The Promise of Pisa
A vibrant coming-of-age novel about growing up in the gap between two cultures
Mano Bouzamour’s debut novel has been a runaway success, catapulting its young author into the media spotlight. As he was appearing on talk shows, he became the target of a backlash among the Dutch-Moroccan community. In this sparkling and controversial novel, the author makes it painfully clear that assimilation is the beginning, not the end, of your troubles.
The novel’s narrator is Sam Zafar, a boy growing up in Amsterdam’s Diamantbuurt, a neighbourhood that is home to many deprived Moroccan families and where youth crime is rife. Bouzamour gives a voice to this boy who is caught between two cultures. His illiterate parents speak no Dutch and are dutiful followers of Islam, a sharp contrast to the life Sam experiences at school and on the streets.
Sam’s big brother is serving a six-year jail term for armed robbery, yet he was always one of the few people to understand his little brother, and Sam feels his absence keenly. On the eve of his incarceration, he holds Sam to a promise, made at Pisa, the local ice-cream parlour: don’t screw up like your big brother did. ‘Promise me that you’ll go on where I came unstuck.’ Fingers sticky from the ice cream, they seal the pledge with a handshake.
Sam finds himself steering a path between extremes: beatings at the Qur’an school, surveillance by police patrolling his neighbourhood and confrontations with the lives of luxury led by many of his classmates. He is no angel but he is different to many of his neighbourhood friends: he has a deep love of classical music and his Mozart ringtone both betrays his ambition to become a pianist and earns him the label ‘gay boy’. He also takes an interest in history. Many might call Sam a model immigrant son, but his story powerfully lays bare the cultural minefield of the assimilation process.
The book can clearly be read as a classic coming-of-age novel, concerned to a large extent with the quest for identity and the transition to adulthood. What gives it a real sense of urgency is Bouzamour’s expressive use of telling details that illustrate just how great the divide is between East and West. And that’s not all: he has an infectious sense of humour, a flair for punchy dialogue and the scenes – most notably a night-time scooter ride through Amsterdam – are so vivid that they leap off the page. Bouzamour is a name to watch.