The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa

Translated by Sam Garrett

Reviewed by Alice Farrant

Two venturesome women on a journey through the land of their fathers and mothers. A wrong turn. A bad decision.[1]

The Death of Murat Idrissi is a tale of the migrant dilemma; the desperate measures someone will go to escape, but also the struggle to belong. In this brutal novella, Wieringa discusses what it is to be ‘other’ in a country that is home and the desperate need to escape poverty for a better life.

Murat had nestled down into the deep hollow made for it, where he would spend the crossing, in the dark, covered with baggage.

Second-generation Dutch immigrants, Ilham and Thouraya, have taken a spur of the moment trip to Morocco. Ilham even stole her sister’s passport to go, she didn’t have one of her own. But Morocco wasn’t the holiday they were expecting. With fewer freedoms, being perceived as western tourists despite their family living there, and not enough money they are manipulated into to take drastic measures to return home.

Even though they were in their parent’s homeland staying with relatives, they were not Moroccans. […] They were the children of two Kingdoms, they carried the green passport of Royaume de Maroc and red-lead one of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in both countries they were, above all, foreigners.

Ilham is Dutch, born in Holland to immigrant parents. However, in Morocco she is Dutch, in Holland she is Moroccan (or perhaps even just African). Never at fully at home in either place, persecuted in both for being different. At home in Holland, she enjoys Western freedom but is also faced with the ‘traditional’ and subservient roles women are expected to take as Moroccan women.

She wa exasperated by her lack of being allowed to be Dutch despite being born there and doing the same mundane things all the white Dutch do. And then 9/11 happened, and she was branded one of ‘them’, her name became a bad one. Ilham faces attack on multiple fronts, she is not allowed to be Western, to be Dutch, but also seen as a tourist in her homeland. She’s also female, expected to be subservient and lesser. Her struggles are intersectional, which Wieringa adeptly illustrates in his writing.

Murat is Moroccan, he and his family desperate to leave (no matter what it takes) to improve their lives. He’s tried to escape to France before but was caught. He is so desperate to leave that he travels to his death.

There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this.

Murat is trapped in poverty. As much as this novella is titled for him, he plays a small role. It would have been enjoyable to have read more from or about him, but he is more a plot device than character to explain the story of Ilham. This is the only downside to the novella, and poverty is explained with care but seen through the westernised eyes of Ilham.

And then, at the end, of that silent, motionless epoch – there is no one to witness the wonder of the continents tectonic fracture – a breach opens between the Atlantic ocean and what will become the Mediterranean sea.

Wieringa’s writing and Garrett’s translation are elegant. From the creation of the Strait of Gibraltar to the aftermath of Murat’s death, it is as if each sentence, each word, has been chosen with care. Both the writing and story merge into a beautiful symmetry, where it’s not possible to appreciate the devastating story without appreciating the paradoxically beautiful writing. I was able to easily slip within the minds of each character, understand their motives and anxieties. For such a short novel, it felt very full.

Suddenly she got it. His mimicry. The hard work — how he had become a perfectly assimilated migrant’s son. He would beat them at their own game and be Dutcher than the Dutch. Her annoyance was triggered by their similarities: even though they were both born and raised in the Netherlands, not even their fervour and ambition could make them anything but Moroccans.

When comparing the beginning of the novel, a history of the Strait of Gibraltar explaining how two lands were once one and split to create the strait of Gibraltar, with the story that follows I couldn’t help but think of how this place that was once one is now two. Where a woman who is still part of the one, cannot find her place in the two. Where one half are lesser because of their skin colour or poverty or customs, and the other half is so much wealthier. It pulls the racism within the story into sharper focus.

At only 102 pages, The Death of Murat Idrissi is a compact novella pulling powerful punches. A must read.

You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Instagram @nomoreparades

Tommy Wieringa, The Death of Murat Idrissi, trans. Sam Garrett (Scribe, 2019). 978-1911344889, 102pp., hardback. (Source: Review copy)

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[1] Synopsis, The Death of Murat Idrissi

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