Why Abdellah Taia Had to Die in Order to Live


By Aaron Hicklin

Last year, when Morocco's interior ministry announced a crackdown on writing and books 'seeking to attack the moral and religious values' of Moroccan society -- code for supporting gay rights -- Taïa responded with an open letter, 'Homosexuality Explained to My Mother.' 'There is a generation of Moroccan people trying to express itself, and the government's response is aggression,' he says. 'I knew I couldn't write to a minister -- he wouldn't respond because they don't recognize people like us -- but I could write to someone related to me.'

Taïa's campaign goes beyond gay rights. After two young brothers died in a suicide attack outside the U.S. consulate in Casablanca in 2007, he wrote an editorial for Le Monde titled 'We Have to Save Moroccan Youth,' in which he addressed the exploitation of teen disaffection by Islamic extremists. 'But I realized I had to go further than that,' he says. 'I had to break the isolation of young Moroccans.' Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet -- a series of 10 letters written to a young man entering the German military -- Taïa approached artists and writers of his generation to contribute essays for an update. Eighteen responded, including Tahar Ben Jelloun, one of Morocco's most famous writers -- a measure of Taïa's success in transcending knee-jerk prejudice. 'Books have given me a legitimacy that I might not have had without them,' Taïa says. 'That a homosexual writer -- the one who is demonized, criminalized -- can unite these forces behind him is amazing to me.'

Letters to a Young Moroccan was published last August, but Taïa didn't stop there. Aware that his target audience could not afford books, he approached millionaire philanthropist Pierre Berg', who had owned a home in Marrakech with his lifelong partner, Yves Saint Laurent. Berg' agreed to fund the printing and distribution of 90,000 copies of the book in French and Arabic -- the kind of bold gesture Taïa himself would never be able to make if he still lived in Morocco. 'They would say I'm crazy, and who do I think I am -- a political leader? Life is when you can think of something and make it happen.' He pauses and shrugs. 'But maybe I'm talking too heroically.'

One person to whom Taïa has not been able to speak, at least directly, is his brother. The writer's sexual attraction to Abdelk'bir -- as a child he used to sneak into his room to masturbate as a child, surrounded by his belongings -- is a central element of Salvation Army, but it's also clear that Abdelk'bir was the conduit through which Taïa channeled his own aspirations. 'I wanted to be like him because he was the most interesting guy around me,' he says. 'Besides all I feel for him, I wanted to be as cultivated as him, as moustachu (mustachioed) as him. I wanted to listen to his music and read his books.'

Although a quiet man -- 'he was with us, he was for us, but he never spoke' -- Abdelk'bir brought the sounds (David Bowie, James Brown, Queen) and images (David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Elia Kazan's America America, even Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet) of a free world into their home. He read Robert Louis Stevenson and Dostoevsky and the great Egyptian writer Tawfik al-Hakim. And it was on the cover of his brother's copy of Premiere magazine that Taïa discovered Isabelle Adjani.

Taïa was 18 when Abdelk'bir surprised him by agreeing to an arranged marriage. It contradicted the worldliness he associated with the brother who had introduced him to 'Ziggy Stardust.' And it suggested that not even Abdelk'bir could escape the pressure to conform. 'I think when you get married in Morocco you are definitely lost,' Taïa says. 'There is no way to escape because you have your own family controlling you and now, in addition, the family of your wife. And there are so many duties -- it's just horrible.' He pauses, runs over what he has just said, and breaks into an apologetic smile. 'I'm sorry, I'm giving you a bad image of my country. But you have to realize that I grew up in this silence of my big brother and of my own silence about my homosexuality and this humiliation of being poor. I was convinced -- every day -- that I would never be able to make it. Now that I can write, now that newspapers will publish what I have to say, I feel like I need to speak, to get out from this banality they impose on us.'

In a perverse twist, Taïa's second greatest love, after his brother, also ended up in an arranged marriage. His name was Mohamed, and they met in 2000 at the Parisian club party BBB, or Black Blanc Beur (beur is French slang for north African immigrants). 'We danced, danced, danced, and hardly spoke -- it was immediate, and he knew it,' says Taïa. 'He was very romantic, very' -- he pauses to find the right word -- 'man.' Mohamed called Taïa back two months later to announce that he had separated from his wife. It took another two months for the two men to find an apartment. 'It was empty, so we slept on the floor,' says Taïa. 'It was like Last Tango in Paris -- do you remember it? I love Brando in that film, especially at that age, 40-something, sad, a dictator, sexual without speaking. If I had to pick a moment from his filmography, it would be that one.'

It was a passionate and dramatic relationship. 'We were both Arabs, and we were redefining ourselves in this relationship,' says Taïa. 'It was more than a simple attraction -- it was like being in the source of your life, of something that is forbidden, and should not exist but that you make exist. He liked Arab poems and used to read them to me, and this is the kind of special thing that you only find in love.' The couple even shared a diary until, in a jealous rage, Mohamed absconded with it, leaving Taïa only those pages he wanted him to read. They saw each other on and off after separating, until the death of Mohamed's first wife. 'The last time I saw him he told me that he'd asked his parents to find another wife for him -- a woman from Tunisia. Since then, no news. I tried to call, he didn't answer.'

Traumatized by the experience, Taïa moved to Tours, a few hours southwest of Paris, where he found temporary work and a lover. It was fated not to last. 'I knew from the day I arrived that I had to return to Paris,' he says. 'I'm not a Frenchman. I'm a Parisian.'

It's a warm November day in New York City, and Taïa is at the tail end of a book tour that has taken him to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass. We arrange to meet on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a stroll through the Egyptian galleries. He is keen to see the Fayum mummy portraits -- realistic masks painted on wooden boards that date back to Roman rule in Egypt and are, oddly, unfaded by time. 'They are defying death,' Taïa whispers, as we stand in front of a portrait of a young man with an aquiline nose, a big mop of hair, and sad, brown eyes.

We take our time, visiting each portrait, studying the expressions, the blemishes and imperfections, the garments and hairstyles. I am ready to leave the watchful eyes of the dead and return to the bright New York afternoon, but Taïa, who had to die before he could live, is lost in thought. 'Look how their eyes are wide open, staring right back into ours. Even though they are linked to death they are not frightening'they are beautiful.'

Salvation Army is published by Semiotext(e).

Send a letter to the editor about this article.