As Mahi Binebine's Welcome to Paradise begins, Aziz and his shivering cousin are seated in a café waiting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. The cousin, suffering from a dreadful stomachache, has soiled himself in a fit of nerves, and the outraged waiter has just thrown them both out. They join other would-be illegal immigrants gathered in Tangier, now hiding on the beach, where dogs or police can spell disaster, where a crying baby can destroy them all. Tonight is the night.
They've been waiting for a month at the little Café France, entertained by Momo the trafficker, a crook with an unusual gift for friendship who has learned to take no chances after spending three years in a French prison. We meet the people who have paid him for passage one by one: Aziz, the young scholar from the School on the Hill who has failed his exam; Reda, his cousin, whose brother has had both his hands amputated, whose mother threw herself down a well; Nuara, clutching a baby who will not stop bawling, searching for a husband who has not returned; Kacem Judi, an Algerian teacher who has survived the butchery of his people; patiently determined Pafadnam and Yarce, who have come from Mali with their life savings; and Yussef from Marrakesh, whose two mothers and four siblings are all dead.
As they huddle on the beach, we learn their back stories and meet the families they've left behind. The two wives of Yussef's father, for instance, got along in perfect harmony, never quarreled, shared money, went shopping hand in hand, always sat side by side. But when his father stole a sack of corn, not realizing it contained rat poison, he accidentally killed both of them and all his children except Yussef.
Binebine tells all these stories through Aziz; through his eyes, in a spare, straightforward style, Binebine creates a compelling, all-too-human cast of characters ready to risk everything to get across the Strait. By the time they reach the last hours and prepare to attempt the dangerous crossing, the reader has been drawn into intense identification with their hopes and loves and fears.
The book's final stretches are agonizingly suspenseful, with a painfully believable ending that stays true to Binebine's heartbreaking commitment to his characters and his determinedly humanistic, profoundly touching vision. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: A group of desperate immigrants in Tangier await a new life of freedom--or arrest and possible death.