The Valley of the Lazhars begins as the story of a homecoming, continues in a western before taking the turn of a tragic love story. Often, Soufiane Khaloua’s first novel takes on these three forms at the same time. Impossible to let go.
Back to basics, first. It is that of Amir Ayami, the narrator. At the beginning of the book, he addresses his granddaughter, born in France like him. If Amir’s parents passed on to him Arabic and the knowledge of their homeland, the Lazhar Valley, he did not do the same. So the old man wants to tell his granddaughter where she comes from.
This is the novel we are going to read. It is set years before, the summer when Amir, then a law student in Paris, “returned to the country” with his father to celebrate a wedding in the family. It had been six years since this young Frenchman had set foot in the Lazhars valley. This summer was the summer of all learning.
When Soufiane Khaloua describes the arrival of Amir and his father, we switch to the western. A western transplanted in the middle of the mountains of eastern Morocco, on the border with Algeria. “The asphalt crushed by the sun shines, it melts visibly, carrying a pungent odor that I smell through the open window”, observes the young Amir. Driving in the opposite direction on the narrow road, young people driving dilapidated cars force them to come dangerously close to the void. They are “trabendos”, smugglers who cross illegally to the Algerian side to bring back cheap cigarettes.
Descriptions of landscapes that mark
As soon as the father and son meet someone, they are identified: they are from the Ayami clan, which “no one between Fez in the west and Tlemcen in the east” don’t ignore. Zahra, the narrator’s aunt, is the patriarch. His green eyes have gone out, his memory is failing. His illness worries Amir and immediately imposes a mission on him: to watch everything, to remember everything, in order to be able to remember for his children after him.
Amir’s acuteness, his tender and nostalgic gaze gives beauty and strength to the novel. The descriptions of the landscapes mark a long time. Starting with those of the mountain, which must be considered as part of the identity of the Ayami clan. “Each time I found her, it was like discovering her for the first time, so I wanted to record everything, that each image remain engraved on my retina, eternal and unchanged. A very banal mountain in truth, dry and incoherent, without much charm. But it was ours, this mountain. »
More completely. At the top of the house, where the family has a spring of clear water, the aptly named ‘Ayn el Ghoula (Eye of the Ghoul), six boys from the enemy clan await them: the Hobkani. This is where the western comes in. Of the rivalry that has opposed them for centuries, we will only know the origin at the end of the novel. The reasons for the hatred they devote to each other matter less than the way in which it is unleashed. With all the more force that the worst has happened: a girl from the Ayami clan is going to marry a man from the Hobkani clan.
Soufiane Khaloua gently builds the tension, introducing a new disturbing element in each chapter. It begins with the surprise return of Haroun, the “favorite cousin” of Amir. He returns after three years of absence. No one knows why he fled to Algeria; all consider it unstable and unreliable. His arrival on the wedding day triggers anger and joy, hugs and threats.
Love triangle and identity quest
Amir rejoices in this, until he understands that Fayrouz, the young woman from the opposing clan with whom he fell in love, is in fact secretly in love with his cousin Haroun. An Ayami and a Hobkani: it’s impossible. So much for the tragic romantic story. We think of Romeo and Juliet with this passion between two children of enemy clans. Soufiane Khaloua recounts the letters exchanged and their embraces hidden in the steep mountainsides at night.
During Haroun’s absence, Fayrouz was betrothed to another. Will Haroun succeed in winning her back? Amir would dream not, he who can’t help loving Fayrouz, in secret. Will the narrator find a place in her heart and among his people, whose language and customs he does not fully understand?
As the novel navigates between love triangle and quest for identity, the author imagines new escapes and chases through the valley of the Lazahrs. There’s something Hollywood about this hectic plot, which takes us into stunning landscapes to tell us about honor and love, adventures, legends and ancestral lands, with perhaps the sole purpose of to tell a great story.
The Valley of the Lazhars, by Sofiane Khousna, ed. Agullo (244 pages, 21.50 euros).