Abdellah Taïa

Interview by
Ahmed Ibrahim
Photography by
Bruno Staub


Abdellah Taïa was destined to be a writer. Born in the public library where his father was a janitor, he grew up in Salé, a city near the Moroccan capital Rabat. Determined to learn French and study abroad, he won a scholarship and lifted himself out of his impoverished and hostile surroundings, and eventually became known as the North African country's only out homosexual. These days, he considers himself Parisian, continuing his writing practice from his Belleville studio in the 20th arrondissement. Away from his desk, nothing gives Abdellah more pleasure than his frequent trips to the cinema. New York-based, Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Ibrahim and Abdellah spoke about gay life in their respective home countries, and Abdellah's recent stint as film director, when he adapted his most beloved book 'Salvation Army' for the big screen.

Ahmed: In ‘Salvation Army’, there’s some intense brotherly love — a kind of physical infatuation with your older brother — going on.
Abdellah: Yes, more so in the book, I think.
Are you still interested in that dynamic as an adult, like being in love with somebody who’s older?
Always, my friend, I am kind of a gerontophile. How old are you?
I’m 34.
Oh, ça va! Without any exaggeration or provocation, the image of god, of Allah, was the face of my big brother. In our house, he was the king, he was god… He had Fairuz, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix records. He had Douglas Sirk movies, he had David Cronenberg movies, he had Al Haram by Henery Barakat…
I see.
And everything I am today is just a development of what he was. I took everything from my brother’s room — the books, the music, the smell of his clothes. The sexual fixations I have now in my adult life are all coming from things I imagined about him. I am aware that some people will not be comfortable with me saying things like this, but I do really believe that we, as sexual adult individuals, are very much coming from things we experienced or seen in the family. It doesn’t mean that we had sex with members of our families, it’s just what happened there. That’s something I am not ashamed at all to talk about.
And has your brother read the book?
I wish, I wish, I wish… Because although they didn’t protect me when I was little, I am still attached to things I witnessed with them. And I don’t think I do any harm to them in my books. I hope one day he will read the books. At the same time, I don’t want my family to interfere with what I do now. The blessing I needed from them back then didn’t come, and now I don’t want it.
I totally understand. When you had a screening of your film at the MOMA and the digital projector wasn’t working, you suggested that somebody put a curse on your film.
Not a curse, a malediction. Sorcery is more popular than football in Morocco, actually. Moroccans, rich or poor, they love to put spells on each other. And even if you don’t believe in all that, just to watch people doing these things is so inspiring. It says so much about Moroccan people. I find them totally crazy — more crazy than me — and somehow totally free and inspiring.
When you were making the film version of ‘Salvation Army’, how did it work out with the Moroccan actors and crew? There are some very gay scenes.
Well, that was maybe one of the biggest surprises of my entire life, because I had really no problem with the actors, with the technicians, nothing. I had no trouble because I was very, very honest with them from the beginning. I told them everything that is in the screenplay. And, most importantly, I made links between what is in the screenplay and their reality. When I would direct the actors, I tried to find the scenes in their memories, like the way they are seated, watching TV, the way they are eating, the way they look to each other. And the reality in the film is totally Moroccan. Yes, the hero is gay, but they all knew someone who was gay. I don’t think they will do this in their daily life with anyone else. They do it for me because I’m a director.
Yeah, that’s a film and it’s not reality—
It’s cinema which allows us to talk this way, which is, in a true way. It’s not like ‘This is cinema, it’s not reality’. It’s the opposite! Cinema, because it’s something big and arty and beautiful, allowed us to talk. They were all happy to work on a film that is dealing with a gay hero within a very complicated Moroccan reality.
Wow! That’s very surprising, in a way.
They were supportive. I swear, many times they were saying ‘we are with you’. They were saying it in Arabic, ‘بالعربي إحنا معاك احنا معاك ‘. It’s just the politicians who invent lies to prevent people from seeing the truth, but they are seeing the truth.
People usually don’t have problems with you being gay in the Arab world when it’s one-on-one. It’s only in big groups when people start feeling like, ‘Oh, I should object that,’ or ‘This is حرام’ or ‘This is not acceptable’. For the most part…
In a big group or in public, they start acting differently.
Exactly, and most of the technicians in cinema, they are coming من الشعب يعني.من.
Yeah, the working class.
I didn’t even have to work too hard to convince them. It’s the power of cinema that’s allows this truth to come out. After the Arab Spring, it’s one of the most political revelations I ever had in my entire life. Maybe because I look like a nice guy as well.
Yeah, that always helps.
A kind guy is a kind guy and I look kind, don’t you think?
Of course, you look very kind.
People feel comfortable with me.
Can we talk about something from your book that didn’t make it to the film? This three-way you had on the train…
I love that story. For me, it was a miracle of life — a sexual miracle. That’s something that’s only happened one time in my life. We had sex all night long in this — how do you say compartiment? It’s was a night train, so we went there, and we closed the door and we started to fuck… What can I say? I would like to rewrite it and make a whole novel about it. Just what happened on the boat from Tangier to Algeciras, and then from Algeciras to Madrid on the train. In Madrid, they convinced me to spend the day with them to visit the city. They took me to this place, an ‘Auberge de Jeunesse’, where you can stay for almost no money. We kept having sex all day long.
Wow, and were they like a couple?
No, but the German boy was so very much in love with the guy from Poland. Maybe that will be, finally, my sex book. I have the story.
Do you find hooking up for sex more easy in the Arab world than in Europe?
No, no, no. In the Arab world, there is this general idea that everything is very sensual and homosocial, which is true, but at some point, if you are not strong enough to deal with the dominant hypocrisy there, you can be يعني يمشو عليك.
Yeah, they walk all over you.
You have to be strong… Here in Europe everything is defined. There are freedoms, and at the same time, clear rules. I’m not saying that I choose the West, but I choose the place where I can work on something as an adult. That could be the definition of freedom, including sexual freedom, for anyone.
Yeah, of course.
When I arrived in Europe, I saw how I could become that Arab sexual object. And you know what I discovered about myself? That I too am a big dictator.
Obviously, you work in film.
You have to be strong in the West as well. I had to be careful not to let other people diminish my freedom.
The whole issue of homosexuality in the Arab world is interesting and complicated in terms of how the West looks at it.
Arabs are always obsessed with the fact that the West is looking at them as naked. And so what if we are naked? It’s beautiful to be naked. We are always naked in the hammam.
What do you mean by that?
There is this idea — an inferiority complex — that Arabs must always be looking their best in the eyes of the West, and not show their flaws. But who cares? I mean, the West is not perfect.
And neither is the East.
Exactly. And there are good examples that define what freedom is, already available in the Arab world. Everyone loves Mahmoud Darwish, even the ones who don’t read poetry. But when you read his book, he’s so free. He talks about the body and about love, about sex, about his mother, about alcohol… Arabs don’t need examples from the West to see what is freedom. The freedom is there.
You have said before that although you are an Arab, in many ways, you don’t feel like an Arab.
I am very much Arabic, because I love Umm Kulthum, I love Mohamed Abdelwahab, I love Samira Said, I love Abu Nuwas, I love Youssef Chahine, I love Ibn Khaldun, I love my mother! But at the same time I cannot connect with some of the Arab people that don’t seem to understand what I see as the Arabic essence, which is bravery. I mean, if you look at ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, is there any book more free than this one?
It’s very imaginative. It’s like completely out there…
Yeah, and even narratively, this book is revolutionary. Arabs are so proud of that book, but they act — not all of them to be honest — like there is no real freedom in it. Marcel Proust is influenced by ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. James Joyce… All of them! And, at the same time, they ask me, ‘How dare you speak about homosexuality? Aren’t you afraid? You are Muslim, aren’t you afraid from Allah?’
So you feel like the Moroccan people are not aware of the freedoms that Arabs invented.
Yes, and in that way, I don’t feel Arab.
If you compare yourself to your brothers and sisters, who were brought up in the same house, but have a different way of thinking, how do you think being gay affected the way you see things?
When I was a little boy, I was very effeminate, and they were very — I’m not going to say kind — they were very playful. They used to dress me up and put makeup on me. They had no problems with the fact that I was gay. Moroccan society did exist outside — heavy and cruel, everyone watching everyone — and yet, we managed to create something I would call ‘paradise’ at the time. Those moments with them, as a gay boy, affected everything that I am. Homosexuality then was just like a Botticelli painting, you know, like ‘The Allegory of Spring’ with all of these women playing, and me in the middle. And of course, they were doing that because I was effeminate, but at the time they never gave me the feeling that what we were doing was wrong.
Right. Everybody was down with it.
Yeah, and for me, that’s the meaning of homosexuality: me with them, not outside. I don’t want to be outside that human circle that we were all born into.
They didn’t care.
They didn’t care at all. But then suddenly, they tell you, ‘It’s over. Be a man!’
Which is probably about when your film starts taking place…
He’s fifteen in the film, but in my reality it was like when I was twelve or thirteen, and it’s all about this idea how to be a man. The fact that I was effeminate became a huge political problem inside and outside the house. I suddenly became العار.
Yeah, the shame.
How call that? The shame? No, it’s a stronger word in Arabic.
It’s more harsh. It’s a huge embarrassment.
It’s eternal…
Yeah. In Egypt, for example, the term for homosexuality is very blurry. Like so if you are a man and you have sex with a younger boy, that’s not really homosexual. You’re just kind of fooling around. If you’re a top or the active one then you’re not gay.
Yeah, of course — the same in Morocco.
So how did that play out when you were a teenager?
In the beginning, it started with something like, we’re playing football and suddenly it becomes sexual, but it was not rape or anything. It was just like sexual group experiences with boys, both older and younger. Those sexual games were no problem. But little by little, the one who was going to be the homosexual was me — maybe because I was effeminate, but I was not only one who was effeminate. I was the chosen one to suffer, but actually, it was not even rape. I would become the one they would use to have sex.
Like a sex object…
A sex object for so, so many men — for men that I didn’t even know. They heard about me, and they came from other blocks. I didn’t know what to do what, or how to react. The only thing I could do is to accept it, until the day I realized that the victim I was becoming had to stop being a victim, and I did something very bad.
Do you mind talking about it?
It’s all in the book. In the beginning of ‘An Arab Melancholia’, I talk about this moment when I understood that there was no protection coming from my mother or anyone in my family. I had to stop living — not to commit suicide, but somehow to kill something in me. And that something was to stop being effeminate. That’s what was attracting them — and I mean it. They will not admit it, but they wanted to have sex with the effeminate boy. I had to invent someone else.
And how old were you then?
And after that, you weren’t harassed any longer?
No, it took some time. You have to imagine what it means not to be effeminate. It’s like you have to kill what you are, actually, to control your gestures, the movement of your body, the way you speak, all the time. And the more I controlled myself, the more I started to lose those precise memories of that boy I used to be. Even today here in France, when people find out that I am homosexual, they say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like a homosexual.’ As if I would take it like a compliment. This is, for me, an insult. I really succeeded to kill something inside of me.
So from like the age of thirteen until you left for Switzerland — how were your sexual experiences for those twelve years?
From the age of thirteen until I was twenty two — until I met this Swiss professor in Rabat who was visiting — there was nothing. I used to fall in love, but I never dared to talk about it. I started to become blind. I stopped seeing the signals of homosexuality around me. I was just studying and focusing on this dream to become a filmmaker one day. For many years, I thought that I was the only homosexual in that country, which is very ironic when you think how Morocco attracts famous homosexuals.
Do you find that homosexual sex, or even group sex between men, is very present in Morocco?
Yeah, of course it is happening. You can easily imagine why because of the way Arab societies are organized, with the separation between women and men. And maybe Arab people, they just enjoy having homosexual sex. And why not? Just because they cannot admit it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Now, in Morocco, it’s happening everywhere. I’m not talking about homosexuality as identity.
Right, as an act.
As sex.
Yeah, purely sex. For me, if you have sex with men, that’s gay. Regardless if you have a wife, or if you never had sex with anybody else. Whether you are a top or a bottom… Two men having sex is gay — even if they cannot admit it or talk openly about it.
This is political, of course.
Do you find homosexuality less political in the West than in the Middle East
Governments put some very narrow identities on us… يعني هم اللي جعلونا نبقا صغيرين في عين —
في عيون الناس.
في عينينا احنا  قبل الناس — I don’t know how to say this in English.
You don’t have to. What makes you happy these days?
Oh, when I see ‘Palace Walk’ by Hassan El Imam. Do you remember the scene where Nadia Lutfi is dancing with Yehia Chahine?
Yes, yes…
I am happy when I see the face of Isabelle Adjani, I am happy when I listen to my beloved Abdel Halim Hafez. Or when I allow myself to adore someone. Most of the time it has to do with something in Arabic, and I have to say, Egypt. You know that Egypt is a huge influence on us as Arabs — huge. Not only the gay people. What brings me happiness, especially, is Egyptian cinema. But we should also mention at least one Moroccan star, like Samira Saeed.
She’s amazing. I love Samira Saeed.
Everything that makes me happy has some depth, but also expresses some joy about life. I don’t know how gay people have this ability to make things joyful, even if they’ve had miserable lives. Every day I play Soad Hosny and sing along.

If you have not yet read ‘Salvation Army’, please do. His film adaptation of that novel is compelling as well. Abdellah Taïa’s most recent French language novel ‘Un Pays Pour Mourir’ came out this year, and is available through Seuil. His dedicated website is here.

Published on 11 September 2015