Jmiaa Bent Larbi is not your typical heroine, but she is a survivor. She’s living with her family in Berrechid, a small town in Morocco, when she meets Hamid. He’s good looking, dresses well, and rides a motorcycle. Despite her mother’s warnings, she marries Hamid and they move to Casablanca. He reveals his true colors when he pimps Jmiaa out to raise money for his many failed businesses. When he illegally migrates to Spain, Jmiaa continues to work as a prostitute to support herself and their daughter, Samia.
Jmiaa is clear-eyed and matter-of-fact about what she does. “When I’m finished working, I don’t waste any time,” she says. As soon as the man has zipped up, she leaves “so I can go back to my spot and harpoon another guy.” While she has a pimp – Houcine – Jmiaa brings in enough money so that she can manage her time without interference. At times she shares her simple living space with another prostitute, but usually is alone. Wanting her daughter to have a more normal life, she brings her to live with Mouy, who knows her daughter’s divorced but not what she does for a living.
Jmiaa’s world is populated with colorful characters, some of them quirky, a few dangerous. She manages to stay on the good side of mostly everyone, avoiding those who look down on her because of her profession. Her few regular customers often entertain her at local bars and restaurants. Despite being overweight, Jmiaa makes the most of her appearance, tending to her hair, makeup, and clothing. What she doesn’t have in looks she makes up for in personality. She’s feisty, funny, and generous. She shares with other prostitutes and even sends money to Hamid.
Jmiaa is no fool, so when she’s approached by a Dutch woman, Chadlia, to help with a film, she doesn’t say no, but doesn’t jump at the chance either. Nicknaming Chadlia “Horse’s Mouth,” because of her prominent teeth, she begins to cooperate. She’s told the film is about prostitutes in Morocco and Jmiaa’s information will help with the research. But when Chadlia fails to find an actress to play the lead, she taps Jmiaa for the role. Jmiaa remains skeptical until she finds herself staying in an upscale hotel in Maârif near when the movie will be filmed. There are costume and makeup sessions, and Jmiaa is given a script to memorize. Except for a few missteps – going on an alcoholic bender emptying the mini bar – Jmiaa proves herself, not only a team player, but a talented actor.
When she returns to Casablanca, she’s a mini celebrity. But with the filming finished, life soon returns to normal and Jmiaa returns to the streets. A film festival in the U.S., however, changes all that. Turns out, Jmiaa’s journey is just beginning.
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth told in Jmiaa’s voice, is about so much more than just one woman’s life. It’s about friendship and family. It’s about resilience, having strength and faith even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Meryem Alaoui’s debut novel transports us to a world that while foreign is also relevant, with characters like Jmiaa who are appealing and inspiring. Straight from the Horse’s Mouth is a stunning accomplishment.
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
Meryem Alaoui (Translated by Emma Ramadan)
Author photo by Francesca Mantovani
Top photo: Bigstock