home and her painter’s studio to try and “solve” the mystery of who Aya Dane is or was, since she will have “disappeared” by the time the investigator enters her dwelling space, wanting to “discover” (and, no doubt, triumphantly explain and proclaim) where she has gone (if still alive) and what her reasons might have been for leaving the space of her success (artistically and financially) in Boston, USA. Has she fled, has she committed suicide, is her artistic career at an end or has she simply grown sick of an over-privileged and ultimately patronising milieu as the social context in which she and her art cannot fully flourish? In what is apparently a written document (a notebook or diary she has left behind, hidden), Aya has written: “You look at my work, sprawled and abandoned before you, and wonder wherein lay the secret of my talent. You won’t feel any shame, for it’s your right, is it not, to take apart a life once its owner has disappeared” (7). The sarcastic detestation Aya feels towards the arrogance implicit in anyone thus probing the very nature of her existence is especially evident in her question to the researcher: “Does your position of power enable your curiosity, justify your violations?” and her likening him (masculinity is implied) to “the predator holding its victim close lest she run away” (8), to insist on the violence in violations of psychic privacy and assumptions of a “right to know” all about another person, especially an artist.

Every year, on the 27th of November, Aya has received a strange text on her phone from an unknown sender, always the same three lines. This year, the sender has added an even more mysterious fourth line, so that the message now reads: “As the fire burns,/ The journey becomes loss/ The departure, exile./ And the muñeca breaks.” The word muñeca is a clue; it means “doll in both Spanish and Tangerine Arabic” (19), and Aya knows who has sent the text message. For the first time, however, she saves the message rather than simply deleting it. Then she puts the phone and all thoughts of the message aside, for “she had the most important work of her life to do” (21). This “work”, Aya has decided, will be a painting, rather than a painting that becomes part installation, part sculpture, like her recent efforts. The importance of the work to be done is based on a strange hand-delivered letter Aya has received from the most powerfully influential art collector and critic in the Euro-American art world, a man known only by the single name Ari, whose national-cultural origins no-one knows, although all are aware of his enormous wealth and his ability to make or break artists in whom he takes an interest. In the letter, Ari writes to Aya that, while he has noticed her work and believes that it could merit a place in his collection, he requires her to “pass a final adjudication. Forty days from the time [of the arrival of the …] letter, [he] wish[es] to see one piece of [her] art, old or new. [She] may choose which one, and in which medium. … But it must be one that captures [her] essence,” he writes, and this will be her “sole opportunity” (23). Several days have passed, but Aya has already decided that she will accept Ari’s challenge and the opportunity it offers.

The citation below provides a sense of Aya’s Moroccan childhood and how her home atmosphere began to change:

Money was tight in Aya’s household. The months when they had a little extra for outings or gifts were rare and few but the lack of money did not bear too harshly on them at first. Their apartment walls were covered in shelves of books. Aya’s parents believed in what books said to them and were soothed and nourished by the elevated ideas they contained. In the beginning. But passing time and empty pockets soon took their toll on them. (32)

The main factor in the alteration of the family mood is the behaviour of Aya’s sole sibling, Kareem, her older brother. The parents have come to regard their son differently to each other, and this has created a rift between the formerly openly and deeply loving parents. Aya’s father (who appears to be agnostic or simply secularly minded and is impatient with those manifesting fanatic religious beliefs – as Kareem has started doing) is disgusted that his son, since recently, has the Qur’an “blasting from his room the minute he comes” home and that he is “praying” in his room when he should be getting ready for the most important opportunity of his life. “He has an international coach coming to see him play” (33) – referring to the opportunity to get selected for membership of a Tangiers junior soccer club for local youngsters, but sponsored by “the most prestigious Spanish football clubs and allow[ing] the best young players to find a place in Spanish football” (121). Kareem’s potential has been widely recognised in a neighbourhood where he is already being hailed as “the next Zidane, our Ronaldo” (120) – as his coaches and friends say of the 15-year-old boy. But with his sudden and intense devotion to religious observances, his enthusiasm for football appears to have waned to the point where (his father fears) his chances are compromised. “He tore down the football posters from the bedroom wall and let his sneakers sit on the windowsill, taking in the wind, rain and humidity of a bitter winter” (123). The father’s fears are, unfortunately, fulfilled. After the crucial try-outs, when Kareem’s and Aya’s mother and several neighbouring women sit at home, expecting to celebrate Kareem’s victory with baked treats and tea, “the father came in first, followed by the coach and finally Kareem. One look at her husband’s face and the mother knew that things had gone wrong” (122). Aya suspects – little as she is then, but sensitive to the tone of her parents’ exchanges – that not only has Kareem failed to be selected for the prestigious team, but “that something else had happened. Something even more terrible and unspeakable” (123).

Aya, too, was discovered at school to be tremendously talented, but in her case, her talent is her intellectual giftedness – especially her mathematical abilities. In a severely Muslim context, however, where the headmistress and most of the teachers consider it their duty to prepare girls to become submissive wives (or co-wives) and devoted mothers with horizons limited to domestic duties and religious observances, and have an intensely zealous concern for preserving girls’ “purity”, Aya’s cleverness is regarded with distrust. One teacher, fortunately, has a different attitude. She is Aya’s mathematics teacher, rumoured to have been “trained in Damascus” and having the firm conviction that skill and professions in maths and science are fully compatible with “unwavering commitment to the nation and to God” (36). She warns Aya that “talent is a trap”, and tells the girl: “[Y]our true gift is grit. You are brave. That’s what God gave you,” adding that “that is the greatest gift a girl in our part of the world can have. But hide it well, make it seem unimportant, or they will crush you.” Miss Mai (the teacher) advises Aya that, since she can only help her “for a while”, Aya should “work hard, keep [her] eyes lowered. Then leave this country [Morocco]. Find a way. … Run as far as you can from here. Don’t ever look back. There is nothing left here. We are all just waiting for death” (37). While Aya feels the kindness of this teacher in her warm hands and her words of concern, she also recognises that the teacher has made her irrevocably aware of being unwelcome in her own country, that “something invaluable had been taken away from her” (37).

Aya gets a scholarship to study at a “prestigious” American university, apparently choosing Harvard and reading maths and physics. Shortly before obtaining her degree, a chance encounter brings her face to face with the brilliant work of Frida Kahlo in a book on the Mexican artist. Her own passion for painting is immediately and overpoweringly re-awakened, “and in what to others appeared a senseless, impulsive move, she changed the course of her life. … She started painting and drawing again, as she had as a child, but this time it was different, it was with purpose and clarity of will. And for the first time in her adult life, she felt at peace with work” – to the extent that “everything else in her life became secondary” (42–3). While her fame slowly grows and her work attracts increasing attention, Aya feels distinctly ill at ease with the way “others praised and defined her”. Also, perhaps due to envy of her success, Aya “began to receive hate-filled messages from anonymous senders” that appear to express “the scorn of the migrant, the distrust of the foreigner, the fear of she who is different” (45) – attitudes both mirroring and contrasting with (being partly economically rather than religiously based) her social context in Morocco.

The narrative shifts to one of Aya’s crucial experiences – a deeply painful “lesson” learnt as a young girl – in Tangiers. Aya had heard stories of a “different” city, one of “lightness and gaiety”, where the likes of writers William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal and heiress Barbara Hutton lived their glamorous lives. She had not believed there was such a part of the city, so completely different to the neighbourhoods that she and her family knew. But one day, the headmistress of her school, for once in a less nasty mood and in view of the “unbearable” heat, allowed the girls to have a free day. Aya wandered around, “happily” chewing some sweetened peanuts sold in a newspaper cone, and stumbled upon the famed neighbourhood.

Winding, cobbled streets circled lazily up hills of white-and-blue houses. Tangerine and lemon trees could be seen above the high walls, and purple and white bougainvillea curled up the bronze portals – the same flowers that, like carnal ghosts, would later inhabit her drawings.

This must be it, her heart pounded. … [Aya] took in the colors, the hues of orange, purple and yellow, the mosaics that appeared through the foliage, the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, as it contrasted with the pure white of the colonial walls. … Aya’s heart filled with a furious joy that she would not feel again for many years.

[But] as she was standing there, in awe, she heard a man yelling, and a dog barking ferociously. Startled, she looked around and saw a tall, light-haired man running toward her, his raised fist holding a stick …. (48)

Ironically, this defender of “the pure white of the colonial walls” is himself only half “white” in the Euro-American sense. For, even though his father was an acclaimed American poet who dwelt for some years in Tangiers and ensured that, even after he left, his son would lack for nothing, the man’s mother was “Arab, of Jewish faith” (149); her ancestors had come to live in Tangiers from Moorish Spain when Jews, initially (in the late 1400s), and later Muslims (between 1609 and 1614) were expelled from Spain, ending the great 900-year-old “Moorish” civilisation of Spain. His mother’s Abensour family was prominent in Tangiers, so the man who chased Aya out of his neighbourhood took (long ago) both parents’ surnames and was called Michel Abensour Stirling – even though Stirling had never married his mother, who grieved for him till her dying day. Aya learns all this about the man who chased her only much later.

Aya had, until then, been unaware that “expats, suave and chic, looked down on locals”. Suddenly, she understood that the beautiful neighbourhood was also “cold, unfeeling, arrogant”, and for the first time she perceived herself as “native, small, out of place” (49). That was also to Aya “the day she realized that ‘there was an us and a them, and that she been born on the wrong side of the world” (50). It is, strangely, as she starts painting what is meant to become her greatest work that she recalls “the day that took her innocence away”, for she initially wants to put “the colors of a perfect North African summer day” on the canvas, when her memory of being persecuted by the elderly man with his terrifying dog (that he set on her) makes her see anew that “the brightness of the memory was blinding” (51). Earlier, before Aya returned home to paint, we find out that she spent the night at the apartment of a man called David, and that the sound of a piano playing Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the end of love” – a song carrying haunting memories for Aya, as she had last heard it in her parental home in Tangiers – woke her and she decided to leave David’s side. She walks off into the December cold. David calls her, complaining that she has not said goodbye to him, asking her probing questions (“You’re taking your pills?”) and announcing that he is “worried about” her (13). Possibly hinting at a sensed but not yet fully conscious parallel between James Abensour Stirling and the American David, Aya/the narrative voice evokes the latter – immediately after mentioning the resurfacing memory of Stirling’s perspective of the girl Aya had been – as “Boston born and bred”, adding that “the Vandeer family [David’s] never talked about how the great-grandfather had amassed, and kept, his wealth” (51). Still, the reader senses that slave trade or at least slave ownership quite likely played a part. (This is never openly stated in the novel.) David belongs to an elite that is “discreet and powerful” and “convinced of its own centrality”. Aya knows that she is “from another world … where everything crumbled around you” and “all that you can hold on to are memories” (52). David, on the other hand, is “smooth and golden”. Even so, Aya is drawn to him; she even feels “understood by him” and appreciates the way he “sit[s] and listen[s] to her” (53).

David writes articles about migrants’ contributions to America’s diversity in “convoluted and complex” language. While he “talked about empathy and openness”, David’s unusual “theories about differences and immigrant struggles often included forays into mental illness and obscure neurological syndromes” – oddly so for a man supposedly in “wealth management” (53). Among David’s friends, who work for “all the right companies”, Aya feels herself to be “their token foreigner – accomplished, talented, striking” (54–5). Alone with David, Aya can “read her otherness in his eyes, taste her strangeness in his kiss, find annihilation in his touch” (59). The vaguely threatening quality in such an evocation of what is also a soothing and comforting, rather tenderly expressed passion on David’s part illustrates the author’s gift for subtly evoking the complexities of cross-racial relationships. One especially brilliant pinpointing of David’s enigmatically evoked role in Aya’s life refers to him being “of a rare breed, a cross between a latter-day Orientalist and an inextinguishable Don Quixote” (59). David is, Aya says, “eager to understand those vast expanses of lands, peoples and nations that the media calls “the Arab world”; he is (in Aya’s eyes, at this stage) “always prompt to decipher, hesitant to judge”. Yet she wonders whether he, too, is not “trapped in a spiral of uncontainable images [of Muslims and Africans, especially], caught in a reality where images had replaced facts” and where “the gaze had become frozen on the screen, blind to any other truth” (60). Despite David’s suave presence, Aya soon discovers that his whole “family was burdened with secrets and darkness that he bantered away in light talk” as he “filter[ed] pain with detachment” (65).

For a reason David has never understood, his school used to allow him to return home not only for Christmas and Thanksgiving, but also “for Yom Kippur, when he wasn’t even Jewish” (66). David has told Aya that she reminds him of his paternal grandmother, and invites her to join him and his family for their summer break at Martha’s Vineyard, at Beck Vandeer’s estate. Aya initially refuses, as she detests leaving her work, but the Boston summer heat is dreadful, so she has at last accepted the invitation. On the ferry over, David reveals that not only did his grandfather have a murky past in the way he amassed a fortune, but that he humiliated Beck (the woman they’ll be visiting, who has outlived him) by openly parading his mistresses and bringing them into their family home. Aya also senses, as they approach Beck’s estate, the haunting presence of “natives” who were eradicated by “white settlers” as source of “the darkness … Aya sensed beneath the soft-hued bacchanalias of crystalline privilege” (67). While David is more natural and evidently feels “at home” at Beck’s place, she is “the first, and only, person in David’s life whom Aya felt a connection to” – probably because she senses in Beck a kindred spirit in whom “pain and loss” have “simmer[ed] down to acceptance” and “resilience, barely short of resistance and hope” (69). Beck clearly likes Aya and confides in her to the extent of telling her something of her personal history. Her real name is Rebecca, and she is from a wealthy Jewish family, a fact her domineering husband forced her to hide. Beck allows Aya to paint her portrait, and Beck proclaims it “full of light” (73).

David keeps probing for more information about Aya’s Moroccan past, while she continues to fend him off – knowing that it is her “secrets that nourished her work and breathed life into the inert canvas” (79). One secret more painful than the next is that she has received a new text from Kareem to inform her that he has come to Boston to meet her. Acknowledging that she is “frightened” of her brother, she nevertheless fobs off David’s officious, ostensibly solicitous questions and demands (“I need to see and know what you are doing. To understand this”) by telling him a half-true story about her brother. But she understands David better now, for he is revealing “an ill-disguised male will”, one that is “familiar”, as she “grew up with” this kind of “iron will – to understand, control, dominate” (92), in Kareem. She sees in David’s “blunt anger” the same belief of “those who believed they had a right over her” manifested previously in “policemen, teachers, immigration officers, doctors, past lovers and one-night stands” (93). David’s “love” is one that “thrive[s] on control, definition, imprisonment” – a realisation that “turned [Aya’s heart] cold”, for she knows he is aware of “the quiet of her solitude” as “the well from which her work sprang” (96, 98). Her painting is an “exorcism of her “pain” and “disillusionment” (105) as she proceeds with creating her art work. Alaoui evokes a depth of understanding as to how Aya’s painful life and grievous losses nevertheless feed into her creativity: “with every brushstroke, Aya traced a new refuge” as “she painted with fear and fury, in exhilaration and in hope” (107). Like “the refugee walking her road to freedom”, Aya cannot stop: “every step more painful than the next but every pause a brutal reminder of her loss and vulnerability” (106).

Kareem phones again, sounding unexpectedly meek. Aya thinks back to when, back in Tangiers, the older brother she adored began to turn nasty. The girls who flocked to the young “soccer star” could sometimes be heard weeping in the street after visiting a nonchalant Kareem. Their humane “father remained quiet, though he thought of how one was never too young to be kind, nor too old to be cruel”, while their mother defended Kareem with the usual “boys will be boys” indulgence (124). The youngster began to show a “new harshness”, “sarcasm” and “mockery” towards his brilliant younger sister, sneering at her maths talent as unsuitable for a female (as the imams have taught him). Their parents came to talk to Aya in the bedroom she shared with her brother, as usual seeing their son from opposite perspectives. The mother warned Aya not to listen to gossip about her brother; the father disgustedly stated that Kareem “cheated at the tryouts” – probably by taking pre-match drugs – while the mother retorted that it was all her husband’s fault for refusing to bribe the judges like all the other parents did, labelling his ethics “outdated” (127). Aya’s father had now also shifted to the position of telling Aya she should “find a way to leave this place [Morocco]” (128). Kareem sat with the Holy Qur’an “upside down in his hands”, for he could not read the Arabic script; his eyes were full of “hollow despair” (131), but the parents had not seen it. When Aya, filled with trepidation, goes to meet Kareem for the first time in 15 years at a Boston bridge (for she cannot risk letting him into her home), she finds that her once “brutal fear was now gone, replaced by the shock of seeing him so diminished” (140). Perhaps this change in her perspective on Kareem has more to do with the fact that she has grown so much stronger and that they are not here meeting in a space dominated by Kareem, as was the situation in their Tangiers home. Nevertheless, Aya “smelled the violence that lurked beneath his stooped shoulders and thin arms”. He more or less orders Aya to return home to Tangiers with him, but Aya stands firm, saying, “No, I belong here. Tangiers is in my past and so are you” (141). She tells Kareem that she knows that he is “someone who destroys things … homes, families, trust”; she is aware that “he used words as fabrications to mystify and mislead”, and that he came to Boston “to break what was still whole, to empty out the dregs” (142–3). As she walks away from Kareem, Aya hears a shot ringing out, and knows that her brother “lay on the ground, and that it was finally over”, even though her initial sense of relief and escape is replaced by a “terrible pain” when she reaches her home (145).

It is only in the next chapter, beyond the middle of the novel, that the reader learns of a crucial event that propelled Aya’s departure from Morocco. One morning, as their mother enters their shared bedroom, she notices a blood spot on “the lower end of [Aya’s] pajama top”. When the mother enquires what happened, Kareem imperiously hands her a bottle of water, instructing her to give Aya a drink and to “get her out of here”. Although it does not take a genius to figure out that Kareem has raped his little sister, the mother merely stares at Aya’s pyjamas, while the girl cannot articulate what occurred, as she is unsure of what it is that Kareem did to her, knowing only that it was somehow “shameful” and that he hurt her (147). She is unable to accuse Kareem and she knows that her mother, “too, didn’t want the truth” (148). At least their mother clears their father’s study to create a separate bedroom for Aya. It is also on this day that Aya’s mother throws the muñeca in the trash can, telling her daughter she is now too old for dolls; but Aya secretly retrieves it. After the incident, the somewhat aloof mother shows Aya more tenderness, while Kareem “never forced himself on her again” – even though the mother and the father “put up [only] a pale resistance” to their son’s conduct (149).

What it is that she is evoking in her painting only slowly reaches Aya’s conscious mind. Part of it, or the biggest background area, evokes the ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, which haunts her mind:

The sea had taken many bodies into its abyss. Its golden-blue surface was tinged with darkness. It was a sea of loss. It held prisoner those who looked for passage without permission. It crushed hope in an instant and precipitated forgetfulness. And still they try crossing in the hopes that maybe they’ll be one of the lucky ones, one of those who sets foot on the shore on the other side. One of those who proves, even for a brief moment, that frontiers are in and of the mind … a migrant whose journey ends.

No one ever wondered what reaching the other side would be like. Or perhaps no one dared dream beyond the passage. The dream was wrapped up in the excruciating desire of departure and arrival. Beyond, was a mystery shrouded in … fragments of stories, or fantasies. (155)

Those like Aya, who do achieve the arrival, experience “shame in admitting loss and sadness at what was left behind”. The ones who, beyond this, achieve success in the new land have even “greater” shame because of this – as if it is an intensification of what has become known as “survivor’s guilt”. The “part of them that is left behind must be recreated anew” (156).

Aya’s narrative returns to Michel Abensour Stirling to describe a visit he paid to her at the Tangiers school, which had been endowed by his American father. He explains to Aya much later why he, who had previously shown no interest in the school, suddenly and, as an ageing man, decided to do so, since he knows she recognised him as the man who had chased her from the street on which he lived – “something in Aya’s eyes reminded him of himself the day his father had gone … [bringing back the] mixture of shame, confusion and fear [felt by] the child blaming itself for being abandoned, or hit, humiliated or otherwise hurt. It was the expression of lost innocence” (164). On the day of his visit, Aya is called to the principal’s office, where she discovers that the “peculiar” man (Stirling) has come to apologise to her (and the whole city!) for what he did (168); he gives no money and provides no bursaries to the school. As he leaves, Miss Mai, in an act of great moral bravery, approaches this wealthy man, and “in a low, urgent voice [tells] him what he [needs] to know about Aya Dane” (170). Consequently, with the “nonchalance” of those “smell[ing]” of “wealth and privilege”, Stirling pays an entirely unexpected visit to her parents’ modest apartment. He informs her parents (as if by some inborn right) that he “can take Aya” to “raise her like [his] own daughter”, give her “the best there is” and make her “an American citizen”. To her mother’s suspicious question, he replies that he has no interest in making Aya his wife. Suddenly, Kareem (who has been eavesdropping) intrudes into the little gathering, filled with “anger” and “hatred” (179). But her mother goes to Aya’s room and comes back with her belongings, telling Stirling: “Take her with you. … Take care of her.” Her father only says: “Make sure she forgets where she comes from,” for he recalls some “unspeakable evil that had taken place under his roof and the even more unbearable evil that lay outside its doors”, as well as his “helplessness and his inability to protect his daughter, his wife, his son” (180). As Aya finishes packing a few more things (like the muñeca) she wants to take with her, her mother enters her room. She states that she has “a story to tell” Aya: “a story no mother should tell her daughter, but one which [Aya] must now hear” (181). The story follows:

“It happened,” she said, “at the beach. It was a perfect day. Blue sky, gold sand, a crisp wind and gentle waves. You were holding your little red muñeca, and your brother was dressed in his football jersey, the green-and-yellow one he was so proud of, his orange ball in his arms. … This beach … a part of it was forbidden to the general public. And beyond the beach, a palace …. It belonged to a foreign prince …. (182)

Her mother explains that little Aya, before her parents could stop her, skipped onto the “forbidden” section, and that Kareem ran to bring her back, when two “armed guards” with “steely eyes” began to push the children around. The parents ran to intercede and explain, when a third guard, “drunk” or “on drugs”, arrived and dragged the mother away (182). The father could do nothing; the other two guards told him to take his children and wait. The mother was released at nightfall. Kareem, who was old enough to remember the dreadful event, “was never the same” afterwards. “Perhaps that is why he is who he is now,” the mother suggests, “but that is why you must go. Leave a home that cannot protect you. That is why we must agree to part with you, to let some stranger offer you shelter” (183). As Aya walks out to join Stirling, her brother yanks the doll from her, and spits.

Life with Stirling is no heaven, materially and educationally well-endowed as it is. Despite shoes that fit comfortably and attending the only American school in Tangiers, Aya “had never felt as much of a misfit or fraud in her life” (191). One day, a while after she has started living in his home, Aya decides to approach the somewhat aloof Stirling with a request: “Mr Abensour, I would like to pay a visit to my family.” He gives Aya a cryptic and ominous warning that she “may not like what [she] find[s]” and will be going there “at [her] own risk”; he also tells her not to “forget what [he] saved [her] from” (195–6). As she walks to her old neighbourhood, Aya feels startlingly “out of place” and perceives uneasiness and even open hostility in the “glances” of “once friendly neighbours”. One somewhat more kindly soul, a man, tells her: “[Y]our family. They’re gone,” but “the man who came for [her] … knows what happened.” The man also states that there was a fire that started in her family’s apartment, and that “they came for him, the police, the authorities” – referring to Kareem, “the only one to have survived” (197–8). No further details are added to this disquieting news, and Aya’s anxious question about whether her parents are still alive remains unanswered. Aya knows that despite being unable to find out what exactly happened to (and in) her family, “she would never see them again”. About Kareem, there are only scary rumours, for example, that he deliberately started the fire that killed their parents; attacked a policeman; or “had gone to fight the jihad in Afghanistan” (199). Aya “wandered the city for days before ringing Abensour Stirling’s doorbell” (200). Despite his coldness and his way of savouring the huge favour he sees himself as having bestowed on her, Aya does appreciate that Stirling “had forced her to break from her flat, linear view of the world … [and] had given her a chance to discover a rounded world of choice and privilege, and to find her own route through it” (203). It comes at great emotional cost to herself, of course, severing her from her land, her people and her culture.


One of her most precious memories is of how her mother taught her to brew Moroccan mint tea, and Aya treasures a set of tea glasses from her country. Now, she goes to get them, wraps them in a towel, and crushes them under her feet, and as she then touches the shimmering, broken pieces, they cut her fingers in a few places. Aya allows some blood to drip onto the glass, which then resembles a “blood-red flower”. Walking back to her easel, Aya “stood in front of the painting, holding the shards of glass in her arms like an offering to a vengeful deity” (213–4). As she works for hours on end to place the small bits of glass on and in her painting, each piece seems to find its allotted place, and some sink through the thick paint onto the canvas. “The pieces gleamed, red and filled with light, on the canvas” (214).


In the present, in Boston, Aya feels the power of suddenly resurgent memories of her childhood, her family and her home, triggered by the Leonard Cohen song she hears a pianist play – the song “Dance me to the end of love”, to which her parents used to dance. It brings her an “uncontrollable sadness … [that intensifies into] anguish” (205). Struggling, almost “invaded” by the painting she is working on (for Ari), Aya senses that “something was wrong” with her, unable as she is to work out how or “when it started or when it – she – broke”. She believes now that “the muñeca had to be the key to finishing the painting”. She is dissatisfied with its present “soft, flat, linear” quality, aware that “she had to feed it something else” (210–1). One of her most precious memories is of how her mother taught her to brew Moroccan mint tea, and Aya treasures a set of tea glasses from her country. Now, she goes to get them, wraps them in a towel, and crushes them under her feet, and as she then touches the shimmering, broken pieces, they cut her fingers in a few places. Aya allows some blood to drip onto the glass, which then resembles a “blood-red flower”. Walking back to her easel, Aya “stood in front of the painting, holding the shards of glass in her arms like an offering to a vengeful deity” (213–4). As she works for hours on end to place the small bits of glass on and in her painting, each piece seems to find its allotted place, and some sink through the thick paint onto the canvas. “The pieces gleamed, red and filled with light, on the canvas” (214). Finally, Aya paints what serves as her signature on every one of her works, at the bottom right of the huge painting: a slanted and blood-red rose. She has finished her painting just in time.

Her doorbell rings – she knows this must be Ari, but, suddenly nervously possessive of her great work, Aya attempts to hide her painting. She goes down and, on the doorstep of the rented house she lives in, finds a “nondescript, ageless man”, but she knows this must be Ari. No greetings are exchanged; Ari only at first abruptly, and then “sharply”, asks the curt question: “Where is it?” and reminds Aya of their “agreement” (220). She is forced to lead the way upstairs to her quarters and into her studio, where Ari soon finds the painting. He stands staring at the painting, then turns from it. Aya senses that, even though Ari expresses neither approval nor praise, she has succeeded. Ari states that the painting must be taken away in order to protect it. Aya will have no access to it, she learns. He takes a contract from his pocket which states that as payment to Aya for surrendering her painting to Ari to make it part of his exclusive and inaccessible collection, housed in an unnamed country, she will receive “one million gold crowns” in her bank account (223). It will also, although Ari does not say this, make Aya’s name as one of the world’s great artists. Ari states that it is his right to name her painting; it “will be known as the Aya Dane” (223). After Ari’s departure with her painting, Aya feels an emptiness and fears that she has given her artistic gift, even her own deepest self, away to the strange, reclusive hoarder that is Ari.

At that moment, she understood. Ari was not after a painting. He had come for her. Along with his commissioned work, he had taken her memories, her foreignness, her Arabness, her nothingness, her talents, her dreams, her loves … her soul. … She [had] thought [that] she had left it behind, somewhere in Tangiers …. (226)

For an indeterminate time, Aya lies inert – as if struck down. In Ari’s acquisition of her painting and all it means to Aya, Alaoui has perhaps evoked the irreversibly predatory relationship of the wealthy West with the immaterial wealth, talents and resources of those from the world’s less fortunate and prosperous regions. Another form of this exploitativeness is exposed in the final section of Alaoui’s novel.

Aya is evoked reading a text, seemingly the one the unnamed invader of her home discovers after her disappearance; it is a man, for Aya refers to how “in his gentle, broken notes were cradled all those who had, with such casual cruelty, danced her to the end of love”. The “notes” are marginalia in the lengthy notebook entries Aya does not recall having written, but recognises as hers. She calls the commentator “the persecutor in the armchair”, and recalls herself having been enwrapped in a “mist forming around and in her” (229). Though cryptic, the hints are there that the man is/was David – Aya’s lover or, more likely, analyst; the hints are confirmed in the long italicised section in the voice of a psychologist/psychiatrist with certain assumptions about and a particular perspective on Aya’s nature, her talent and her very being. Aya feels now that she lost her family and reached America “only to lose herself in David’s gaze, in his unclear love and self-interest” (230). At this point, Aya has “returned” or “awakened” mentally to find herself not in the (rented) home and studio she has so vividly described (or imagined?), but in an unfamiliar, rather dusty place, a room in a large building. She ventures out and down a corridor, where she spots a man, “his silhouette familiar” to her (234). He asks Aya whether she wants to see him, instructing her to await him in his office. While the man is away, Aya searches his office, finding a hidden recording device in a drawer. She takes it away with her in a pocket, telling the (returning) man that she no longer needs to speak to him.

The section that is chapter 38 (of 40) is probably the longest chapter of the narrative. It is marked off typographically by its italicised presentation, the “voice” in it seemingly David’s in his role as Aya’s counsellor and psychiatrist (237–47). An opening remark refers to the speaker having listened to Aya read from the “journal” he suggested that she write to “unlock her most terrifying memories”, but the speaker (on the tape recorder, presumably) adds that he “also just wanted – needed – to know more about her”. He says also that he “had his reasons” for “crossing [professionally, ethically?] the lines with her”, and proclaims (with some pride?) that he now has “a diagnosis” (237). In a typically aloof, professionally detached tone, the speaker states in justification of his enterprise and the use he has made of Aya that he has “always been fascinated by the force of … repressed feelings” and “by the migrant condition as a diagnostic category, by the fear and sense of displacement caused by exile” (238). Without explicit shame (if perhaps in a slightly shamefaced manner), the analyst relates how he was encouraged, years ago, by his “supervisors”, to get close to a “North African” and “young and beautiful” (and, of course, female) psychiatric patient, declaring that he did so to “help” his supervisors as well as himself, and confessing that as he did this, he “justified [his] interference by choosing to believe it would help her, too” (238). But even as this woman came increasingly to trust and rely on him, the recorded speaker states, his supervisors ordered him “to stop seeing her, to move on”. In one memorable moment of convincing candour, he acknowledges that “in truth, what I refused to see was just how deeply troubled, scared and alone she was, how old and anxious her eyes were. How she needed a counsellor, not a man, and how I failed her, and myself” (239).

David describes how he met Aya when his wife insisted he accompany her to see an exhibition of Aya Dane’s paintings. Afterwards, the couple happened to witness an attack on a lone woman in a dark alley leading from the gallery, and ran to her rescue. The victim turned out to be Aya. Having taken her to the hospital, David told her he was a psychiatrist and gave her his card. Not long after this, she turned up at his clinic, deeply troubled, asking for help and shelter, and he started treating her with a combination of therapy and drugs, having accepted her as an in-patient in his clinic. David states that he had some “success” with his treatment, since Aya has started painting again, which she was previously unable to do. Yet he thought that “her art was the thick rope knotting together her identity and her pathology” (242). David admits that he was made aware (in one of her readings from her journal) of Aya’s emotional fixation on him and of her belief that she was replacing his wife in his emotional commitment. Yet we gather that, by listening to David’s taped voice, Aya was given enough to detach herself from him and to leave the clinic, as she was free to do. She writes: “[T]here was something old-fashioned and decrepit in the manner that Dr Vandeer depicted my mental state, a nostalgia of his own, perhaps.” She puts David and his work firmly in its place, beyond her; she has seen through his treatment, and knows now that she “was his Dora”. Hence “the cold barrenness” that has surrounded her “recede[s]” and is transformed into “something elusive and precious, which appeared from the broken pieces”: beautifully evoked as “a soft quiet, and a rush of color” (247).

Evidently suspecting that it would be David who would gain access to her home after her departure and discover her notebook, reading the entries she has added after returning there, Aya writes that she is giving him her journal “as [her] deliverance” rather than her “surrender”. She tells David in writing: “I liberated myself from you, became myself once more – fragmented, torn, but undeniably one.” She has replaced his presence in her life with her most precious memories, especially those of her mother. She is her own self, able to proclaim: “I have given up the Aya Dane … the fear, the anger and guilt.” She is able to say, now: “I have surrendered my painting, but not myself.” Her memories no longer “hold [her] in their sway”, but are “poised to become color and lines, paint and matter, once more” (252–3). Walking out of David’s clinic, Aya can feel again: “[T]he air I breathe is fresh and clean, the air of an unmarked path. … It has a distinct scent, of moist earth and young buds, of greenness, of youth, of light, of things unknown to me. Its strangeness is exhilarating” (250). This is perhaps the novel’s most beautiful and tender moment, though not its final words.


Reading this novel and its record of great suffering and the profound emotional dislocations brought about by exile and migration, is arduous, often harrowing and disturbing; but as a narrative, Aya Dane is an immense and lasting achievement.


Reading this novel and its record of great suffering and the profound emotional dislocations brought about by exile and migration, is arduous, often harrowing and disturbing; but as a narrative, Aya Dane is an immense and lasting achievement.

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