I am forever grateful, and particularly, most recently, for this first novel by the Moroccan-born writer Meryem Alaoui. The novel is a vivid, and vividly angry, first-person portrait of Jmiaa ... Jmiaa is biting, funny, oh so streetwise, and not a bit ashamed of her work. You can be ashamed for her, should you dare, but the more Jmiaa’s story unfolds, the more her spirit amazes, springing up off the page ... The novel is refreshingly a referendum on hypocrisy, and though Jmiaa may be a paradox, she is not a hypocrite, and when she is serendipitously in a situation of plenty, she enjoys herself into leglessness ... Other Press makes a beautiful book, with French flaps and pages that float with Moroccan Arabian mandalas, and majuscules in Arabic script that start certain passages. Presentation is a subject in Straight from the Horse’s Mouth. Which djellaba does Jmiaa wear today to stand at the entrance to the market place? What are the other women wearing, how is a hem lifted to entice, and when all the window dressing of this age-old transaction get shuttered, what naked realities emerge, and what beautiful spirit remains as though architecture, art? Here is a novel worth your reading time; here is a novel beautiful to hold.
The voice of North African novelist Meryem Alaoui is a welcome one ... a powerful character study ... follows a familiar rag-to-riches storyline, but Jmiaa’s unfaltering optimism will keep readers hooked. She is matter-of-fact about the day-to-day details of her profession, boasting of her ability to provide for her family and proudly defending the women who share the streets with her ... Alaoui is ably served by her translator, Emma Ramadan, who captures Jmiaa’s irreverent spirit and sass. A simple glossary at the end adds context to the shop names, local personalities and food that contribute to the richness of everyday details.
... lively ... This is a funny and profane book; joyful in its celebration of a life lived expansively and filled with the sights and sounds of Casablanca. It also introduces a confident female character comfortable with choices that may seem--to those more privileged--unsavory and unwise. Straight from the Horse's Mouth received critical acclaim when it was first published in France, and will be equally welcome in this ebullient English translation.
Humour and courage infuse debut author Meryem Alaoui’s Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, a brazen and lucid portrait of a sex worker who moves through her city of Casablanca with a scrupulous gaze and an aptitude for colourful description ... the novel enchants with its surprising and exacting prose as equally as with its deft navigation of human experience and emotional spectrums, building a fully populated world that seems to have always been there, waiting for one to visit ... Alaoui’s charming and at times profane protagonist, Jmiaa Bent Larbi, shares her harrowing story with unflinching clarity ... The women here aren’t sketches or stereotypes, but fully drawn characters with a complex set of motivations and relationships. The men vary in their own way ... Alaoui weaves a tapestry of nuanced observations of class in Casablanca ... Award-winning translator Emma Ramadan must juggle this multiplicity as well, and she re-knits Alaoui’s intricacies finely into English, conveying Jmiaa’s fast and loose conversational style as vividly as if we were chatting with her outside the market ourselves ... Despite the omnipresence of men, both good and bad, sex and romance play a surprisingly minor role in the narrative; men influence but never define the main characters. Instead, they link the women in various ways, lending insight into the shifting relationships these women navigate with one another ... We meet the character on her own terms and interact with an individual, not a romanticized or fetishized sex worker. Jmiaa’s authenticity and forthright claim to her own experience propel the plot, and when she winds up in unfamiliar places, we never doubt her right to be there. Alaoui successfully brings to life a character of complex humanity, giving us a story that feels real—never flip or bleak alone, but a mix of the two that echoes a textured life ... In some ways, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth reads like a fairy tale, but Alaoui deftly dodges the easy choice to make Jmiaa a one-dimensional Cinderella. Her nuanced characterization and Ramadan’s colorful and vivid language invites the reader to look beyond assumptions about Morocco and sex work. Like many fairy tales, this story has a moral—but unlike most, Jmiaa’s verve and agency remind us at every turn that this is a story of her own making.
... mesmerizing ... Jmiaa’s Casablanca is full of corrupt cops and exploitative men who take advantage of the prostitutes’ vulnerability, but it is also full of friendship, laughter, and triumph ... Alaoui’s shimmering prose is funny and original ... Alaoui’s tale is one to savor for its language and its verve.
Alaoui depicts Jmiaa’s character with humanity and grace. While certainly not avoiding sex, Alaoui makes the noteworthy choice of decentering this element of Jmiaa’s life. Instead, by digging into her difficult relationship with her mother, the fierce loyalty of her cherished friend Samira, and her fish-out-of water experience working with Chadlia, Alaoui emphasizes that Jmiaa’s work with clients is simply one part of her story. Throughout, Jmiaa’s narration adds levity and showcases her bold and irreverent nature. At the same time, it is her fiery independence that makes the later chapters—centered on her work in film—feel disingenuous. Following a typical savior narrative, Chadlia swoops in with funding to offer the possibility of a more socially acceptable, glamorous life, and thus the story begins to plunge into the tired trope of the American dream ... A refreshing character study loses steam in a worn-out plot.