Why Abdellah Taia Had to Die in Order to Live
By Aaron Hicklin
Despite Taïa's passion for French culture, there was nothing inevitable about his migration to Paris. He could barely speak French, a language associated with the rich in Morocco, when he arrived at Rabat University in 1992. Only by starting a diary and forcing himself to write in French was he able to progress. His skills improved so much that he won a scholarship to study 18thcentury French literature in Geneva. From there he went to the Sorbonne, on another scholarship, to study his doctoral thesis. He had visited Paris once before, in the spring of 1998, thanks to a brief affair with a French lecturer he met at Rabat University (along with the rest of the class he'd been invited to join the tutor at a local caf' -- only Taïa turned up). He compares that relationship to the love triangle in Fran'ois Truffaut's Jules et Jim. 'He had a boyfriend, but I told him I didn't mind,' he says. 'He and his boyfriend were sharing a bed, and at night he'd come to my bed and want to have sex, and in the morning we'd all have breakfast together. It was very complicated. I loved it.'
Complicated is perhaps the best word to describe Taïa's relationships, especially with his older brother, Abdelk'bir -- a magnetic, largely silent figure at the heart of Taïa's autobiographical Salvation Army, his only novel to be translated into English. Six sisters and 18 years separated the two brothers, giving Abdelk'bir a potent place in the family hierarchy: While Taïa and his siblings shared a room with their mother, Abdelk'bir had a room to himself. (Their father had the other.) 'My brother's room was like the ch'teau of the king,' says Taïa. 'He brought a TV, and the sisters would stand at the door, watching, and he used to put me and my small brother in his small bed -- sometimes one of us, sometimes the other, sometimes both. It created something special, sexual, and emotional.'
Given his position in the family -- 'for my mother there is Abdelk'bir and there is the rest of the family' -- the intense mix of admiration and desire that swirled around the older brother was not surprising. A passage in Salvation Army, in which Taïa washes his brother's hair, captures the mood:
'If I love napes today, it's because I spent such a long time looking at my brother's, long and thin. I often wanted to bend over a little further and kiss it tenderly. I wanted to reach out and caress it with my hand, gently tickle it and listen to Abdelk'bir's laughter. I wanted to run my fingers through his hair, play with it, pull it, draw, scratch, dream... I wanted so many things when I was with Abdelk'bir.'
The writing is direct, unaffected, and powerful. An American writer might be tempted to overanalyze the incestuous impulse, but Taïa writes without question or judgment. He accepts his characters for what they are. There is guilt, but barely -- it's almost an inconvenience. He seems more conflicted when a 40-year-old man on the beach in Tangier picks him up: He worries that he's betraying his brother. Salvation Army is a gay coming-of-age novel, but its perspective -- rooted in the claustrophobic world of a poor Moroccan neighborhood -- lends it freshness rare in English literature. David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife, called it one of the best gay books of 2009. Edmund White, who wrote the introduction to the American edition, admires its deceptive simplicity -- 'a simplicity that only intelligence and experience and wide reading can buy.' When the prestigious Hay Festival in Britain recently announced that it had selected 39 writers (out of 450) for Beirut39 -- a project to promote Arab writers -- it was no surprise to find Taïa among them.
Taïa published his first novel in 2000. He wanted to name it after Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, a movie he'd fantasized about seeing in Morocco -- 'it became mythical for me' -- but the title had no French equivalent, so he settled for My Morocco instead. It was his second book, however -- Le Rouge du Tarbouche (The Red of the Fez), a collection of short stories -- that got attention. A Moroccan TV channel, interested in spotlighting successful artists living abroad, sent a film crew to Paris to interview Taïa. The documentary sparked other requests, turning the book into a bestseller, and Taïa into an unlikely literary darling in the country he'd fled. But it wasn't until he was interviewed for a newspaper in January 2006 that he was asked the question he'd been waiting for: Would he talk about his homosexuality?
'I said yes, which wasn't easy. I had to make the decision in that moment, whether to continue this same hypocrisy in Moroccan society -- around the things you do and the things you hide -- or to be completely myself, to say things with meaning,' he says.
The reaction was immediate. And predictable. The editor of Al Massae, Morocco's biggest-selling newspaper, wrote an editorial denouncing Taïa and attacking the use of public money to fund TV shows that featured him. Bloggers called for him to be stoned. Newspaper readers wrote to attack his credentials. 'They said I am a prostitute and not a Muslim anymore, that I should apologize for the shame I brought to my mother, to my religion, to my town, to my country. These attacks hurt, but worse was the silence of the Moroccan intellectuals. It just confirmed that they were dead people who live in another world -- they don't talk about us, about the reality of Morocco.'
Taïa's determination to challenge the prejudice of Moroccan society did not fade. 'Even now people tell me I should change the subject, that I'll be ghettoized as a gay writer, but do we give this advice to heterosexual writers? Please stop writing about your heterosexuality? Homosexuality is part of me, but it's not the only thing I write about. The problem is the way these people read my work. Their problem is that my sexuality is all they see.'
Coming out so publicly was also an awakening for his family. One of his sisters found a copy of the interview on her office desk and read it to their mother, who, like many Moroccans, is illiterate. 'I felt guilty for an hour or two,' says Taïa. 'And then I thought, But no one is asking me how I lived all these years as a gay man. If we think always of how other people will react we'll never do anything. There will always be people who are not OK with the things we do, and not only with homosexuality.'