Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

It’s hard to believe that about two weeks ago, I was at a Joshua Tree art opening, socializing and having a good time. Today, that night feels like it was months ago.

Like many of you, I have been isolating at home—here in Morongo Valley, in my case—and I have only ventured out to the mailbox and grocery store as of late. I’m seeking respite and human connection online via Facebook and through phone calls with family and friends.

Among my local acquaintances, I’ve noticed a lot of crankiness about out-of-towners in AirBnBs who are staying here to ride out the pandemic. There’s a real “don’t come here; go home” vibe, and a locals-only feeling within the high desert communities right now. While Joshua Tree National Park closed all roads to vehicles, bicyclists and hikers can still go in—yet I’ve seen online "reminders" to tourists that Joshua Tree park is CLOSED, so please stay away.

Otherwise, things up here seem similar to things in the Coachella Valley, based on what my friends and co-workers down there tell me. Last week, my husband, Shawn, went to Stater Bros., and while it wasn’t too crowded, the store was lacking in paper products, bread, cleaning supplies like bleach, and big bottles of ibuprofen. (He did score a small bottle—just in case.) Posted signs indicated a one-per-person allowance of rice, milk, what bread was left, tortillas and a few other things. A handful of shoppers wore masks, with one person carefully covered from head to toe—in sunglasses, a mask, gloves and long sleeves. All store employees were wearing gloves. Shawn carefully wiped down all our groceries when he got home.

Non-essential businesses are not open, of course—but auto-parts stores are deemed essential, and their busy parking lots reflect that folks are happy about this. Fast food drive throughs remain open, and there are lots of them along Highway 62. You can order a pizza to-go at Domino’s—but you don’t go inside; they slide it out the door to you.

Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has cancelled all shows through late April—but the legendary spot is offering takeout food four days a week. Tourist-trap eateries like the Joshua Tree Saloon are also offering takeout, as well as beer or wine to go. Joshua Tree’s popular Crossroads Café went further than most, offering free essential food packages on March 22 and 23 as a “way to give back to our loyal community.”

Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up on TV via our DVR. I tuned into an episode of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel from a couple of weeks ago. To my surprise, the show featured Landers’ giant rock and George Van Tassel’s Integratron, with some commentary from our own Ken Layne of Desert Oracle fame. Pretty cool.

Less cool: I also watched MSNBC’s On Assignment With Richard Engel: The Outbreak, which originally aired on March 8. It was a thorough, inside look on how the coronavirus started in China, covering what happened there before COVID-19 spread to other countries like Hong Kong and Singapore—and how their governments all fought to contain it. It was eye-opening and scary. I was glad I watched it, but I went to sleep disturbed and cranky.

The next morning, I woke up and dragged myself out of bed—it’s been like that a lot lately—to do my usual a.m. exercise-bike routine. As I climbed on my stationary bike and readied myself for a sweat, I looked outside—and saw a beautiful rainbow creeping up out of some dark storm clouds. During my workout, the rainbow slowly grew until it was full, and then stayed—in a brilliant blue sky—for more than half an hour. It helped remind me: It’s best to focus on the little things, breathe and stay in the present moment. It’s all we can really do right now.

Later that day, as I walked my dog to my mailbox, I ran into a new neighbor, out on our unpaved road. He had his truck and a shovel and was digging up and moving rock obstacles—to make driving easier for all of us.

That’s another comforting thing to remember: We are all in this together.

Oh, and to the dude out on the street in Yucca Valley selling “I SURVIVED CORONAVIRUS 2020” T-shirts … here’s to hoping we do, my friend.

Published in Features

In her brilliant fourth novel, The Other Americans, Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami paints an unsparing portrait of the American West, deliberately rejecting the familiar frontier stories of redemptive violence or restorative wilderness.

Instead, Lalami’s West is a place where outcasts and immigrants struggle to co-exist in a desert that sprawls between a national park and a military base—yes, we’re talking about our local high desert. Simultaneously lyrical and accessible, The Other Americans is both an engaging whodunit and a profound meditation on identity and community in the contemporary American West.

The Arabic word for Morocco, “Al-Maghrib,” also means “the West.” American literary expatriates such as Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, who made Morocco their home during the middle of the 20th century, drew mythological connections between Al-Maghrib and the American West, imagining Morocco as a new frontier on which they were countercultural pioneers. Lalami has long been a trenchant critic of the outsized influence these writers have on the American understanding of Morocco. Lalami’s latest novel, a National Book Award finalist, turns the tables on their frontier rhetoric through the story of a Moroccan immigrant family living a few miles down the road from Pioneertown.

The Other Americans is set into motion when Moroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui dies in a suspicious hit-and-run accident while crossing the highway outside the diner he owns in the town of Yucca Valley. The novel pieces together Driss’ life with interwoven accounts from his family and the diverse cast of desert-dwellers drawn into the investigation of his death.

There are elements of Driss’ story that resonate with a well-known American narrative: An immigrant flees political oppression and arrives in a Western town where he builds his own business, raises a family and comes to identify with his new nation and the land itself. The Other Americans notes that Driss buys his diner from “a pair of homesteaders” who built it on “land that belonged to Chemehuevi Indians.” Otherwise, like so many Westerns, the novel is problematically empty of indigenous history or characters. Driss’ status as an immigrant frontiersman is reinforced by his name, which references Moulay Idriss, the venerated descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, who travelled West from the Arabian Peninsula to found the Kingdom of Morocco.

In his later years, Driss buys a cabin amid the Joshua trees, where he enjoys the solitude of the desert like a Maghrebi Edward Abbey—or so it seems.

As the investigation into the accident unfolds, the Guerraoui family’s hopeful frontier story begins to unravel. The driving force behind the investigation and the narrative is Driss’ daughter Nora, a promising jazz composer struggling with the austere realities of having a creative career in the United States. She returns to Yucca Valley from San Francisco hoping to find out who was responsible for her father’s death, while also questioning where her own story went wrong. Instead of clear answers, she finds the cluttered assemblage of love and loss, adultery and addiction that is revealed when most family histories are probed closely enough.

Throbbing below the dissonant melodies of the Guerraoui family’s story is a bass line of fear engendered by the militarism and virulent anti-Arab racism that hit a peak after Sept. 11, 2001. From ethnic slurs in the school hallway to an unexplained arson at the family’s doughnut shop, the racism associated with the ongoing “war on terror” constantly threatens to overwhelm the Guerraouis’ acceptance into American life. Their very name resonates with the French la guerre—the war.

This tension between the family’s identity as American and its labeling as the “other” in the war on terrorism heightens when Nora reconnects with an old flame from high school, Jeremy, a sheriff’s deputy recently home from a military tour in Iraq. Traumatized by their experiences on either side of the racial “frontier,” Jeremy and Nora bond while confronting the truths that might bring some meaning to Driss’ death—and life—even as they battle a community eager to dismiss the hit-and-run as an accident.

In its poetic meditation on traumas at once personal and political, Lalami’s novel calls to mind the work of another celebrated California writer, Joan Didion. In Didion's first novel, Run, River, protagonist Lily McClellan concludes a meditation on her pioneer family’s violent history by declaring that “it had above all a history of accidents: of moving on and of accidents.”

Lalami shares Didion’s unsentimental perspective on the West, and the startling conclusion of The Other Americans refuses both self-righteous moralizing and melodramatic redemption. While Didion emphasizes the contingency of Western history, Lalami forces readers to confront the fact that the violence of that history is anything but an accident.

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Other Americans

By Laila Lalami


320 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature