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A desperate passage, an unpredictable future

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
By Laila Lalami
Algonquin, 195 pp., $21.95

Seven people: two men, two women, three children. All from Morocco. Each riding on the same inflatable boat across the Strait of Gibraltar, each of the adults cocooned in his or her private dreams and hope. And as the title of Laila Lalami's elegant debut novel, ''Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits," indicates, it is that hope that complicates and saves all their lives.

In a book that feels as contemporary as a newspaper headline, that seems to explain so much -- from the recent uprising of the disaffected youth of France's ghettos to the desperation and despair that infect so many young Muslims in the Mideast -- Lalami paints a vivid picture of modern-day Morocco as a place of dashed dreams and political repression. It is also a portrait of a culture caught between the forces of modernity and tradition, a place where young women fight with their bewildered, secular parents to be allowed to wear Islamic head scarves, where piety among the younger generation has become the new cool.

The novel opens with a furtive nocturnal sea voyage from Morocco to Spain. All four adult passengers have paid a handsome sum to be smuggled into Spain, a country that is just under 9 miles away but that represents a new life for each of them. But things go awry when Rahal, the corrupt captain, insists that they swim to the nearing shore and all the passengers end up captured by the Spanish coast guard.

The capture marks the end of the first section of this slim novel. The story then moves to the past, to tell readers of the events that have led each of the four characters to leave home. There's Faten Khatibi, a devout, political college student who encourages her friend Noura to start wearing the ''hijab," or head scarf, thereby incurring the wrath of Noura's powerful, corrupt, and determinedly secular father. In order to decrease Faten's influence on his daughter, he destroys Faten's future, leaving her with no options other than to escape the political repression that awaits her.

The second woman, Halima Bouhamsa, flees an abusive, alcoholic husband, taking her three children with her. It is a last resort, after a failed effort to bribe a judge to grant her a divorce and custody of her children.

The two men are Aziz Ammor, an unemployed married man, and Murad Idrissi, who makes his living as a guide for Western tourists, especially those who come to Morocco, hoping to visit the haunts of the writer Paul Bowles. Aziz has a diploma that allows him to work as a repairman, but it was ''a piece of paper that lay in a folder by Aziz's bed, gathering dust." He is determined to leave for the greener pastures of Spain, despite the vocal protests of his best friend, Lahcen, and the quieter unhappiness of his wife, Zohra.

Murad's situation is no less dire. Unable to make ends meet, he is reduced to chasing foreign tourists, offering them everything from a tour of Bowles's house to finally, desperately, offering to procure hashish for them.

Things are no better for Murad at home. Lalami subtly lets us know that his semi-employed position has affected his standing in the family, so that when a wedding proposal comes for his younger sister, he is not consulted although he is the nominal head of the family.

Indeed, that is Lalami's greatest strength. In short, blunt sentences, she manages to create a world for her readers, painting a picture of hopelessness, unemployment, and the growing fundamentalism of a society that has very little else to fall back on.

And yet, happily, the novel is no screed. Nor is it a bleak, depressing portrait of four lost souls, because there is a third section, titled ''After," which deals with the aftermath of the aborted voyage to Spain. Two of the characters are deported to Morocco; two manage to stay in Spain. And yet, in small, unexpected ways all four find something to hold on to, glean some new meaning out of their disastrous experience.

In that sense, the end of the novel belies its title. Hope is not a dangerous pursuit, the novel seems to say. Rather, it is the true life raft upon which all four characters sail into their futures.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novel ''Bombay Time." Her new novel, ''The Space Between Us," will be published next month.

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