The Last Friend
Tahar Ben Jelloun
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The Last Friend is the mesmerizing story of Mamed and Ali, two friends whose lives intertwine during the turbulent last half of the twentieth century in Morocco. Mamed is brash and forthright on the surface, insecure and envious underneath. Ali is “aristocratic” and bookish, the aloof alter ego to Mamed. Told first in Ali’s voice, then in Mamed’s, we hear the evolution of a complex and deep relationship in all of its hope, misunderstanding, and need. Though different in character and ambition, the two men together live through the key stages of their lives: through adolescence, years of study, and political activism, through their marriages, the births of their children, and the purchase of their homes, through new jobs, Mamed’s emigration, and, finally, to the secret that leads to the dissolution of their friendship.
Ben Jelloun, one of Morocco’s most acclaimed writers, notes that “the Earth also writes the story of humanity.” And so The Last Friend is also about the city of Tangier, and about Morocco itself across more than forty turbulent years, including times of extreme political unrest and repression. Tangier alters from the Europeanized center of cosmopolitan Morocco—a city with Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and Jean Genet haunting its cafes—to a place made weary by its integration into the complexities of the new century. These permutations reflect the changes in Morocco over the last half of the twentieth century, from the hopeful days of Tangier’s internationalism, to the crackdown of King Hassan II following an assassination attempt, to contemporary struggles over globalization, immigration, and postcolonial alienation.
Meanwhile, the unlikely friends, from different classes and Moroccan subcultures, become inseparable allies during their adventurous teen years and during a life-changing imprisonment for their political beliefs. Mamed and Ali share women, sidekicks, religious and sexual transgression, political ideals, long conversations, and all of their ambition, fear, and doubt. Their schooling and careers disrupt the habitual ebb and flow of their friendship but do not alter their importance to each other.
As they age, however, the inseparable friends encounter new tragedies and trials that cannot be ameliorated in each other’s presence, nor sometimes even shared. The challenges of adult life—marriage and fatherhood, migration and alienation, and finally the looming specter of death—begin to wear down their attachment. The Last Friend asks if there are limits to what a friendship can encompass, even as it lyrically attests to the rewards of camaraderie in a world where traditional bonds are dissolved in the commotion of the modern world and allegiances are a matter of personal choice.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco, and immigrated to France in 1961. A novelist, essayist, critic, and poet, he is a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Républica, El País, and Panorama.
- Why is the title of the book The Last Friend? Who is the “last friend”?
- Mamed and Ali are opposites, but, as Ali says, “despite our differences, we felt close and complicitous” (p. 23). What attracts them to each other? What do they contribute to each other’s lives? Look at passages where they describe each other to see what draws them together.
- Mamed claims to be envious of Ali’s looks and background, to be “jealous of his inner peace” (p. 137). Describe some of the many conflicts they weather. What are the main reasons these two friends grow apart? Do you think, given a different ending, they would have a chance to become close again?
- Both choose attractive and intelligent women to marry yet neither finds real peace. How does marriage complicate their friendship? Do you think this is an inevitable part of growing up and being an adult, or do their particular wives contribute something in particular to their rift? What do their marriages suggest about gender relationships in Morocco?
- Neither Mamed nor Ali maintains consistent political ideals. Try to describe the politics of each, first as young men and then as middle-aged professionals. What pressures make them abandon politics? Do you think they have the freedom to be more politically active as older men?
- Consider their imprisonment in 1966. Why were they arrested and how were they punished? What affect does this have on each? Who seems most damaged by this time? Explain as best you can the effects of imprisonment on each of them. How is each changed by the experience? Are the changes permanent?
- Tangier, the exotic international city, is an object of longing and resentment for both men. Ali says that “without our city, our lives would be meaningless” (p. 59). Try to describe this unusual place and its role for the friends. How does the city change over time? What remains constant and comfortingly available?
- Mamed becomes a successful immigrant, but says that “Moroccans in Sweden are never satisfied” (p. 66). What happens to Mamed and his family in Europe? How does he describe his feelings when he lives there? What does he miss about Morocco? Discuss why he moved away, and why he doesn’t return home.
- There are crucial differences in the stories they each tell: in their description of their wives, their retelling of arguments, and especially in the attention each pays to their time imprisoned. What do these differing perceptions of reality add up to? Why do you think Ben Jelloun decided to tell the story from more than one perspective? How does it alter your evaluation of each man?
- Count the number of pages Ali spends on their time in prison, and then the number of pages Mamed spends. What does this discrepancy suggest to you about their personalities? Does it help explain the choices each made after this experience? Both claim that the experience made them “bound together for life” (p. 124), but are there ways in which it also pulls them apart?
- After their imprisonment, Ali says that they “were haunted by this idea of disappearing forever, vanishing into thin air, reduced to a mound of earth without being officially declared dead. Lost and never found. Lost and never buried” (p. 49). How does this fear shape the rest of their lives? Do you see a connection between the fear of disappearance and Mamed’s later inability to deal with his illness? Who, in the end, vanishes or is lost?
- Read over Mamed’s final letter. Is this the letter that Ali refers to in the prologue? Can you imagine the affect it has on Ali? Do you think that he will forgive Mamed? What feelings would you have if you received such a letter? Describe how the letter summarizes the friendship.