An interview with Abdellah Taïa

Jason Napoli Brooks

Photograph by Jeremy Stigter

In 2007, Abdellah Taïa came out as a gay man via an interview with the Moroccan magazine Telquel. It was a public proclamation that reverberated through all levels of Moroccan society: Morocco's biggest-selling newspaper denounced him, and many of the country's bloggers decried him, saying he should be stoned. The first Moroccan writer to live openly and unapologetically as a homosexual, Taïa has since been viewed as a literary ambassador for Morocco's "I" Generation, which has decidedly bucked self-censorship and begun the fight for individual freedoms in Morocco. In 2009, after the Moroccan government moved to suppress writing that supported gay rights (and other attacks on "the moral and religious values" of Morocco), Taïa felt moved to address his country. As he told Out Magazine: "There is a generation of Moroccan people trying to express itself, and the government's response is aggression. 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." The result was an essay in the form of the 2009 letter, "Homosexuality Explained to My Mother," the English and Chinese translations of which appear for the very first time in this issue of Asymptote.

However, Taïa never intended his literary work to be overtly political. Indeed, his two autobiographical novels are ostensibly love stories: Salvation Army (2006) explores the author's tender but forlorn affection for his older brother; and An Arab Melancholia (2012) follows the author through a childhood in the slums of Salé, his escapism through Egyptian cinema, and a doomed romance in Paris. What both novels share is Taïa's unflinching revelation of truths that are not always joyful, but painfully necessary.

Born in Salé in 1973, Taïa now lives in Paris. Though his first language is Arabic, he writes primarily in French—a fact that has, in his own words, made him a "traitor."

I've heard literature described as an 'unwanted gift' in that it gives the world something that it needs, but not necessarily wants. Your novels Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia, and certainly your essay "Homosexuality Explained to My Mother," exemplify the idea that it is the writer's duty to bring society face to face with uncomfortable realities. How much do think about the political ramifications of your work?

When I started to write my first novel, Salvation Army, I was apolitical and never thought about the political ramifications my work might have. Even when I wrote "Homosexuality Explained to My Mother," I wasn't thinking of the political ramifications. For me, it was a personal matter. I, like all gay people in Morocco, was under so much pressure, from my father, my neighbors, religion, and the king, to be another way, to be heterosexual. I couldn't take the pressure anymore; I wanted to finally speak in what you might call my primal voice, the first voice that I have always had and needed to speak with. The result was that essay. It was the feature story in an issue of Telquel, which in Morocco is on the same level as Time in the US.

There is a story that the day "Homosexuality Explained to My Mother" was first published in Morocco, you barricaded the door of your apartment and stayed awake all night, fearing you'd be attacked. Does the reception of your work in Morocco still make you fear for your life?

Well, I should first say my books are sold in Morocco. That alone is amazing; they are the type of books that would have been banned not long ago. And no, I was never attacked physically, but I have been attacked critically by other Moroccan writers, journalists, and politicians. The idea was that we Moroccans are good citizens and good Muslims. We aren't permitted to talk about personal things, especially not out in the open. But for me writing is never about what's considered 'right,' it's about everything that's wrong. It's about addressing something unsaid, which is what homosexuality had always been. I can now see that my writing is part of a bigger movida that started in Morocco with King Hassan II's death in 1999, similar to what happened in Spain after Franco died. The lower classes are now making their voices heard more and more because they know that political and societal change will not come from the rich.

Do you think artists have an integral role in this political change?

Not an integral role, a necessary role. There is no coordinated group of artists working towards change in Morocco, but there is a general sense among artists, writers, and young people that it is time to remove our old clothes and start speaking for ourselves, without the pressure of the king or our families. We've been called the "I" generation.

Is that label meant to be derogatory?

Yes and no. In Arabic the word ana is I. It's the I we use when we make small, daily decisions. But when we make bigger decisions we, as a culture, are not permitted to think with this ana. Instead, we are expected to think about those decisions as decisions to be taken by our entire family or community. To think outside of this is considered subversive. So, to express oneself—or one's true sexuality—is a betrayal to the values of our culture. My decision to move to Paris, and, really, my decision to be a writer, and to write about events in my life just as they happened, made me a traitor to my family and to my country.

Was the seed for this betrayal planted early in your life, or did you come to writing later in life?

When I was growing up in Morocco I had never dreamed about being a writer. I wanted to be a filmmaker—a director, definitely not an actor. I wanted to continue the stories I had seen in Egyptian movies, which, by the way, are so wonderful—it's a pity Americans don't know about them. Movies nourished me as a storyteller. My family was very poor and the house I grew up in was small. There were nine of us living there, my parents and seven children. There were no secrets among us, but there were at the same time so many transgressions that we were never permitted to speak of, or maybe didn't want to speak of. At night we were witness to my parents' sexual relations, and to the fighting that always followed their sex. So at night, to deal with this, I would lie on the floor of the house, trying to sleep, and I would remember those Egyptian movies I had seen that day. I would replay the movies in my head, scene by scene, and then I would insert my sisters into those scenes. I could see no difference between movies and life. So my dream was really to grow up and move away to Cairo to study filmmaking and continue the stories I had seen in those movies.

Why didn't you follow through with that dream?

I was so young that I didn't realize how poor my family was! I didn't know I couldn't just go off to Cairo and enroll in a film school. But I knew I couldn't continue living in Morocco; my mother wanted me to get married and become a part of the community forever. So, I started studying French because it seemed like an easy way to leave Morocco and to go live in Paris, to live somewhere else. The irony is that since I have left, I have become even more closely linked to Morocco: Because of my novels I have become a sort of ambassador for Moroccan literature.

The best-known portraits of Morocco seem to have been written by Westerners—Bowles, Burroughs, and Delacroix come to mind. With which Moroccan writers do you share a lineage?

Mohamed Choukri is a major influence. He was one of the first writers that talked about real life in the Moroccan streets. But he did not write as a sociologist; he wrote about himself and his prostitution and thievery. He showed the Moroccan boy that we see, but we don't see. His novel For Bread Alone was banned in Morocco until 2002 for that reason, and because it was written in Arabic. You were not supposed to talk about these topics—theft, prostitution, the terrible conditions of the lower classes—in Arabic. You were not supposed to mix the "dirty" Arabic with the "sacred" Arabic.

Were the cultural constraints of what is permitted to be written about in Arabic the reason you chose to write only in French?

Not exactly. As I said, I studied French in school because I thought it would be a way out of Morocco. And by learning French I was again a traitor. Westerners might not know this, but most Moroccans have a difficult relationship with French. The majority of Moroccans speak only Arabic, not French. Certainly no one reads French. Actually, many people in Morocco are illiterate and don't read at all. I think maybe sixty percent is illiterate. French is spoken only by the upper classes in Morocco, and the upper classes in Morocco use French to humiliate lower-class people. It's the language the upper classes use to distance themselves from the poor and the working classes. So for many Moroccans, such as my family, French is only associated with bad things and bad feelings. When I told my mother that I was writing in French, she labeled me a traitor, continually asking me: Why not write in Arabic?

That's a good question. Why not in Arabic? Did you view writing in French as a transgression against these upper classes, a way to take the fight to their homes?

No, not at all. I write in French but I continue to think in Arabic. If I wrote in Arabic, I don't think I would be the same writer I am today. I don't just mean the words would be different; I mean who I am as a writer would be different. By writing in French I am faced with communicating in a foreign language, but I am also forced to question who I am in the world. I have to ask myself, "Can I do this? Can I confront this betrayal?" I think this has made me a better writer, or at least a different writer.

Samuel Beckett said writing in French helped him to "throw the brakes on," that French reigned in his thinking because he never fully mastered the language.

I never mastered French. I don't have a connection with French theory. As I said, I think in Arabic and then I write it in French. Still, people in France often say to me, "Your French is so good!" I never know how to react to that! It's as if they're saying, "Okay, you're an Arab but now we accept you." It's disturbing to me.

Your novel An Arab Melancholia is about a narrator who is seeking a place—including a geographical place—in society. Do you think this is the predicament of a writer: to constantly search for his place in the world?

I would say to know from where you speak is the case for many writers; it's not about searching for the place. For example, I always write from a very specific place. I write from the place of my childhood, from that small house we all lived in. I particularly write from the first memory of my self-consciousness: I was a little boy and I had just injured my foot. There was blood everywhere. My sisters were hurrying around me to bandage my foot and stop the bleeding. It was the first moment that I knew I existed. I think much of my writing is the acknowledgment of that blood, of trying to deal with all the blood. That injury was also my first real acknowledgement of my body, which is the first language you really know. So for me, writing is a primitive thing; something that is integral to my body and cannot be ignored.

The last few sections of An Arab Melancholia are incredibly intimate. You really put it all out there, as we Americans say. For you, what is the distinction between fiction and autobiography?

There isn't a distinction. I mean, what is the difference? Every morning I wake up. That is reality. But as I lay in bed I need time to construct a narrative: who am I, where am I, and so on. The answers to these questions aren't necessarily objective. So, we all live in something that is autobiographical and fictitious at the same time. Love, for example, is a fiction two people, or one person, writes. That's what I was thinking when I inserted those love letters in the final chapter of the An Arab Melancholia. I took things that happened in autobiography and converted them into stories. In terms of the novel as a whole, everything there comes from autobiography. It was the same with Salvation Army: I just wanted to talk about the neighborhood where I grew up. But the difference between these novels and memoir is that I have not ignored the literary process, which means remaining open to unexpected ideas and being prepared for the transformation of events on the page. I don't know what the end result will be, but I do know that all of my writing begins with autobiography, and my characters are real people who have inspired me and who I can truly say that I adore. The problem is—and perhaps every writer has this problem—that when I write about real things that happened with people in my life, these people are not always happy about it, and that saddens me because I don't know why they don't see things the way I see them.

Click here to read Abdellah Taïs's 2009 open letter "Homosexuality Explained to My Mother," also in the July 2012 issue, translated for the first time into English and Chinese.