Meryem Alaoui: In the Heart of Casablanca

An insolent, resilient prostitute has her life turned upside down when she meets a young director. Published in France in 2018 and in the United States on September 15, 2020, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth is the first novel from a young Moroccan writer.
© Francesca Mantovani/Gallimard

She has her section of sidewalk, her regular clients, a small bedroom she shares with her daughter, Samia, and the pious Halima, whom she is teaching the tricks of the trade. With her rolling hips, hair falling down to her waist, large breasts, and no-nonsense attitude, Jmiaa knows how to drive men wild and keep them under control. After 15 years working as a prostitute in downtown Casablanca, she knows the neighborhood’s moral codes and its wheelings and dealings by heart, and has watched as radical Islam has taken root.

She chronicles her daily life and has an extraordinary talent for describing her little world and those who inhabit it, such as her pimp, the hotheaded Houcine, her lover, Chaïba, a potbellied gangster, and her best friend, Samira, who is wasting her life with a crooked cop. When she visits her mother, Mouy, who lives in Berrechid south of Casablanca, Jmiaa saves face by inventing a different life for herself. But everything changes when she meets “Horse’s Mouth,” a director from Holland who is about to start filming her first movie and who asks Jmiaa to help.

Meryem Alaoui currently lives in Morocco, having spent several years in New York. Straight from the Horse’s Mouth is her first novel, a monologue in the style of a diary, written for a mysterious reader. Jmiaa’s cheek is immediately endearing, as is her dark humor that hides a sordid reality: A violent husband who kicked her out but who still relies on her for money; her daughter, who is forced to wait in the hallway while she is with her clients; and the long list of men who want to believe she desires them.

“You straddle all of them,” writes Meryem Alaoui. “The loser, the frustrated guy, the lonely guy, the son of a whore, the one just passing through. The one who blames the warmth of your hand for his weak, sterile joy. And the one for whom no hole satisfies his hatred. Who is not appeased until he hears the ripping sound of a brown and bloody stain.”

Preferring comedy to social realism, the author brings together cinema and the street, two starkly opposed worlds. The film sets, where Jmiaa is like a bull in a china shop, offer moments of pure jubilation. After finding personal emancipation, largely thanks to female solidarity, she travels all the way to America, without ever losing the lucidity and critical mind that make her such an authentic rebel.


Straight from the Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui, translated from French by Emma Ramadan, Other Press, September 15, 2020. 304 pages, 16.99 dollars.

Article published in the September 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.