As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
“I’m not influenced by literature. I find everything I need in the reality of life, in my place within that reality.”
New York Live Arts presents
At twelve years old in Salé, Morocco, Abdellah Taïa touched a high-voltage generator and lay dead for an hour before surprising everyone and breathing again. He defied death and would have to keep doing it: as a lone effeminate youth in his neighborhood, he was a target of sexual violence every day. On one occasion Taïa cites as a turning point, grown men on the street yelled in the night to wake him, threatening rape, and though he lay sandwiched between his mother and seven siblings in a shared bed, no one sheltered him. He is an artist intimate with vulnerability and he is unafraid. He is also a political activist who, in 2006, became the first renowned Arab artist to come out publicly in Morocco, a country where homosexuality continues to be illegal.
Born in 1973, Taïa has lived in Paris since 1998 and writes books and films in French. Following his first two novels, Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia, the forthcoming Infidels is his third to be translated into English. Echoing Taïa’s own exile, these books take place between Morocco and Europe, where on the streets and in bedrooms his stories collide in tenderness and violent urgency.
Built in a series of rhythmic soliloquies, Infidels is a timely novel about Islamic fundamentalism, intimacy, betrayal, and panic. “I change realities,” the protagonist Jallal says, “really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.” Taïa’s characters are fugitives constantly in motion: they get close, they love; they manipulate, they spit at each other’s feet. Their days and their transgressions are beautiful, but in a merciless world they can also be terrifying.
Georgia Phillips-Amos When did you first think to write? And why in French?
Abdellah Taïa I’ve published many novels now, but I still have difficulty calling myself a writer. I didn’t become a writer because I wanted to be one. I never dreamt of joining the literary world. I never prepared myself to write seriously by, for example, reading other books and imitating other writers.
Since the age of thirteen my dream was to become a filmmaker and transform my Moroccan reality into images, with no words. Only images. I discovered that in Paris there’s a great school, La Fémis, where you could learn how to make movies.
I was living with my family, who are really very poor, but I decided that one day I would go. At the same time, I made another decision: to start learning French seriously, to master it. Not love it. To make it my own by putting into it all that I am, and the world that I come from.
So, in order to make that reality happen, at the University of Rabat I studied French literature and started to write a diary—a crazy diary where I wrote all that I wanted in French. I put into that diary and into French my identity, my dreams, my silliness, my panic attacks, my tears, my cleverness, and my sexuality, without shame.
One day I discovered I had this new ability to write, to construct texts. I could put my voice and my visions into French words. That’s how I became a writer. But, again, I don’t feel that I am one. I still see myself as a director. Images are, for me, more important than the words. Images say more than the words. Much more.
GPA M’Barka, your mother, appears—even stars—in your writing. Do you see your books as existing in dialogue with your family?
AT There’s no dialogue when it comes to writing. There are fights, dictatorships, and dreams. I write from the place where I first learned to be in the world: the neighborhood of Hay Salam in the city of Salé, Morocco.
My mother, the very powerful M’Barka, ruled our family house. She was hard and sweet at the same time. She was very stubborn. There was never the possibility of dialogue with her. She always preferred her eldest son. And the rest of the family—my father, six sisters, little brother, and me—came as an afterthought. But I have to admit that this woman was fearless, and all her projects were for us, for saving our family from poverty.
She did many things that were morally unacceptable, and she never cared about what people had to say about her. She just kept going. When I write, she is with me whether I like it or not. Her screams and her strategies and her sorcery are there, in my phrases, in my style, in my way of bringing the evil things out. She is a huge influence on me. Even in my way of being a homosexual. My mother was illiterate. She couldn’t read my books. The rest of my family, honestly, I don’t want them to read my work. And if they do, I don’t want to know about it.
I want to hold onto my own vision, my own freedom, and not go back to that first prison of family.
GPA You’ve said that you grew up admiring your elder brother immensely. Did he expose you to film and literature?
AT I was so very much in love with him. I was so very much attracted to his body and to his moustache. I dreamed to be him. Not like him—to be him.
He had his own room. He had books, CDs, and films. He influenced me, yes, but not by telling me to read this book or to watch that film. His influence came from just being there, a part of our poor family. His physical presence was, and is still, so very important, and so was his silence. He knew that for us he was chief, the king of the house. So he didn’t have to speak.
His aura and power came from that silence. I loved that silence. And I hated it too. Because he played it up, sometimes too much, and made it intellectual. He was not in the grime of reality with us. He wasn’t like me, dealing with men trying to rape me repeatedly. And he didn’t save me. He said nothing. He continued to be the important one in the family, the hero of our film.
At some point, I understood that I had to save myself without my brother’s help, without his Western books and films. I had to find solutions to survive within my own reality. But, to be sincere, even today I am still in love with him. Since, as we all know, love has nothing to do with happiness or morality.
GPA You’ve written often about living in close quarters with your family. The only moment of silence in Salvation Army comes in a brutal scene when the children break down the door to your parents’ bedroom to stop your mother from being beaten. Then descends “a total silence, heavy, restless. Short lived.” Do you think the sounds of your family and of Morocco have shaped the rhythm of your writing?
AT Absolutely. But not only the sounds. The noise. The screaming. The shouting. The dirty words. The voices of the spirits, the djinns. My mother fighting again and again with the neighbors and with my father. This repetition of things, words, spirits.
I’m not influenced by literature. I find everything I need in the reality of life, in my place within that reality. My fears are there. My sexuality comes from there too, so does my suffering, my looniness. And my big desire to dissolve myself in the body of a man who I am madly in love with.
In Arab culture, we don’t speak directly about many things. But that doesn’t mean we don’t find other ways to express them, to transgress, to scream. All of me, and all what I write, is in these noises. In this hysteria, in this poetry. Literature is a violent place. There’s no peace to be found in my books. And I didn’t write them to resemble things, to explain, or to understand. My books are only reflections of moments, of moments where our fixed ideas of the world stop having meaning.
My books are like my sister’s body possessed or the actress Isabelle Adjani screaming. I hope they’re like the marvelous and unsettling paintings by Francis Bacon.
GPA I love how there are never purely good or purely evil figures or events in your stories, light and dark appear in motion. Where does this come from?
AT When I was a little boy, my sisters used to take me with them to see their boyfriends. I was supposed to play the role of the protector, not to let the men bother my sisters. Of course, I did the opposite. Without talking about it, my sisters and I, we had a pact: I guaranteed a little freedom for them, and their boyfriends gave me a lot of sweet things to eat in trade.
I remember very well that, on our way back home, we made up the stories to tell our parents. We not only lied, but we were experts in manipulating people. I feel no guilt about this, even now.
I don’t think a writer should respect what is said officially by society. I don’t think everyone can afford to be morally correct. I don’t think a thief chooses to be a thief. The world, its systems push you to transgress, to cheat, to abandon the others, to give up, to kill. My literature is just a mirror of what the world—not only Morocco—is.
I don’t want to write along a line that people already know about. I want to be a thief, me too, as a writer and as a human being.
GPA You write so openly about sex, prostitution, and sexual violence in your work. Are you ever afraid to be so open?
AT I am never afraid to be open about sex. Not in my life or in my books. Sex is just sex. It is how we try to reach each other, because we know that the words we invent are not at all satisfying for going deep.
It’s the way we try to reach others deeply, because we know words alone are not at all satisfying.
GPA When did you realize this?
AT Growing up, I witnessed the changes happening in the bodies of my sisters, in their dreams, their sexuality, their strategies to get what they wanted. I witnessed so many times my father seducing my mother week after week, she used to sleep with us, the children, and he would try to convince her to have sex with him. I learned everything about sex from my family. And it was just a natural thing. Not that I had sex with them, I’m just saying that their sex was a heavy presence in our house.
I left them, betrayed them, but they are still very much present in me, in my dreams, and in my neuroses. And all of that is in my way of writing, in my way of being gay. I had no gay role models to imitate when I was young. All I had was my big brother and my family.
GPA Since you left Morocco homosexuality has become more visible in the media there. Do you see literature and language as catalysts for this change?
AT I don’t see literature as a theoretical place. I see it as something where battles—political, social, religious, sexual—can happen. I’m Muslim, Arab, Moroccan, African, and gay. And I’m a writer and filmmaker. I use my work as a legitimate way to bring change to the world I live in, to Morocco, France.
The newspapers in Morocco have changed their views on homosexuality: They now treat it with more objectivity, and they use the neutral word mithly. This is a very, very, very important step. Young people in Morocco have created LGBTQ associations. The majority of Moroccans are, of course, still homophobic. But that doesn’t mean we should be blind to the small changes happening there.
As a writer I have a responsibility to young gay Moroccans. It’s important that we find ways to make changes happen. I see literature as a place for that.
GPA Sex and bodies are at the core of your stories. The sex is usually riddled with violence, manipulations, and deceit. What do you see as the function of sex in your work?
AT I never say to myself, I am going to write about sex. It’s never the main project. Sex and sexuality just comes out naturally, in my words, in my stories. I do believe that truth comes out more strongly from bodies, silent, or “savage” bodies, fighting bodies. Sex is the place where we can reinvent ourselves constantly. Actually, that’s my definition of being a homosexual: to be sexually out of any jail, any corner, any strict rule society is telling us to follow. Sex in my books might be shocking for some people. But I always try to put some innocence, some poetry, there too.
Of course, I guess it’s surprising for readers in the West to see that freedom of expression about sex in my books. I hope that it will at least break some of the clichés they have about the Arab world. I speak from a very intimate and true and real place. I don’t invent anything.
GPA Beyond sex, there is something very lush and fluid about your books. You write about sex in bathroom stalls, Muslim family life, Marilyn Monroe, and terrorism in the same breath. Who are your literary influences?
AT Egyptian movies. My aunt Massaouda, an ex-prostitute, who used to tell us scary stories in the night. The muezzin calling for the Muslim prayer five times a day, that’s something I always find beautiful, inspiring, and crazy: a human voice so loud five times in the world. The whispering of naked men’s bodies in the public hammam, a place for marvelous transformations. My silent tears, during many many years, when Morocco wanted to kill me at the age of thirteen by deciding to make me a sexual object for horny men in the neighborhood. I had to save myself and only cinema was my shelter and my tenderness. Robert Mitchum, scary and sexy in the incredible movie The Night Of The Hunter; Robert Mitchum again in the fantastic western movie The Wonderful Country, where he finds himself with no place to live anymore on earth. I related so much to that, and I still do. The very strange beauty of the French actress Isabelle Adjani, finding in her the idea of being possessed, haunted, and the talent to scream with grace…
As you can see, there’s no trace here of any literary influence on me.
GPA What about Fernando Pessoa? In a letter to your M’Barka you mention him as your favorite author, and I can see his influence in Infidels.
AT When I read Pessoa, I feel like it’s me speaking—hopeless, melancholic, and full of dark desire. Pessoa’s work doesn’t influence me: it represents me. The structure of Infidels is complicated, but I hope that readers will follow the voices I am writing with and from. There’s a clear story in this book but in a fragmented, exposed way. I can’t write a book in a classic way. We are in the twenty-first century and we should be able to write accordingly. No description. No introduction. No respect for some supposedly literary traditions. My literature is always about a voice imposing itself on me, on the book, and on the readers. A voice that says “I” in a very naked way. It’s an “I” haunted by other “I”s, by other pasts, other tears, other spirits.
Infidels is a book between genres. There’s no one and only fixed identity for the book. As in Fernando Pessoa’s work, there are moving and wondering identities in my books. Always.
GPA Where do the djinns in your work come from?
AT I have problems with some aspect of my country, but I will never turn my back on its culture. I take what I find inspiring, for myself and for my writing.
The djinns are in Arab poetry, in 1001 Nights. Muslims believe there are humans and there are djinns. Only the possessed and sorcerers can speak with them. The old Arab poets all have their own djinns to help them find the inspiration to write. My sister Latifa was possessed by a djinn. My mother took me many many times to see sorceresses and to the sea for the blessing of the holy saints.
I always found these rituals and this way of dealing with the invisible very inspiring, very important, and very creative. I think my first aesthetic shock happened when I went with my mother to see a sorcerer: I totally believed in what he was doing and lovingly followed all his orders. So, you see, all this part of my world, it’s not folklore, like some Westerners say. It’s a way of being alive so much in this life, a way to find—or not—answers, a way to speak to Allah and manipulate Him, a way to be bad with no feeling of guilt. As a writer, I find my images in this world. I don’t force myself. This is me believing sincerely, and it’s me trying to be creative with ideas coming from the djinns.
GPA Jhumpa Lahiri recently wrote for The Guardian and The New Yorker about the freedom and courage that she gets from writing in her second language, has writing in French given you distance and perspective on Morocco?
AT French language didn’t free me and will never free me. French is a colonial language. French is the language used by the bourgeoisie and the elite in Morocco to separate themselves from the rest of the population, to dominate them not only economically but also intellectually. This was always the message for someone poor like me in Morocco: You will never be able to speak fluently in French, and even if you succeed and master it, you will always speak poor French.
French is a language that I am not totally comfortable with. It’s a language I use. It’s a language I still fight with. I am not in love with it. I am using it and changing it and putting my Arab imagination in it, my Moroccan poor sensibility, my way of breathing. I don’t think that literature is a space where you, the writer, find freedom. It’s the opposite for me. Books love dramas, tragedies, hysteria, deep black things, neuroses, eternal wondering. I don’t write to resolve anything.
I write to make things more explosive, more scary, more inexplicable. I don’t write because I am gay. I don’t write to be nice and to make people love me. No. No. I write to be kind of impolite and more subversive. French is a language that is considered by so many people as chic. My literature is written in French but is not chic. And will never be. When you write, the distance you find in order to do that has nothing to do with which language you are using. The distance is a physical thing. Language is just language. And, for the good of literature, the writer should not be that respectful with the language.
GPA You have company as a contemporary Arab author writing in French—together with Mathias Énard, Kamel Daoud, Yasmina Khadra, Boualem Sansal, among others. Is there a literary community of Arab writers in France that you feel a part of?
AT When I was thirteen I decided that I will never be part of any group. The world abandoned me. So I am treating the world the same way. I distrust any kind of community. I believe in lonely voices, in lonely hearts, in lonely and scared strangers you meet briefly in the streets, in the subways, in the public toilets, and with whom you share very briefly the essence of life, love, and sex.
I don’t like to talk writing with other artists.
GPA Despite writing in French, the Morocco of your youth bleeds through all of your writing. You’re often described as a memoirist—in some ways I see your books as vivid portraits of Moroccan cities, families, and lovers. As more years pass with you living in France, do you feel any shift away from Morocco in your storytelling?
AT My father died in 1996. My mother died in 2010.
Now, I am just me, alone in the world. I am more free and more scared. I am unafraid of those in Morocco or in France who want to put me in corners, in cliché identities. Morocco is stronger in me than ever. I understand that I will not get the tenderness I desired from my country. The forty-two-year-old person that I am today understands that he has to do things for other people, in Morocco: for my many nephews and nieces (I have more than forty), for the young gay people in the Arab world. I want to be more involved, politically and emotionally, with them.
The West is building a new image for Muslims: they are the new enemy. I can’t agree with that, I can’t stay silent. I have to help my sisters, my brothers, and other Muslims resolve problems, and I have to defend them. The West, too, is responsible for the chaos happening today in some Arab countries and, yet, Western people forget that.
You see, although I write in French and live in France, my literature and myself only grow more and more tied politically to my first world.
GPA Your books are packed with narrative layers, but short. Do you keep them short intentionally?
AT They are short, yes, but intense. They’re like waves. They’re like this moment when the night skies open up and, suddenly, you see things: dark, sad, and yet sensual. I will never be able to write very long novels. Never. To write is a very demanding experience, physically and mentally. I can’t write everyday. I can’t.
GPA There is great music in your writing. You’ve worked with several different translators in English, I wonder how much you work with your translators, do you read your translated writing?
AT When my work is translated into Arabic, I choose the translator and talk with him throughout the process. For all other translations, I just trust the publishers. I have to give up my controlling nature there.
GPA Many artists have a hard time revisiting their work once they’ve finished. How was it to shape Salvation Army from a book into a film?
AT I didn’t even read it again. I didn’t care about a novel I wrote in 2003–2005. I just tried to find in me what is left of that story. The film is the remains of the book, the ruins of the book. The film is not at all faithful to the book. Au contraire. The film is darker, harder, and at the end, the hero, Abdellah, is a monster. The film says more about me today than the book. I think that cinema is the perfect way to express darkness and violence and extreme experiences. In literature, there’s always something romantic that jumps in without being invited. I hate that. I am not a romantic writer.
GPA There’s no music score in the film. I was surprised.
AT When I was writing the screenplay I heard no music in my head, and I followed that intuition. Cinema is the right place to say so many things with only one image. No need for dialogue or music. I wanted images full of mystery, full of desire, full of despair. I wanted the audience to swim with me in the images. Music, in general, can signal too much to the audience.
GPA In an essay that Semiotext(e) published for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, you wrote hopefully about the Arab spring: “At some point we are forced to challenge, spit hard, stop being polite, stop being small.” The Guardian recently published an article titled “I Was Terribly Wrong,” with contributions by authors from the Arab world examining the transformations, stagnations, and disappointments that have taken place in the last years. I wonder how your own thinking has or hasn’t shifted?
AT In 2010–2011, Arabs showed the whole world that they are capable of doing something historically big. They could make changes happen with no help from the West, with no references to the Islamists, to Bin Laden, to the Taliban. For me, that moment is the moment that defines the Arab people. The people who talk about disappointments should instead keep that revolutionary spirit alive. I am still totally in love with that moment and, with all my heart and soul, I still believe Arabs are still awake. The political consequences these days are disastrous. But we should not help those who want to see Arabs sleep again, those who see the Arabs only with Orientalist eyes. The Arab Spring is the biggest political moment of my life, and the books I’ve published since 2010 (Infidels and Un pays pour mourir) are very much inspired by it.
GPA You’ve written about the war rhetoric blooming around you in Paris. Can you imagine how different it would have been for you to arrive in France today rather than when you did?
AT I was twenty-five years old when I arrived in Paris. I was so very driven, and I wanted to make my dreams happen. I didn’t care about racism, about people saying, “Oh, you speak good French,” and meaning, “We accept you, you are the good Arab, the others are bad.” I was seen by gay French people only as a sexually exotic object. But I had a goal and knew that I could fight to achieve it. In a way, my childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker in Paris protected me from all the violence against immigrants in France. I was not aware at the time of these issues. I just kept going on, moving, trying again and again.
Paris, I thought, is not only for the French, it’s a city for everyone who wants to be something. I was somehow innocent, silly, sweet, and also afraid of the French people. I wanted to please them, to show them that I know their culture. I wanted to seduce them and to put them in my pocket. In a way, I succeeded in doing that.
Today, when I think of myself in 1998 here in France, I see clearly I was in a kind of postcolonial fight with France, taking revenge, finding freedom, yes, but that freedom was not given to me: I had to take it.
Today, I am aware of everything happening in France, politically, socially, and intellectually—it is tragic to see France betraying its own values, to see it refusing multiculturalism, to see it rejecting again the Arab and African immigrants who helped her, after War World II, to rebuild the country. In France, freedom is not for everyone, that’s what we hear everyday in the news.
Georgia Phillips-Amos attended Utrecht University and works at New Directions. She lives in New York.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.