"No one is capable of freeing oneself from society."
An Interview with Writer and Filmmaker Abdellah Taïa
Born in Salé, Abdellah Taïa was the first Moroccan author to come out as homosexual. He moved to Paris in 1998 and published his first book, Mon Maroc, two years later. His novels depict social, economic, and sexual hierarchies by describing human relationships and emotions. A few of his books include, Lu Jour du Roi (The King’s Day),An Arab Melancholia, and the autobiographical novel Salvation Army, published in English in 2009, with a preface by Edmund White, and was made into a film, directed by Taïa.
Abdellah Taïa and I spoke at his sparsely furnished apartment in the Marais, Paris, where we sat at a huge table. The writer and filmmaker poured me a cup of green tea that had, lettered onto the yellow mug, the words Miami Beach.
I. THE CONTROL ISN’T IDEOLOGICAL BUT PHYSICAL
THE BELIEVER: What is your position today in Morocco?
ABDELLAH TAÏA: My books are published and known—especially the second one, Le Rouge du Tarbouche [The Red of the Fez]. After I wrote that book I started to write and talk about homosexuality. And since then, rich and powerful families—and even some writers and intellectuals—won’t officially accept me, because it would mean that they’re alright with homosexuality. But their support and blessing isn’t important to me. So many people and institutions are against homosexuals that, as a homosexual, you can’t waste your time by trying to convince them that you’re a good person. I understood that by the time I was twelve or thirteen.
There are also a lot of people in Morocco who support me. I’ve lectured in bookshops and I’m tolerated, maybe because of the fact that I’m published in Paris and in French. There is a little prestige in that, which gives protection.
BLVR: How was it to grow up as a gay person in Morocco?
AT: As a homosexual in Morocco I think that you understand very early that there’s no protection and that no one will defend you. If someone takes your arm and wants to have sex with you, it’s a kind of rape, but you can’t scream or tell you parents because they’ll just say that it was your own fault. They can’t even talk about homosexuality, that would mean that they’ve already thought about it.
Any gay person understands at some point that he or she has to disappear, to become invisible. That’s very difficult. You somehow have to kill yourself. This is asked of people who haven’t got the tools to understand that it’s all a social construction, and that they shouldn’t inferiorize themselves. This is asked of little kids. But I still live in the same outcome, and I’ll be forty-one in two days.
Once I began to talk openly again, people told me to shut up. After I published my second book, my brother told me that it was time to write fiction. The control isn’t ideological but physical. Someone is always there to keep you in your position.
BLVR: When I was in Morocco earlier this year I was struck by the constant presence of the monarchy. I saw the king’s portrait everywhere. The prosperity was a stark contrast to the people who struggled just to eat.
AT: For me, Le jour du roi investigates the relationship between someone with power, who is both very real and something beyond real, and the people who live in submission without even giving themselves the right to question their situation. The king has all kinds of power in Morocco, he’s the biggest star, he’s everything.