Words Without Borders has recently released its second annual Queer Issue, and there are some staggering stories in it. One of my favourites in the issue is by Abdellah Taïa, “the only gay writer in Morocco,” and a writer I discovered recently and have until now only read in French. (There’s also an interview with him in the issue here.) I’d like to talk about his work here at Big Other at some point in the future, especially Une mélancholie arabe (from which the story in Words Without Borders comes) and L’armée du salut.
His story “The Algerian and the Moroccan” has swiftly shot up there on my list of truest and most devastating love stories. What it is to be possessed by love. What it is to follow, to be swallowed by, love. Real love. I, too.
Some days you left for work at seven o’clock in the morning as usual and, an hour later, you were already back. “It’s horrible, I can only think of you. You are me. I can’t do anything else . . . except be here with you, in this studio, this bed, in this darkness in the middle of the day.” That happened several times and each time I cried from emotion and rushed to open the bed, put on the sheets, the pillows, the covers and quick, quick, we were undressing and would meet, would press against each other, breathe each other in, sleep, wake up, go back to sleep. Eat almost nothing . . . Do you remember all that? Of course . . . How could you forget those instants of real love, pure love, of love more important and stronger than anything, anything?!
Do you remember the light in my eyes every time you opened the door? You commented on it once, just once. Afterwards, you lived in your own idea of love, your love for me obviously greater than what I felt for you. Your daily entrance into the little apartment was a total upheaval, a reversal of myself. You arrived, you barely smiled, you said, sometimes gently ironically, sometimes darkly: “Labass, Sidi Abdellah?” I watched you and I noticed the changes taking place in the air, the world that was nothing but you. YOU.
Below the cut, an embedded video of a really lovely, generous, insightful, joyful interview with Abdellah Taïa at the Pen World Voices Festival. I’ve transcribed some choice quotes on things dear to me: on being a queer writer, on the dream of Isabelle Adjani, on his sister being possessed by jinn (we know already that I have a tenderness and affinity for being possessed), on poverty and class and writing and fighting with language and family intimacy and sexuality.
“Because I, my generation, I’m 37 years old, and… suffered so much from this separation between culture and us, between books and us, it seems like nothing was done to, to, to push us to write, and to, to read. I don’t know if you get what I say. It’s like this, I was… I was always so angry with the Moroccan intellectual, the Moroccan divas, with the… all these people, it seemed like they were all, um, recupérés, recuperated, by the by the power, by the government, by the kings. And I found that it’s very inspiring to be gay and not be recuperated one day by the king [laughs].”
“First the portraits [of me as an author, in Tel Quel] appeared on the magazine while I was in Morocco, promoting the book. So I remember very, ah, very clearly that it was Saturday and I was in Tangiers, the city of Tangiers. And I, I went out from the hotel, Rembrandt Hotel, and I bought the magazine. And I just couldn’t believe it! I mean, you open the magazine and there you are, in the front, there are two pages, one page, my face—naked face—and these, these words about me. So I came back to the hotel and I swear, I closed the door, the windows, and I even put the canapé and the chairs against door. Because you have to understand that I’m coming from really poor family, and, and, to… to… I mean… meaning by that, I grew up in that fear, that I’m nothing, that I will be nothing, nothing will happen to me… To became a writer is something like, so far… and suddenly to be in that moment… And I was afraid that maybe the policeman will come and… [hesitates].”
Dale Peck: ‘Arrest?’
“Arrest, and, and push that door, so at least I found that I will hear them, it will be that, that… the door and the table will hold them for a moment and I will jump from the window, or something… [laughter] but I was really, really… I don’t know if it’s… it’s… It’s funny to tell it, but it was not funny to live it. Because I was really, really scared. Lot of writers talked about homosexuality, Arab writers I mean, in their books, but it was just like a part of the book. But suddenly here I come, without deciding it, I was in that moment and I have already to face the consequences.
“Meaning… I knew that I am going to be lonely… more than I have imagined.
“More than these years of childhood and adolescence when I was really lonely and in the middle of my house. But suddenly I thought there would be a lot of misunderstandings. And that I will be defending and be that, in that homosexual role… of course the writing thing will help, but I will be… that’s it. In some newspapers, but not a lot. But I will… this homosexual thing, they will try to put it in, ‘He’s just gay.’ Not be seen by the other writers and intellectuals as something like… that it has… of course it is me, but it’s not only me… and it has to do with everyone, even the heterosexual people.”
On his mother asking him why he wrote his book: “I couldn’t say anything but… this… we… it’s not only about me. It’s about… society, Moroccan society And that’s when she answered, ‘But we are not Moroccan society! Who are we to say that we are Moroccan society!’ Meaning that no one taught us that society, it’s us, and that we can influence the society to change it, and it doesn’t belong to the king or to the ministers… But for me, I had to come to this point by myself. And to face my mother and to tell her… as a coming out… to say: ‘Yes, I am Moroccan society, too.’”
On partly why he started writing and particularly in French: “It’s because of the French movie star Isabelle Adjani. She is so beautiful, I don’t know, of you who know her, she is… heavenly… creature… possessed! You feel like, these Moroccan genes, this spirit, she’s got them! When you see her face, she’s got this Moroccan-possessed way of being, and even of playing characters…
“So one day I found the magazine in the bedroom of my big brother, it was the French movie magazine called Première. And that issue was from the 70s and she was there on the cover, and it was when the film with… by… Nosferatu… its Werner Herzog movie, with Klaus Kinski and her… and she was playing the character of Mina, which, in the film… she’s always haunted.
“So in the cover of the magazine, she was like my sister who is possessed by… possessed? By spirit, in French we say djinn? How you would say that in English… Spirit… but in… jinn… but in Arabic word, in Morocco, we make this difference … spirits here it has nothing to do with death. We believe there are human beings and there are… jinn. So we always live with this idea that they are there and some people have the ability to be in touch, in contact with them and to be our… the… gateway, go-between. So in all Moroccan families, the rich ones, the poor ones, countryside, there is always someone who is possessed… and usually it’s women… [wry laughter]
“So I decided I will go to Paris and I will live under the same sky as Isabelle Adjani. Uh, I think I was thirteen or fourteen. So I decided I will go to Paris and I will be filmmaker and I will live in the same city as Isabelle Adjani. This is very naive, but I prefer to say this story than to say ‘I love Arthur Rimbaud, and Marcel Proust…’ [laughter] And I don’t know… Gide and Maupassant… I mean, these writers don’t need my help, they are already [gestures toward the heavens] …there.
“But Isabelle Adjani still needs my help! Very, very much! Especially today, they are criticizing her so much! I mean, this, this… Botox, and the chirugie esthétique… it makes me furious! Because society is always criticizing women! And society is pushing women to be beautiful, to be like this, and when they do something, they criticize them. And there is nothing on men! And there are so many men, with the Botox, and no one is saying anything! Why only women, and why only Isabelle Adjani?! [crowd laughs]
Dale Peck: “Have you written about this?”
“Of course! There is, I wrote, I wrote, there is, I wrote a short story called Isabelle Adjani, where I dream about her, and I made her come to Salé, and I introduced her to my mother, to my sister…! [laughter] And after that we ended up in the mausoleum of the saints in Salé, the most famous one, called Sidi ben Aissa. And it’s the saint for crazy people.
“…later I found out that Isabelle Adjani’s father was Algerian. And her mother is German. So this idea that she is French but she is reinventing French, the identity of French, and being French… and to be French… is not only for French people… It’s something… something else.”
On sex and his writing: “Well, I… I’m… I grew up in a large family, so we had in the beginning we had only one room ,we were six sisters, two brothers, me… nine children… and the parents, eleven… in one room. For a long time. So… just… so this is the world for me: this… my body, next to other bodies.
“And these bodies were my sisters and my brothers but when we were inside of that, these frontiers between bodies… were not clear. Were not… outside the home it was defined, settled: the brother, the sister, the mother. But in the house, several things… were happening. And I don’t mean by that, we were having sex with each other. Just the fact to be in one room with so many people in one room, things happen, I mean, you just… witnessing, you… seeing other people’s bodies leaving, everyday, sweating, changing clothes, you see something, there are signals coming from their bodies and these signals have nothing to do with what the morality, what they told you ‘This is the right Islam,’ what the society would tell you how you have to be. So there was always this contraction between what was happening outside and what was happening inside. And inside of that house so many things happened. And the whole atmosphere was um… it was sexual, but again, not in terms that we were having sex with each other! It was just like the bodies were experimenting things and expressing things, without words and these signals struck me so, so, so very much.”
“My problem as an individual in Morocco was with the government, with the rich people, why they abandoned us in illiteracy and the poverty, and why only all these rich people controlling everything, and no culture, no books, and no one trying to tell us that what we live in is digne, has some dignity. And this life that we live in is interesting, too. No one told me that! I only grew up with the idea that I am poor, I will always be poor, and nothing will happen to me.
“And if today I write about this first world, my world, its because I… I mean, it’s very important for me to do it. I feel like it’s a duty for me to do it. These people, nothing will, no one will speak about them, no one will write about them… And more than that I want to be gay inside of that world. This is, I mean, this is the real thing… Not to be homosexual inside… and supported by rich people in Morocco who were humiliating me when I was a little kid and adolescent.
“When I arrived to the University of Rabat to study French liteature, all these girls and boys were coming from the French schools and they were so arrogant! Soo… grr! And like, they… I don’t know, this thing happens even when I come back today in Morocco, like when they look at me, I feel like they look at me and they tell me: You are just poor.
“So if I decided to learn more French, it’s because of that. I wanted to… to fight. To fight with French language. To fight in French language. And not to be quiet… or something.
“So this is the Morocco I grew up in and I want to tell in my books and to… to be… somehow, naked in. And when I say naked, it’s in all meaning of the terms…”