Identity Formation and Cultural Translation in "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" by Laila Lalami

Term Paper, 2020

15 Pages

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Table of contents


Introduction: Theoretical Considerations

Review on the Novel

Border Crossing and Questioning Identity

Fixed and Mobile Identity

Cultural translatability and untranslatability




Probing the concept of identity formation and mobility in Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), this article immerses in the question of cultural translation of mobile identities in relation to alterity and border crossing. It first begins by shedding light on the cultural and geographical borders which identity speaks from and is defined by, for without there being a lucid insight into how the feeling of belonging and how the cultural history and heritage amount to the construction of identity in the homeland, and without such kind of insight into how the formation of identity takes place culturally and socially, cultural translation would still be an ambiguous collocation in the field of Postcolonial Studies and throughout this article as well. Also, it expounds how mobility bears upon the cultural translation of identity and what kind of changes it brings about in the middle of the past and future anxiety, the Self and the Other, and modernity and tradition. Finally, the article delves implicitly into some conditions of untranslatability and translatability such as ambivalence and blasphemy respectively.

Keywords: Identity, Cultural translation, Migration, Ambivalence, hybridity, Blasphemy.

Introduction: Theoretical Considerations

In the light of the postmodern philosophy and postcolonial thought the concept of identity disputably raises a huge problematic in relation to its definition and formation. In a globalized world and with the increasing development of technology and transportation identity has become a location of negotiations and negations that involve the Self and the Other, the past and the future and modernity and tradition among which mobility rises as a leading cause. Within these conversations emerge two contradictory views—identity as a fixity and as a process. At some point, Stuart Hall convincingly considers identity as a fixed and stable articulation of one’s self which is closely bound up with a particular and specific context which defines identity as “stable” and “unchanging”. Hall argues, “We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always 'in context’’ (Hall 222). Identities, in other words, are defined by the very environment where they belong, being confined to a place and time both of which define their essence as culturally different.

Identity, thus, as consigned to a point of reference, a history and a culture takes on a static signification. However, at a later stage, Hall shifts from this view to assert that when identity is rethought as a mobile constellation of ideas, a “process”, “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’, it goes beyond fixity to embrace change. It becomes attached to “the future as much as to the past”(Hall 225).

Both mobility and transformation of identity are ways of survival (Bhabha 324). In this respect mobile identities are caught up in a situation where ‘cultural death’ is not a choice. To survive a new cultural system is to translate one’s Self into this system’s cultural values and norms accordingly. It is, however, a course of actions involving steps and processes which require the change of time and place. What Bhabha means by survival is not a biological instinct but rather cultural. The migrant, in Bhabha’s metaphor of survival, is to identity with cultural difference assuming similarity in difference. No matter what difference might mean to the migrant, and no matter how far the translational character goes in this process of cultural translation, he/she ends up culturally hybridized, having two cultures and worldviews at the same time, and difference becomes no longer a problem. The migrant obtains the skills not only to culturally translate but also deal with difference in a harmonious pluralist way. Beyond the border of the inside the transnational character finds her/himself forced into what Bhabha calls “the daemonic doubling”. What Bhabha means by this doubling is the attempt of the Self to live in two different and opposing settings. The doubling is found in the double lives of migrants. Once the original is melted away into the obscure, identity seeks translation as an alternative to attain a substitute of that original (321)

Review on the Novel

Laila Lalami’s first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (HODP), narrates the story of a group of immigrants who embark on the journey of change once they start thinking of migration. The novel is set some years between 9/11 and the mid 1990s—before the death of Late King Hassan II. As the title suggests, the main issues that the novel raises revolve around the aspirations and other dangerous pursuits that illegal migration essentializes during this period. Murad Idrissi, Halima Bouhamsa, Aziz Ammor and Faten Khatibi as the main characters live different stories, but share the same hope which drives them together onto one inflatable zodiac to cross the Strait separating Spain and Morocco.

Aziz and Faten, who make it to Spain, live the change of context and therefore the change of identity. As for Aziz, he is a married man and has responsibilities for the house. Aziz’s story is similar to the other characters’ in that his misery and poverty are the leading motive which separates him from his family and his best friend Lahcen to join Harraga (illegal migrants). His pre-migratory life depicts the struggles he has been through apropos of the idea of migration, but hope triumphs over the fears and voices that shackle him to the homeland, and he makes it to Spain. 5 years later, Aziz pays a visit to Morocco, but his identity has been saturated with modernity and openness. His translation sets a barrier between him and his original culture—a detachment that prompts him into another whim which is to live in Spain for the rest of his life. In contrast, Faten as a poor and marginalized character is a student of Islamic Studies in college in Casablanca. She befriends a girl called Nora who is from a modern and rich family. Since Faten is a religious girl and member of Muslim Brotherhood, she influences her friend Nora and advises her to wear Hijab. This stirs up some contradictory ideas in the house about the use of Hijab, which turns Faten into an enemy of Nora’s father. This antagonism and her political engagements force Faten to migrate to Spain. Some months after her arrival in Spain, the religious and old Faten melts away, and a new character replaces her; she becomes a ‘prostitute’ and makes a living by forbidden means as she used to say in the homeland.

Border Crossing and Questioning Identity

Casting an eye on how HODP revolves around the question of illegal migration, the reader would as clearly as crystal discern that only third world individuals who are subject to this risk of crossing the borders. Each character is defined by its own cultural environment. For instance, Aziz Ammor’s historical repertoire and memories of sneaking into “movie theatres” and scavenging the leftover of beers and the like “on the beach” mark him as a subaltern individual from a lower social class (Lalami, HODP 70). As he grows up, he comes to joblessness which is aggravated by his marriage to Zohra. An individual with no education, wearing second hand clothes and coming from an underprivileged neighborhood is forced to be cramped into poverty, and his “affection” (Lalami, HODP 77) to people like countryside men “Cheluh” (Lalami, HODP 75) shows hints of affiliation with this stratum of people (lower class).

Similarly, but this time the protagonist’s social affiliation shows some religious connotations lying behind her identity. Faten Khatibi as a poor and marginalized character is a student of Islamic Studies in college in Casablanca. She is defined as a fanatic and fundamentalist, and one of the lucid signs that reflect her religiosity is Hijab (costume). She is devoted to Islam as well as to her Imam, and she shows more or less some aversion against the new Moroccan government and Western ideology, which reflects her animosity as a respective characteristic and idiosyncratic trait. In contrast, the secular example which is comparable to what Faten comes to oppose is Nora and her parents. Nora’s life before meeting Faten is characterized by openness to Western culture. She is accustomed to skirts, T-shirts and sneakers and her preference of Western music (rock music) puts her in sharp contrast to Faten, and once the two become friends, Nora’s parents become worried about this friendship which seems to them ‘abnormal’ and transgressive.

The protagonists of the novel are characteristically attributed with their insurgent quest of a new identity which is essentially located in the promised land beyond the border, and to wear that particular identity, mobility comes to be a must. The migrants’ Low culture not only separates them from the High culture environment, but also prompts them all to embark together on the inflatable zodiac and venture to immigrate to Spain. And once they travel across the boundary their culture drags them back to their history still. To wit, despite the migrant’s effort to cross the borders demarcating them in the third world, they wind up being marginalized and othered on the basis of their history and difference. Faten Khatibi as a case in point never finds a good bond with the Westerner except through prostitution, and when it finally grows hopeful that someday the Westerner might help her get her documents for the visa, she is dealt with from an Orientalist perspective as an odalisque. Her oriental affiliations set her apart from any belonging to the Spanish culture and remind her of her life in Morocco although “she didn’t want to think of that time in her life” (Lalami 119). For instance, Martin, as a representative of the Orientalist discourse, smells her and blurts out, “I like the smell of your skin—salty like black olives” (Lalami 122). The protagonist is treated with a degradation and debasement; the orientalizing, subjugating gaze of Martin excruciates her being an ‘Other’ in the ‘unknown’ Spain, and at some point, he asks her, “did you wear those embroidered dresses? What are they called? Caftans” (Lalami 124), and finally he speaks his mind “women in this country … don’t know how to treat a man. Not the way you Arab girls do” (Lalami 132). Being an Arab, Moroccan descendant drags Faten away from incorporating into the new culture and identity, and it confines her to her history that she herself did not live in the least. She can’t even find a way to ease the tension of cultural difference amidst all the questions that provoke her belonging and history, and that sort of affiliation stands between Martin and Faten, for both of them have a cultural identity which ties him or her to a cultural group, and thus they feel a mismatch lying in between, and finally Faten gives up on the idea of hope in Martin.

However, beneath this jarring tension imposed by her different culture, Faten’s belonging forces her to find shelter in sameness. After feeling the unbridgeable gap between her and Martin in particular and the Spaniards in general, she resumes her own culture, celebrating Eids and remembering the meals she had at home and more importantly she lives with a Moroccan girl with the same system of beliefs and religious affiliation, which is a great deal of ease for a so lost migrant in the strange Spain as her.

The territorial borderlines have much to do with what has been stated about the cultural and social borders. Their meeting point appears in splitting the world into territories that are reachable. And even if there is a potential of that sort, the individuals who cross their territory experience a refusal or denial. Given the fact that HODP’s major theme is about migration (immigrating from Morocco to Spain), the Strait connecting the two continents (Africa and Europe) is deemed by Murad as a very short distance—it is only a fourteen-kilometer distance, but risky to cross. It is not merely a sacred border but rather a dangerous one. It involves the possibility of losing one’s life as much as losing one’s identity. It is even reflected on by one of the characters as a “cemetery”, “He looks at the Spanish coastline, closer with every breath. The waves are inky black, except for hints of foam here and there, glistening white under moon, like tombstones in a dark cemetery” (Lalami, HODP 2). It is not only a border between life and death, but also between “two universes” (Lalami HODP 1): the universe of hopes and dreams, “opportunity” and “freedom” (Lalami, HODP 15) and the universe of poverty and oppression

Fixed and Mobile Identity

Throughout the novel, there appear many instances where characters embrace one definable, fixed identity. Although demarcating and defining this identity is hard to make, the context from which it speaks makes this difficulty and fixity relative and possible at the same time. Faten’s identity as a concrete example, as a religious girl, at the age of 18, is defined as a fanatic and fundamentalist. Before migrating to Spain, she is restrained by her own perspective within one definable and fixed identity. She is a very spiritual girl with a religious point of view. In a conversation with one of the secondary characters, she is hypothetically proposed a chance to go to a foreign country, and for her religious zeal, she refuses this proposition and relate to it as a shameful and disgraceful transgression.

No, I don’t. I think it’s a shame that we always value foreign degrees over ours. We’re so blinded by our love for the West that we’re willing to give them our brightest instead of keeping them here where we need them (Lalami 41)

Beneath her changing nature, Faten speaks from a point and ‘frame’ of reference. Her membership to Muslim Brotherhood defines and frames her visions as stable and unchanging. She is against the West, and her fundamentalist perspective stabilizes her identity in the circle of preaching and spreading ‘peace’ at university. Her fixity, in this regard, provides change at two different levels. On the one hand, her fixed identity influences her friend Nora’s identity who, all of a sudden, becomes a religious girl wearing Hijab and no longer a modern, open-minded girl in jeans and T-shirts with an up-to-the-minute fashion. And on the other hand, Faten’s fixed identity loses in shape and form, but wins in influence. That is, after Faten’s arrival in Spain, being driven by many factors—political and economic, she finds herself in “high heels” “short skirt” and “sneakers” (Lalami 121) and bound to prostitution, which is again completely contradictory to her premigratory standpoint, but still her previous fixed identity comes up in her mind every now and then through remembrance; especially once she comes across religious icons.

Aziz’s and Murad’s fixed identities are similar in that they are a reference for their changing identities and different in that Aziz who succeeds to make his fortune in Spain is haunted and caught between his past memories in Morocco and his memories in Spain, while Murad is haunted by imagined memories and hopes on one side, and lived memories on the other. Aziz’s identity, throughout the many fixed identities he has gone through, is always on the move, culturally and geographically. His return to home marks this change; he could not cope with the Moroccan city and its old discourses, and he even forgets how to intimately approach his wife. His migratory experience has influenced the way he makes love to his wife. He is in the unknown and incomprehensible space; neither here nor there.

Now he wondered what his wife would look like in a sexy bustier, straddling him…. He couldn’t imagine Zohra doing it. But maybe she would, if he asks her….Her eyes questioned him (Lalami 152)

His identity vacillates between two identities which are fixed to their context. A Moroccan identity that brings him back to his family and history, and Spanish identity that incorporates him into the modern discourses of Europe. If this hybrid identity draws him into the unknowable and unrepresentable on a level, it frames his angle of visions on the other, and then he could not perceive Moroccan identities from a European perspective: “He also had trouble visualizing his wife’s face . . . [and] he couldn’t recall the color of her eyes” (Lalami, 137), “he couldn’t imagine Zohra doing it” (Lalami 152), “with him in Madrid”( Lalami 155) and “with his own habits” (Lalami 156). He is also troubled in the midst of reality and imagination. He could not visualize his reality as such and could not imagine it as he wishes it to be—Europeanized. He is marked by gaining and losing at the same time. This is what characterizes the migrant experience as Salman Rushdie asserts in his Imaginary Homeland. There is no migrant who does not gain more than he loses in the long run of his mobility and his return is such an attempt of excavation of the past no more than that (10).

Border crossing is an act of the mobile identity displacement, which brings upon it a change. Migration does not only make the migrant embrace another form of identity through which he/she assimilates with the new environment, but also makes him/her develop an unprecedented hybrid perspective which is different from what is expected to be as is the case of Faten who dreams of a better future and ends up having a worse one. Nevertheless, hope as a form of dream that holds the potential of a better life, or in Weinreich’s words, how “one aspires to be in the future” plays its part in forming identity (Weinreich 26). Even though it does involve geographical dislocation, it influences identity in the homeland. Hope, in other words, is an imaginary border crossing which again steers the perspective of the fixed identity towards change. For instance, the stories told to characters about those who had made it to Spain ignite in the fixed identity a hope for change and in this conversation which involves the Self and Other Fellow, fixity becomes a ghostly trait that happens to be the past. In this regard, identity gives up on fixity and undergoes change, transformation and imaginary migration. The fixed identity embarks on change right after bidding farewell to what reminds it of its fixity or, in the narrator’s words, “survival”. It tries “to memorize every sensation”, “the taste of wheat bread, the smell of mint tea brewing”, etc (Lalami 88).

Cultural translatability and untranslatability.


As much as blasphemy is said to be a condition of cultural survival that the translational character of Bhabha' s cultural translation must be a blasphemer to live on the verge between death and life, it is also a condition of continuity of writing and rewriting/ translation, or in Bhabha’s terms “transcultural narrative” (Bhabha 308). To blaspheme in this respect is to live by the rules of modernity while the sacred past is not for good dumped, but alienated to fit newness. It does not concede a total rapture from the past, but rather a great deal of reincarnation which bears some strangeness. Faten’s ceasing of being the righteous muslim is not a final version that she wants, it is rather a new version of her with little disdain of her past. And by profaning that past, she lives on. It is a continuity at the cost of the past destruction so the selfhood survives, and this characterizes her as a survival blasphemer.

One aspect of her behaviors that attests to her incomplete translation is her attempt to redeem this blasphemous mutation; that is, by a provisional regression to her righteous state of being herself, Faten the religious. Skipping day or two, which are highly regarded ceremonial, pays off the mistreatment her mutated character underwent and generated in the Beyond. It is not profane to her existence only but also to her past, deen and Islamic values.

As a religious icon, Faten shines as a diamond in terms of her premigratory religiosity and her later-on involvement in prostitution deconsecrates not only her religion but also her own existence and body, for she represents a set of Islamic tenets and values and her complicity in this profane act, she blasphemes. Not only this and not from this contention, Faten's attempt to indulge Martin through telling lies (e.g., she was an odalisque) just to survive in Spain results in two different continuities. On one hand, the present /now continuity which can be defined as a typical survival. She blasphemes in order to live on. This living on ( or sur viver in French can be more lucid to the reader in the light of Benjamin Walter's translation as a survival) is inscribed simply in how she makes a living by forbidden and blasphemous means. On the other hand, there is the past continuity, this type is echoed by her connection to the past oriental stereotypes. By assenting to Maritin’s orientalist accusations, she gives such stereotypical images a chance to live on— to be translated across not only space but also time.

To be a blasphemer is to trespass a holy border whatsoever, whereby the original would look at you with awe and strangeness. It s a way through which, not newness alone,but foreignness enters the world. Aziz, for instance, is a blasphemer. On his return, his displaced angle of vision colors him with twinge of irony. He would laugh at how Moroccan names and nominations are ridiculous and need change. His coming back is a gate which, one would assume, foreignness gets through. A blasphemous change is to be overshadowing the past, wondering why such names of trains are signs backwardness. The translated Aziz feels sophisticated and foreign as well. His neighborhood is to him no longer the same, but he who has changed—he becomes a foreigner and stranger in his homeland. He even imagines his wife straddling him with bustier, making love to him. He would try to place his wife on him under the pretext of newness but she responds to his attempt with a gruesome look of foreignness and strangeness. She looks at him questioningly, and he relinquishes to her power of devotion to the original. What a blasphemous transgression he would have made, hadn’t she countered him with an inquisitive look.

Aziz's blasphemy is traceable even in his callous reception of his father's death and how he from that day on has seen his father as a symbol. He ruins the iconic presence of his father and no longer gets emotional on him at all. At his father's grave, the protagonist is caught between nature on the verge between foreignness and tradition, but the former prevails. His attempts of reuniting with that feeling of intimacy of his father lead nowhere but to a failure. He couldn’t even shed a tear on his father’s tombstone. He feels foreign and detached. Although his blasphemy would bombard him with hints of so-called discontinuity and death, nevertheless it is a continuity, for his return to his family and past reflects his connection to them. He is never disconnected from what he is used to be, but an altered surviving version of what is lost.


It has been pointed out earlier that Faten’s identity has changed owing to her dislocational nature and her looking-for-a-defintion interaction with the Other, and she has even gained two different opinions about her identity. Once again, Faten at times believes that her foreign identity goes only around prostitution and that the Other is her savior and survival outlet, whereas her Moroccan identity forces her to think of her religious history and devotional liaison to fundamentalism, and this original perspective tempts her to respect the holy days during which she just contents herself with remembering the meals of home and the past. When she meets Martin who she believes is going to be her savior and love, she casts her anti-western ideology aside, but at times she resorts to it and Martin becomes “no different after all”(Lalami 119). In this case, she wants to see Morocco in a European setting; a European Morocco with her Moroccan past, but with a European future.

One would assume that the geographical mobility may be the reason why the characters have ambivalent inclinations, but that is not always the case. Nora and her parents also experience ambivalent attitudes although they have moved nowhere. Nora, after being influenced by Faten, diverts away from her old identity as an open-minded and free girl to embrace religious traits and attitudes, but she goes back to it when she is in need of it. On the day of the final exams, for instance, she cheats and breaks the principles that she believes she has come to embrace, and the way she used to speak fades away and replaces it with a hypocritical one. From a religious and ethical perspective Nora believes that “There’s too much corruption in the system now, and I want to be a part of the solution” (Lalami, 37), and from another contradictory viewpoint she admits, “Everybody cheats. Everybody” (Lalami 44). Furthermore, at a macroscopic level the schizophrenic attitude of Nora’s identity can be traced in the whole family (her father and mother). As a Muslim family at certain times they act out their religion, fasting and celebrating the first day of Ramadan, and at others they refuse to see their daughter wearing Hijab and listening to Quran. They are Muslims in a way and against Islam in another, which encloses the whole family within two schizophrenic discourses, spinning infinitely around each other.

This ambivalence which keeps identity wavering from one attitude to another is one way to attest to the mobile aspect of immobile individuals’ identities and their untranslatability, for their vacillation between two modes of habitation proves right Bhabha’s “stubborn chunks”, which hinder translation (Bhabha 313).

Identity’s ambivalence is not only reliant on crossing borders, but also on the interaction/antagonism that brings one’s identity and the other’s into conversation and reciprocal influence. In this respect Faten’s identity appears not only to influence Nora, but also be influenced by her in a subtle manner. Faten’s first encounter with Nora is always present in her subconscious insofar as Nora’s identity becomes a past memory that justifies Faten’s modern attitude and divagation. Faten, in fact, embarks on an inward conversation with her double identity—a modern/secular identity and a traditional/Muslim identity. And Nora comes to represent the modern identity that takes over Faten whenever she is in need of it to survive. That is, being introduced to Nora’s modern perspective and identity normalizes the act of liberation that Faten initiates as she arrives in Spain. Faten, then, winds up having two ‘normal’ perspectives, both contradictory and relatable to a context.

Faten is chained to the past memories which stand as a barrier to cultural translation. They interrupt in the process of transformation disturbingly, making the translated cultural identity missing some chunks that can amount to a complete, successful and well-formed cultural product. Although Faten’s religious life is done away with, dumped into the past, it comes down upon her every moment she encounters a reminder (Qur’an and beads). This religious sentimentality for the iconic reminders lure her into reconsidering her situation in the beyond, and she comes to have a hybrid attitude vis-à-vis the life of the beyond; neither completely translated nor completely cut from the past.

Nostalgia is surely an index of untranslatability. It is even a condition of a more connectedness to the past, which generates more excruciation and grief at the heart of the mobile identities. The influence which is brought by this feeling qualifies identity transformation as an ongoing struggle that brings cultural identity closer to negotiate cultural difference on one hand, and feel homesick on the other. It engages in a conversation with cultural difference in the sense that what is new can never be compared to the sentimental familiar signified; for the latter is untranslatable in the first place and holding on to it results only in an untranslatability.

Besides these unfathomable chunks, untranslatability emerges as a result of some cultural resistance as well, which can be traced mainly in cultural maintenance. Most of the protagonists, be they motivated by a return to the original culture or survival, maintain some cultural practices, sparing them for the moment of reunion with the original and the past. In some cases the element of resistance cannot be mentioned without touching on the religious and ethnic aspects of cultural identity. Religion in entering and embracing the beyond stands as an obstacle for both the insider to acknowledge his affiliations with the outsider and vice versa. It marks difference as much as it aggravates the religious difference between the insider and the outsider. Therefore, if translatability is inscribed in blasphemy, untranslatability is inscribed in sacredness and consecrating the sacred.


Identity formation and cultural translation are two interrelated concepts that if one is raised to inquisitive inquiries the other comes up to impose itself to generate indefinite definition which makes identity a vast vessel of contradiction and ambivalent desires. Hence, he novel is set to divulge the interplay existing between formation and translation so that the former can still be define as an inexorable process of becoming for both mobile and immobile identities and the latter as consigned to mobile identities alone. Cultural translation then is cooped up in the condition of crossing borders and it stems from survival in the Beyond.

Making a definition to identity is attainable still, but on the condition that the inquirer has to keep its definition restrained to a specific point of reference (to a specific time and place). That is, a description of identity in a static and motionless mode is sufficient to make a definition; however, since identity is marked by becoming and translation in its long run –that’s why in this paper— dealing with characters at different moments of their translation brings into view various and contradictory and sometimes inconsistent aspects and traits of the identities in question.


Bhaba, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994

Hall, Stuart. ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora.’ Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

Lalami, Lalami. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Fez: Moroccan Cultural Studies Center, 2008.

Weinreich, Peter & Wendy Sanderson. Analysing Identity: Cross-cultural, Societal and Clinical Contexts. USA: Routledge, 2003.

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988. Imaginary Homeland. London: Granta Books, 1991.


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Identity Formation and Cultural Translation in "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" by Laila Lalami
Sultan Moulay Sliman University
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identity, formation, cultural, translation, hope, other, dangerous, pursuits, laila, lalami
Quote paper
Atmane El Amri (Author), 2020, Identity Formation and Cultural Translation in "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" by Laila Lalami, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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