Driven by famine from their home in the Rif, Mohamed's family walks to Tangier in search of a better life. But things are no better there. Eight of Mohamed's siblings die of malnutrition and neglect, and one is killed by his father in a fit of rage.
On moving to another province Mohamed learns how to charm and steal, and discovers the joy of drugs, sex and alcohol. Proud, insolent and afraid of no one, he returns to Tangier, where he is caught up in the violence of the 1952 independence riots. It is here, during a short spell in a filthy Moroccan jail, that a fellow inmate kindles Mohamed's lifealtering love of literature.