The voice of North African novelist Meryem Alaoui is a welcome one. Her debut, Straight From the Horse’s Mouth, is a powerful character study of a lively young sex worker who meets a filmmaker seeking her expertise.
The fast-moving novel is told by quick-witted and resilient Jmiaa, who reflects on her life in a bustling working-class Casablanca neighborhood, including the small bars, the open-air markets and the women who spend their evenings alongside her, drinking and chatting as they wait for potential clients. As a prostitute, Jmiaa keeps her mother in the dark about her occupation while earning enough money to support both herself and her 7-year-old daughter. Jmiaa also pays her pimp, Houcine, for protection and helps her dead-beat ex-husband, Hamid, who forced her into sex work after his business failed.
Aspiring Dutch filmmaker Chadlia is visiting Casablanca to research a movie about Moroccan urban life, and she hires Jmiaa as a consultant to keep the plot and dialogue authentic. But when Chadlia has trouble casting the film, Jmiaa steps in to help, opening doors into a life that neither woman could have predicted.
Straight From the Horse’s Mouth 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.