Why Abdellah Taia Had to Die in Order to Live
Abdellah Taïa recalls the night a group of men came to his family home — three rooms for 11 people — and shouted at the windows: ‘Abdellah, come here, we want to fuck you.’ He was 11 going on 12 and lay in bed alongside his sisters and his mother, listening to the mob outside. ‘Everyone heard’not only my family but the whole neighborhood,’ he says. ‘What I saw clearly was that this is how society functions and that no one can protect you, not even your parents. That’s when I realized I had to hide who I am.’
Taïa always knew he was gay, but it took time to realize how it might be used against him. A young man in his neighborhood, Naim — ‘a very beautiful name that means, after a manner, soft’ — served as a harbinger of his own likely fate. In a culture where men and women are strictly separated, Naim was a vessel — and a victim — for young men in search of a substitute. ‘They made him just a sexual thing, someone that the frustrated Moroccan man can have sex with,’ says Taïa. ‘They killed him, in their way — they destroyed him.’
If you go to Taïa’s impoverished neighborhood in the Moroccan port of Sal’ you may or may not find Naim, but you will find someone like him. ‘There is always one person, this man/boy, singled out,’ says Taïa. ‘Let’s just say I understood that I had to save myself from this fate, that I was the next generation after that guy.’
But first, Taïa had to die. It happened on a stultifying summer’s day, when he was supposed to be taking an afternoon nap. Bored and in need of distraction, he was looking for friends when he ran into a group of older boys who were interested in sex. Rather than comply, Taïa ran, stopping to catch his breath only when he was close to home. That was when he touched a high-voltage power generator and blacked out. He awoke an hour later to find his family, the whole neighborhood it seemed, crammed into the small house, grieving by his bedside. ‘They thought I was dead,’ he says. ‘I think I did die, but I remembered nothing. I was out for an hour.’
The story of how the young boy died and rose again became a local legend: the miracle boy. And for Taïa it was a rebirth — from that day on he resolved to protect himself. He would not be another Naim. ‘I shut down everything homosexual,’ he says. ‘As a little boy, it’s OK, but at 13 or 14 you have to be what society demands of you — la Moroccan, macho, et cetera. You have no power, as a child, to face society with your own truth. So you have to save yourself.’
On the cusp of adolescence, Taïa broke off contact with his friends and sought solitude in movie theaters — where he fell in love with French cinema — and in his home, where he nursed a secret crush on his older brother, Abdelk’bir, a catalyst, years later, for his writing career. He might have lost a part of his childhood the summer he died, but he found his voice.
‘I still have some of the electricity I got that day,’ he says. ‘I was somewhere during that ‘dead time,’ but where, I don’t know. Perhaps the reason I write is because I want to know the answer to that question.’
It is a bright afternoon in Paris, and Taïa is boiling water for tea in his tiny studio in Belleville, a hilly neighborhood of narrow streets in the 20th arrondissement. From the window you can just make out the Arc de Triomphe and the whipped-cream dome of Sacr’ Coeur. It’s a long way from the Moroccan slums of his childhood, but in his six books and in his journalism, Taïa shows that he is never far from the experiences that circumscribed his youth. ‘Morocco is with me whether I want it or not. I come from a very poor background, and when I go back I feel like the same poor boy in Morocco, and I’m aware that this limited life — la vie limit’e — that I was supposed to have is still there for so many people, even for people in my family.’
He holds up a package of Mariage Fr’res tea, in its distinctive black and cream packaging. ‘One of the reasons I love Paris is that we have Mariage Fr’res. You have tea from all over the world — from Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and it doesn’t cost that much. It’s a sign of democracy, I think, to have tea from everywhere.’ As a student in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, where he studied French literature, Taïa saw Paris as the gateway to a tantalizing new life, one that would liberate him from the vie limit’e of Sal’. ‘It was clear to me that eventually I had to get to Paris, because this was the city of Isabelle Adjani, and I love Isabelle Adjani,’ he says. ‘This was the city of Rimbaud and Marcel Proust. Paris represented, like London, something very special. The target was to go there to be free as a homosexual, but at the same time to achieve these dreams — to write movies and books, and to dream big, if I may say that.’
Taïa has a small, compact body, alert brown eyes, and the faint fuzz of a moustache. He moves around his sparsely furnished apartment with quick, graceful steps — two or three in any direction brings him to a wall. There is a TV and a DVD player and a few shelves of books, but no desk. When he writes, he uses a copy of Tintin Au Congo as a surface, placing it against his knee for support. He works in the dark, drawing the curtains against the daylight, and writes with a pen. ‘Writing for me is not just about inspiration, it’s a physical experience,’ he says. ‘Computers feel like a barrier to good writing.’
When he is not writing, Taïa watches movies — an eclectic list that includes Gus Van Sant, Douglas Sirk, the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, and anything starring Marilyn Monroe. At one point he locates a DVD of The Seven Year Itch and we watch Monroe’s breathy ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ as she stands by the AC unit in her neighbor’s apartment. Movies are among Taïa’s few extravagances. Others include Camper shoes (he pronounces it ‘compere’), and his cologne, Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens, which he buys from the Lutens store at the Palais Royal in Paris. ‘When I discovered this perfume in 2003, I forgot about all the others,’ he says, pulling out a piece of paper to write down the name, and giving careful instructions on how to find the store.
In Daniel Defoe’s seminal adventure novel, Robinson Crusoe, the titular hero is captured by pirates from Sal’ and sold into slavery before escaping on a boat bound for Brazil. Like Crusoe, Taïa always understood that he would have to escape Sal’, although the persecution he was fleeing was a slavery of the mind’the suppression of free-thought and self-expression, the absence of opportunity. ‘Although I had a lot of troubles being gay, it also allowed me to find a place inside myself to look at these things. I don’t know how I found the energy or strength to do that, because when I go to Morocco I see the control everywhere.’
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.’
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.’
Originally published in Out magazine, March 2010