Playing a part to survive: Laila Lalami’s Secret Son


Laila Lalami’s debut novel Secret Son is at once foreign and mysterious and also full of themes and motifs which resonate with contemporary Western, as well as Moroccan culture. Lalami keeps her novel grounded in specific times and places, incorporating the nation’s language, climate, and history into a piece about individual people who seek to find work, friendship, family, and a place to belong.

Several characters careen or meander between two worlds. Main character Youssef, brought up in the slums, discovers his long-lost father is not only alive, but a wealthy, powerful businessman. His step-sister, studying abroad in the United States, is pressured by her family to leave her American boyfriend and return home to her country and culture upon graduation. Youssef’s father attempts to balance the populist and democratic tendencies of his youth with his desire to protect his family, culture, and business.

The characters’ journeys through various strata and subgroups of Moroccan native and expatriate society reflect larger cultural divides within the country itself: between powerful business magnates and slum dwellers, between Islamic fundamentalists and French-influenced secularists, between a variety of ethnic groups, among Moroccans abroad who disagree with their own government’s actions yet resent the racism and insinuations of Western superiority they experience. Through one fractured family’s efforts to reconnect, readers experience a tour of the nation’s diversity and cultures.

Lalami writes with an eye for telling detail and a heart for narrative. We learn of Youssef and Rachida’s poverty, and the cultural and religious undercurrents within their neighborhood, through an introductory scene where the small family moves their belongings inside before a flood. An Islamic fundamentalist organization is the first, and the most capable, group on hand to help residents recover, quickly winning their trust and loyalty for later political and economic campaigns. This ground-level perspective goes beyond the political and body-count headlines in Western media, and helps explain the appeal of certain groups to local populations. One person’s terrorist is another’s rescue worker, developer, or community organizer.

Lalami develops the characters, including those who eventually become violent militants, as individuals who drink mint tea, play soccer, take final exams and watch television. Each person is humanized, and allowed to speak for him or herself and explain the reasoning behind their actions.  Lalami’s rendering of characters who, despite their flaws, constantly work to protect and create better lives for themselves and their families draws readers in and prevents this story from becoming a documentary or polemic.

Many characters take on different roles in public, acting for inclusion, success, or simply survival. These strategic concealments, when self-chosen, can protect individuals in the short-term, saving Rachida and Youssef from public disgrace for an affair twenty years in the past and providing him with the comfort of an imagined, loving father. However, harm comes to characters when they are forced to play unwitting parts in political and familial dramas beyond their control. Youssef’s stepsister Amal and her boyfriend Fernando’s loving relationship ends because of cultural divides and expectations, and Youssef is himself forced to choose between his father and mother’s world, and to live knowing that the simple mention of his existence will bring trauma to his stepfamily.

In the end, Youssef discovers how he has been set up to take the fall for the murder of journalist Benaboud, whose writing offended the local Islamic religious leaders. Caught between a corrupt secular national government and an angry religious society whose pride and sense of persecution has led to violence, Youssef hears the Commissaire refer to him with the last name of El-Mekki, the false name his mother gave him upon birth. Lalami here illustrates the tragedy of how, even with his hard work and best efforts, he could not rise above the role set out for him by culture and circumstances.

In the spirit of Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Lalami’s novel gently encourages and links together personal and political virtue: honesty, forgiveness, familial love and respect, tolerance, political and press freedom, through the action and the characters’ lives. Little slips into honest self-analysis, such as Youssef’s father’s admission that ‘yes, things would be different if my daughter were a boy’ and Youssef’s questioning what he would do if he were in Benaboud’s place and whether the man were truly out to insult the country and the faith, provide hope that the characters are thinking and capable of eventually creating a more just society, even if that process will take longer than one man’s life.

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son is available online at and through many bookstores…the author was born and raised in Morocco and has also written opinion pieces in favor of local efforts at economic and community development, press freedom, and building secular democracy in Morocco.