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Fiction

The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Prologue: I received a letter this morning. A recycled envelope. The postmark and date were hard to make out over the stamp of King Hassan II in his white Jellaba.  I recognised Mamed’s uneven handwriting. In the top left handed corner, “personal” was underlined twice. Inside was a yellowish sheet of paper. A few lines, harsh, dry, final. I read them over and over. It wasn’t a hoax or some kind of bad joke. It was a letter intended to destroy me. The signature was m friend Mamed’s .Tthere was no doubt about it. Mamed, my last friend.

Tangier, the late 1950’s. Two teenagers, Mamed and Ali, strike up an intense friendship that will last a life time. But lurking just beneath the surface is a deep, unspoken jealousy in their friendship.

The book opened brilliantly, holds my interest all the way and ended melodramatically. It opens with Ali narrating their friendship from his eyes, and the second part by Mamed from his perspectives, and a small final part by Ramon, their mutual friends and then the last letter of Mamed to Ali.

Ali originated from Fez, a fezi. Inhabitants of Fez are the highly regarded minority in Morocco due to their richness in culture and intellect. Ali is interested in drama and arts, good looking and fair, has a good fortune of attracting the fairer sex. When reminiscing about their growing up years, he remembered all the boyish sexual exploits with girls in Tangier, the events leading up to their arrest in the camp, and hiatus of contact after Mamed went to Sweden to work for WHO. The chasm of their friendship is also created after they both married with their respective wives, with Mamed’s Ghita a catalyst in the breakup of their long friendship. Ali also spoke about his trial and tribulation of his marriage life.

Mamed originated in Tangier. Tangier was his hometown. Interested in Islamic mystics while believing in the socialism ideology or Stalin and Lenin. Always protecting soft-spoken Ali from harm when they were younger and narrate a lot more about their 18-month experiences in the disciplinary boot camp than Ali does; and his eventual decision to end his friendship with Ali.

This is how it is. With a long term friendship, the friendship took many twists and turns. The two friends, wiser and world-weary offering differing accounts of their relationship’s from their rebellious youth spent subverting the rigid moral strictures of the day to harrowing months spent together as political prisoners, and their eventual settling into conventional family lives. Only then do the real differences between them emerge, culminating into a tragic end.

The story of the “Last Friend” pulled my heartstring in two ways.

One, because my extended families are Moroccan, so I could relate to all its beauty and dark side of the country and culture. As I read this passage about Fez…

Fez is not just any old city. It’s the cradle of our civilisation. When our Jewish and Muslim ancestors were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella, they took refuge in Fez. Fez is a living museum, and should be considered part of our universal heritage. I know, our treasures aren’t so well preserved, but there’s no city in the world like it, and for that alone, it deserves respect.

I feel it in my bones of every word of how the feeling was to walk on the footpath of that medieval city called Fez, with its donkey carts, its carpet and tea shops and serpentine alleyways with surprising nooks and corners. I have been there numerous time, but every time I’m there it never fail to amaze me. The City is really one of its kind in the world.

Second thing, the main premise of the book is about friendship. Not many books write about enduring friendship, so this intrigues me. Personally I have kept friends from primary and secondary school friends and felt these friendships that are first created from the purest of hearts are the enduring ones. What strike a chord to me was a genuine friendship such as what Ali and Mamed have is built on happiness and sorrow, with tribulations and misunderstanding which tested their friendship. Despite their differences,

Mamed choose a virtuous woman over a great beauty who was arrogant and difficult. Unlike Mamed, I chose beauty, which came with both arrogance and fickleness. – Ali

They are bonded.

I can’t help but to conjecture that the story is a true story of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s experience. Ali being his mirror reflection of being Fezi, possess the good looks and luck with girls and being mocked about his last name “Ben” by Mamed in the book. Tahar also inserted his political opinion here and there, one such is the conversation between Mamed’s father and him:

You know, my son. I was tempted to get involved in politics when Morocco became independent, but I quickly realised we weren’t read for democracy. Not that we didn’t deserve it, but we needed to be taught what democracy is. We had to learn to live together. Democracy is not simply a question of putting our ballot in a ballot box. It takes time. It’s a culture that needs to be learned.

My only critique about the book is that the “unimaginable and unforgettable act of betrayal” didn’t turn out to be as dramatic as it is described, giving me an anti-climax letdown at the end of the book. Some parts contains risqué content which provides some amusment for boys, but distasteful for me. Also it’s just too melodramatic towards the end, I came out of it feeling like “Does what happen to Mamed really warrant a drastic decision to severe a long relationship with Ali??!!” Well, what do I know, I was not born in that era. Back then maybe people are more histrionic?

Rating: 3/5

Still it is a small book, easy and entertaining to read no more than 182 pages. I’ll leave you with the following passage for those who experienced a long enduring friendship in your life, may your friendship be a rewarding and long lasting one.

30 years with some eclipses, some moments of silence, some separation due to travel. There were moments that gave us pause, but there were never a doubt. We never called our friendship into question. We always met again with the same gaze, the same strong sense of each other. People thought we agreed on everything. In fact, what gave depth to our relationship was precisely the opposite: it was our different perspectives, our differences of opinion, freely expressed, but without any kind of personal oppositions between us. We complemented each other and defended the force that cemented our souls.

 I’m reading this for 2010 Global Reading Challenge for Africa and A to Z Reading Challenge. I last wrote about Tahar Ben Jelloun in The Blinding Absence of Light, which is my best read for last year.

Hardback. Publisher: New Press 2006; Length: 182; Setting: 1950’s Morocco. Source: Own. Finished reading at: 16 Feb 2010

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

One thought on “The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun

  1. This sounds like an interesting book, and I’m always up for books that have friendship as a theme.

    Posted by Michelle | February 22, 2010, 9:52 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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