Essaouira book review: The Heat of Betrayal

Essaouira book review: The Heat of Betrayal by Douglas Kennedy


Although it has been the set for plenty of films, and unlike its larger and more celebrity neighbour, Marrakech, to my knowledge there are not many works of non-fiction set in Essaouira. I was intrigued, therefore, to read Douglas Kennedy’s latest work, The Heat of Betrayal. This is my Essaouira book review.

Kennedy is the author of 12 novels and three travel guides, clocking up sales of over 14 million copies in 22 languages. A couple of them have even been adapted for screen. This was the first I have read of his books and I have to agree with Esquire magazine’s review: “Kennedy’s skill is to send you racing down the slope of sheer story.” This story, about the relationship of an American married couple who travel to Morocco, where Robin, the wife, discovers her husband has betrayed her on several counts, has great pace, is dramatic and displays a real understanding of human motivations. Robin’s story – of someone who comes to understand how her past has shaped her present but still feels a responsibility and a guilt which drives her to try to save her increasingly unstable and unworthy husband – is absolutely credible, which I found impressive from a male author.

However, for this maroc-o-phile, there were a number of aspects in the narrative which jarred due to their sheer inaccuracy, and which marred my enjoyment of the story. The start of the story takes place in Essaouira and a number of details – clearly designed to augment the flow of the story – were incorrect to the point that I wondered if the author had actually been to the city (or why he hadn’t researched it better). A cream coloured Peugeot taxi? Unless this was supposed to be one about to return to Agadir, it certainly didn’t belong in Essaouira, where all taxis are blue, like the shutters and doorways of the medina (which weren’t mentioned, despite being Essaouira’s defining feature). The taxi the couple eventually take travelled along the medina walls and then “turned in through a narrow archway.” Unless the couple’s riad was in the outer Kasbah (which wasn’t mentioned and which does not fit the subsequent over-egged descriptions of a confusing, labyrinthine medina), it is impossible that a vehicle entered a medina Bab (gateway).

Local food is described as “falafel” and “hummus“, which – although they may be found in international restaurants in larger Moroccan cities, are native to the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, not North Africa.

Furthermore, Kennedy seems to have misunderstood the traditional Moroccan dress. While he talks of the djellaba in a contextually correct fashion, the way he mentions the burqa suggests he has perhaps mistaken it for the niqab. The former is a tent-like garment which covers a woman from head to foot with only a slit or a mesh to allow vision. The latter is a piece of fabric which is worn under the nose to hide the lower face and which, when worn with a headscarf, has the effect of covering all but a woman’s eyes. At one point, Robin must disguise herself, but she is described as changing out of her Western clothes into a djellaba and burqa. In reality one (not both) would be flung over whatever clothes a woman is wearing.

Finally, call me a pedant (or a linguist), but possibly the most irritating aspect was Kennedy’s insistence on using incorrect foreign phrases to pepper the text and add additional authenticity. This worked OK for French, but as far as Darija – the Moroccan dialect of Arabic – is concerned, it backfired. Most of the phrases quoted were in a version of Arabic closer to Classical Arabic or Egyptian, which is not spoken in daily conversation in Morocco. Even worse, when Robin is stranded in the Sahara, beyond Tata (aka the back of beyond), the desert-dwelling family who rescue her speak to her in this odd form of Arabic. In real life, they wouldn’t use any form of Arabic or Darija, but rather their own Berber dialect. One phrase is frequently repeated has no meaning in Arabic: “Allah ybarek feek wal ‘ayyam al-kadima” is translated as a benediction meaning “May God bless you in the days to come.” Al-kadima, however, means the past, not the future…

As a novel, I enjoyed The Heat of Betrayal. It raced along (as fast as Robin’s taxi which allegedly managed Essaouira to Casablanca in 4 hours!) and the author demonstrated a real comprehension of the human condition. We are, after all, a product of our past and not our future. However, the inaccurate details – most of which could have been easily verified or proofread out – undermined my appreciation of the latest publication by a clearly very popular modern American author.

Have you read any novels based in Essaouira? Add your recommendations in the comments section below!

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