The Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia talks about his book, Salvation Army. Interviewed by Brian Whitaker in Paris, January 2009.
Your book, L’Armée du Salut (“Salvation Army”), is shortly going to be published in English in the United States. How did that come about?
I think it started in June 2007. Hédi El-Kholti, from the American publisher Semiotext(e), was in Morocco when Tel Quel (it’s like Time or Newsweek) put me on the cover of their magazine with the title: “Homosexuel envers et contre tous”. When he went back to America he contacted my French publisher, Le Seuil, and bought the rights to translate the book into English.
Salvation Army received the 2009 French Voices prize in America. In order to attract more attention for the book we asked the American writer Edmund White to write a preface. He said yes. And I am very happy for that because I like him and admire his work.
L’Armée du Salut is officially my first novel. In France one is considered to be a writer only when one publishes a novel. To write short stories or a book of short texts is like a hobby – it’s not really serious.
When Le Seuil became my publisher – before that I was published by Séguier – they told me to write a novel. So I said OK and I chose three moments from my life and I wrote a novel, not in a classical way, because I don’t think my books are classical in the French sense, or even in an Anglo-Saxon style – until now everything I have written and published is fragments of my life …
But there is a story there too …
Of course. There’s a link between the three fragments, which is transformation: my own transformation. The transformation of my body, but also of me as a person, discovering myself and becoming aware of who I am and the sexual contradictions I have inside me. And, at the same time, to talk about me – to speak, to say something coming from inside myself.
The first part of the novel is about my early life, with my family in the small house – three rooms - where I lived in Morocco in the town of Salé. One room for my six sisters, my mother, my little brother and me. The other room was for my big brother and the last one for my father. What I try to show is what it’s like being in the middle of this group and being influenced by the bodies of these people that I was so close to. I was attracted to some of them but of course there were barriers which I couldn’t cross.
I am still aware of those barriers but every day I try exploring/exploding them. The barriers are of course mostly sexual. The first part of the novel is about the origin, not only of my sexuality, but the sexuality of my entire family. The way my parents used to have sex influenced my whole family because my mother used to sleep with us in the children’s room and, once a week, went to have sex with my father or my father used to join us in our room and tried to seduce her. So I witnessed all these sexual strategies at work and, as children, we knew everything. They knew we knew and they behaved as if we didn’t know. So there was a kind of primal atmosphere inside the house. It was as if tradition, religion, Islam – all these things so important in the Arab world – didn't exist.
We were in the kingdom of bodies. It was only bodies because we were so close that there was no other space. No privacy. I didn't think of it at the time, but that is how it was. You don't think you need some room for yourself. I never thought of that either at the time. A body is something alive which reveals many signals and one relates to those. And it's very sexual. It's not sexual in the sense of “having sex” but the whole atmosphere, the vibes … Next to my brothers and sisters I saw and experienced many things, exciting and frightening things.
And you developed these feelings towards your big brother.
This is the second part of the book. My older brother was the king of the family, not my father. My father was a fallen king. My big brother was the king, a silent king, because he hardly spoke. He was the first child and after him there were six girls and then I was born. I was the other boy my parents were waiting for. But I definitely was not the sort of boy they were hoping for.
You say this kind of thing was taboo but in the book I don't find any sense of guilt about your feelings.
No. Even today I feel no guilt. I had some periods of guilt but deep down there was always this feeling of "c'est naturel" – yes, I was aware that these feelings were forbidden but at the same time I just did nothing to avoid them.
My brother, Abdelkébir, was always bigger than me. I have no image of him as a child or adolescent. He had a moustache and a room filled with books. Beautiful books and recordings of music – David Bowie, Oum Kalthoum and Woodstock. He loved Woodstock. Later he got a TV and a video player, he bought us the fridge and gave us money to make the house bigger …
What was his job?
He was a good student and after that he became haut fonctionnaire – an important government official. He became mayor of a small town and later he worked with the minister of information. He became more important year after year.
But at first he was still poor like us, he was for us. We were all proud of him. I was fascinated by him. His room was big but there was only a small bed and he used to put me with him in bed – and sometimes my little brother as well. Not in a sexual way at all – just this closeness. Being so close to the body of your big brother, it makes you feel something – well, at least it did for me. It made me proud to be his little brother. So he quickly became a sort of role model for me. I wanted to be like him, I wanted to read like him, to read his books, to see the movies he loved. He also used to give me his clothes, his shirts, his underwear, when they were old. I wore them happily even though they were too big for me.
Besides the intellectual thing, I wanted to be with him, in his presence – the smell of him, the way he was, the way he walked, and how he ate. He used to eat more meat than the rest of family. We were all OK with that. I think I wasn’t the only one in the family to be sort of in love with him. Of course I knew he was my brother but what could I do? Maybe the fact that he was my brother makes it more ... more exciting. The idea of transgression – I think I learned that from being with him: you are attracted to someone you can't have and at the same time you don't care about other people’s reactions or religion or traditions. I understood somehow that all those rules were invented by humans, but not by me. I'm not obliged to respect them – traditions, religion…
Your feelings towards your brother started with admiration but became over time more sexual, I think ...
I don't know. This started so early on that it's confused in my mind. The admiration came with the movies because he was the one who took me to see films and he was the one who had movie magazines. This element is very important. He showed me the direction to follow: cinema.
But at some point a sexual element came into the attraction as well?
Yes. For instance, I wrote in the book that twice a week I used to help him to wash his hair. Just a little boy putting water on his big brother’s head and forgetting that that man is his brother. I wanted to do so many things with him, to touch his neck, to play with his hair, to dry him, to kiss the clean skin of his hands . . .
Has he read L’Armée du Salut?
Yes, I think so. In my second book, Le Rouge du Tarbouche, there is a story about “l'unique miroir” – we had only one small mirror in the house, so everyone used it. Me, my father to shave, my big brother… And when I became adolescent I used to take this mirror into my brother’s room and look at myself and masturbate surrounded by his things and thinking of him. I even imagined I was him
So he read Le Rouge du Tarbouche and he told my mother to tell me to stop writing this ... this nonsense. He's not the kind of person you can have a real conversation with.
So, when I think of it, of course he is not OK with what I write in my books. It’s not a problem for me. I understood several years ago that I should not ask permission from anyone about my writing or my projects or my plans, because in Morocco no one would understand … They all know better than you – your life, what you should do…
Even now, here in Paris, I don't tell anyone what I do. I don't ask anyone's advice, because even among groups of friends here in Paris it's always the same question of power and control.
The second transformation in the book comes when your big brother takes you and your little brother on a trip to Tangiers. But your feelings towards him are suddenly jolted when you discover the real purpose of the trip: that he’s planning to get married.
It was my first and only holiday in Morocco. We were all staying in the same cheap hotel room so I was able to see what he was like 24 hours a day, for an entire week. The beginning of this vacation was like a dream. But when it became clear that he was attracted to this girl and that he was going to abandon us to see her, I was overcome by violent jealousy and even became cruel! Of course, I'm aware of the craziness of the situation but what could I do? I still remember clearly how he came and told us about her and his plans to marry her ... I still remember how angry I was with him, I even invented a plan to ruin his project.
So this second part of the novel is also about paradise (to have my big brother only for me) and hell, which is represented by the moment when you lose someone … This vacation in Tangiers was the end of an era, a revolution. I lost my big brother and my role model whom I was in love with. This loss was overwhelming … He had the books, he had David Bowie. Years after that I understood who David Bowie was and I said “Wow!” If my brother used to like David Bowie – especially at that time in the seventies – it meant that somehow he was open-minded. Of course, I adore David Bowie.
And the third big moment is when you travel to Switzerland to continue your studies and the man who you think is your friend, who has promised to meet you at the airport and provide somewhere to stay, is not there to meet you and is not answering his phone.
This is the last transformation, when I leave this Moroccan world at the age of 25 for western civilisation in Geneva, and experience this first deception, this disappointment. I had dreamed for years and years about western civilisation – and from the very beginning there was betrayal. I discovered that the books and films were only part of the reality of this European dream which wasn’t at all welcoming at first.
From the moment of my arrival in Geneva, it was as if I had to start all over again – another transformation was necessary. I had left the Moroccan world where the group mentality was dominating and crushing me to come to Geneva where suddenly I felt completely alone and sensed that life would be like this from now on.
It's a very big contrast from the collective society of Morocco – all these people packed into small houses – and your isolation. It's a very bleak scene.
Yes, because the friend of this man I met in Morocco who was supposed to meet me at the airport was not there and suddenly I found myself on the streets. I had no money and I had to find some place to stay. So after wandering around for awhile, I talked to a taxi driver who told me there was a Salvation Army refuge not far from the train station. This last part of the book is about the passage from dream to reality. Even though I didn’t understand it at the time, this betrayal was a new beginning.
How do you think this book fits in with other – shall we say – gay literature? In the way it presents homosexuality, for example?
It's a melancholic book, it doesn't give an optimistic or positive view of homosexuality. But it was never my idea to give a positive view. I never think of it in terms of positive or negative. In Morocco, when I discovered that I was homosexual, men always expected me to behave like an effeminate boy, doing the female role. So I stopped seeing them immediately. I was 13 at the time and living the tumultuous feelings of adolescence. I stopped seeing those people and entered another period of my life. All was completely silent and filled only with studying and movies because as a homosexual I knew that Moroccan society would only destroy me.
I knew for sure that I was homosexual and would never be able to do what they wanted me to do – to marry a woman for instance. So my only choice was to avoid those boys who knew about me and with whom I had played sexual games as a child. Even though I still lived at home, I couldn’t speak to anyone about myself and for years and years I had no sex, from the ages of 13 to 22. I had to make all my own decisions.
Those years of silence were very difficult but at the same time it was the beginning of my big dream: to become a film-maker. The homosexual in me, and this desire to be creative or to write something – they both go together. But neither were accepted.
So in a way it was not positive at all …I have to confess though, that this isolation gave me the possibility of developing a certain way of viewing society – seeing how it works, what to say, what not to say, and allowed me to analyse things. I also remember a lot of suffering and crying all the time, but somehow I was not traumatised by the experience. Maybe it's my nature and psychology ... I can easily analyse how Moroccan society functions, how it deals with sexuality, but I still have … I don't know, I don't reject this Moroccan society.
I'm thinking also about the portrayals of homosexuality in Switzerland, which seems to me realistic without trying to be positive or negative. The scene in the public toilet for example …
… with the orange ...
It’s curious because it's fairly positive in some ways ...
I think this passage also comes from the French writer Jean Genet (I adore him) because he talks a lot about casual sex in his books, and somehow Genet influenced me on that. I am very fascinated by public toilets – they always seem to be full of desire...
It's not a shocking scene in the way it’s described.
I hope not.
No it's not, which in a way is quite surprising, particularly coming from an Arab writer.
I am an Arab but for many things I'm not like an Arab at all. I'm not only coming from Islam, not only from Arabic society, there is this homme primaire – a primal man – inside of me who is still alive.
The incident in the toilet shows this part of myself. It also shows my own idea of homosexuality, this possibility of meeting strangers and the possibility of poetry. For most people a public toilet is just dirty, but still ... there is this possibility of poetry between two people who don't know each other at all, just for a moment of pleasure. But it's not only about pleasure or sex, it's always more than that – at least for me.
When people think about homosexuals they tend to see only two people of the same sex. But, for me, to be homosexual is also the way you relate to someone whose body is like yours. You belong to the same sex and there are no rules – you invent rules. It's because homosexuality is forbidden, not seen in a positive way by many people. It doesn't mean these rules will always be the same when you meet someone. This is what I like, this inversion: condemnation and prison become freedom. For me there is no specific sexual role, top or bottom – there is invention.
A lot of people do see it in terms of male/female roles.
Yes, but it's not for me. Maybe that's why I’m always disappointed! The scene in the public toilet is about that inversion, especially when the man gave me an orange. The orange represents Morocco. That's what I mean about inversion. Even in dirty places something beautiful and poetic can happen.
As far as I’m aware, you’re the only Moroccan to have come out publicly and talked about your homosexuality in the media. How did that happen?
My second book, Le Rouge du Tarbouche, became successful in Morocco in 2005 and I was invited to appear on TV etc, etc. One of the journalists from Tel Quel had read the book thoroughly and saw that one of the themes was homosexuality. She saw that I was talking freely about homosexuality.
Subsequently she interviewed me in the Café de France in Casablanca. She asked me: “Why did you choose this cafe for the interview?” I told her that four or five months previously I had been here with a friend of mine – a French photographer – and we had been working on an article for Paris Match. A boy came in and introduced himself to my friend and they instantly fell in love. I had witnessed something incredibly beautiful. His name was Said, he was from Tangiers and he was spending the weekend in Casablanca. After I finished the anecdote, she asked: "So you don't mind if we talk only about homosexuality in the paper?"
Well, of course I was a little bit afraid, afraid for two or three seconds, because I knew what I was about to do. But I told myself I had already talked about this in my books. I didn’t want to keep up the hypocrisy and schizophrenia like other Moroccans and Arabs. I had to go along with my own truth.
So I said yes and we talked about homosexuality. We analysed how Moroccan society tries to make us shameful about ourselves in general by forcing people into submission all the time. She wrote an article about that, and it was published while I was in Morocco. I was doing a promotional tour for the book, Le Rouge du Tarbouche, at the time. I was in Tangiers. But I was still afraid when I read the article. I was staying in a hotel and I was really scared. I told myself: “This is Morocco, there are secret police and they are one of the best in the world, they say, after the Mossad in Israel and if they want to get to me it's easy.” In the middle of the night I put chairs and a table against the door of my hotel room, just in case…
I don’t think that would have stopped them.
Of course not, but it's more about the fear inside.
After the article was published, another magazine asked me for an interview in Arabic, and that's where the problems started with my family. My sister discovered the magazine on her desk at work. Somebody had put it there anonymously – which is how Moroccan society functions. Even if you want to be yourself all the time there is always someone to stop you. So they put the magazine – open, with my interview, on her desk where she works in administration. Of course, she was upset. She told my mother and my mother called me. It was in May 2006 and she said: "What did you say? We are not like this ... we are good people."
I didn't have an answer except to say that it's not only about me, it's also about Moroccan society. This was the only defence I could find.
What was more interesting in her reaction was that she never condemned me on the phone. She never said "You're not my son any more." No.
My sister had read the whole interview for her because my mother is illiterate, and one of the questions was: "What do you think of gay marriage?" I answered that I don't like marriage at all, hetero or gay, and I explained why, that the whole image I have of marriage in Morocco is disastrous. For me marriage just destroys individuals – you have one family, then when you marry, you have two families controlling you. I said I would never get married. Everyone is free to do what they want. But personally, I am against marriage.
My mother was more shocked by this than the gay thing, I think because homosexuality doesn't represent very much in her mind, but not to be married does represent something. Knowing that I'm not going to be married – it was unbelievable for her, it was inconceivable.
So, in the end, and this is really what I like about some people in Morocco, before she hung up she said she was praying for me, she said: “I only want a good life for you.” After that call, I think I cried for two weeks because it was the point of no return. I was completely naked.
How do you feel about that?
In the beginning I felt guilt, maybe for two or three days, because the consequences of my lifestyle are not only for me but for my family. But after a few days I realised that no one called me to ask me how I was, how I had managed to live all these years with the fact that I am homosexual ... No one cared. I realised that, again, it was about them, about their names and reputations, not about me. It was about what my sister’s colleagues would say, what the neighbours would say.
And, I remembered Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece film, All Heaven Allows, and how he shows that society tries to destroy the love between the characters played by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. So, during those two weeks of feeling completely naked, I bought the DVD of this film and watched it several times, maybe ten times. And it helped me a lot to become strong again. To be free without tears. Again: cinema saved me as it did when I was a child and had no place to go and cry, except the cheap movie theatres in my poor town, Salé.
Of course, I understand that my family in Morocco can't speak about homosexuality but I thought, still, I am their son and they know that I'm not someone bad. Until now, no one [in my family] has spoken about it. And I realise that I may have caused a scandal for them but there are always scandals in Morocco. In two weeks’ time they had forgotten. I wasn’t doing this for my family, it was much bigger than that.
These articles started a buzz and it changed my status from “the new hip Moroccan writer” to the “new hip gay Moroccan writer”. At first people were talking only about the books and after that they were talking the books and homosexuality. One year later the magazine Tel Quel put me on the cover with the word “homosexual” in big letters and the recounted the whole story. They came and interviewed me. I knew that they were going to put me on the cover. I did it because it was necessary to speak out. Just to name things, for some people, is dangerous – it's revolutionary.
But I can't be explaining this all the time because it gets tiring. I just have to move along – to go in the way I choose. If some people are OK with that, fine. And if they’re not, that’s fine too. But it's not only about me. That is what is important.
So if it’s not only about you, what is it really about?
Other people. You understand this very quickly when you publish books, because you get some response. It's not only about homosexuality – it's about individual freedom. The feelings you are expressing, the words you are putting in your books. A lot of people relate to that and it becomes like a mission for you.
Morocco is changing. A lot of taboos are being broken one after another, and that's why I'm saying it's not only my revolution, it's also a revolution in Morocco and the Arab world. That’s why I continue to write. To be part of this revolution with literary arms.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Salvation Army