Salvation Army Abdellah Taïa

Many books have been written about the gay underworld of Morocco but it isSA refreshing to read a book by a Moroccan. This is a beautiful, crisp book which starts with a detailed description of the author’s childhood in a big family living in one room (the other two are for the men of the house, his father and elder brother.)

Taïa knew he was different from a very early age. So did his family. His (much) elder brother is typical of those young men who will happily play around until they have an arranged marriage and settle down. Indeed the elder brother seems to be representative of some men Taïa met, loved and lost in later life.

He recalls the night a group of men came to his family home — three rooms for 11 people — and shouted at the windows: ‘Abdellah, come here, we want to fuck you.’ He was 11 going on 12 and lay in bed alongside his sisters and his mother, listening to the mob outside. ‘Everyone heard ‘not only my family but the whole neighborhood,’ he says. ‘What I saw clearly was that this is how society functions and that no one can protect you, not even your parents. That’s when I realized I had to hide who I am.’

Taïa always knew he was gay, but it took time to realize how it might be used against him. A young man in his neighborhood, Naim — ‘a very beautiful name that means, after a manner, soft’ — served as a harbinger of his own likely fate. In a culture where men and women are strictly separated, Naim was a vessel — and a victim — for young men in search of a substitute. ‘They made him just a sexual thing, someone that the frustrated Moroccan man can have sex with,’ says Taïa. ‘They killed him, in their way — they destroyed him…… If you go to Taïa’s impoverished neighborhood in the Moroccan port of Sal’ you may or may not find Naim, but you will find someone like him. ‘There is always one person, this man/boy, singled out,’ says Taïa. ‘Let’s just say I understood that I had to save myself from this fate, that I was the next generation after that guy.’

However, Taïa insists that this is not a gay book. Rather, it is a book which happens to be written by a gay man. Straight authors write about marriage but we don’t talk about a ‘straight book’. In an interview, he said, ‘I never hide. I never put that aspect of my personality aside. I know so many gay intellectuals or writers who say, “I am not going to talk about homosexuality because it doesn’t interest people.” But for me this makes no sense. It would be like a heterosexual who doesn’t present himself as a heterosexual….’Even now people tell me I should change the subject, that I’ll be ghettoized as a gay writer, but do we give this advice to heterosexual writers? Please stop writing about your heterosexuality? Homosexuality is part of me, but it’s not the only thing I write about. The problem is the way these people read my work. Their problem is that my sexuality is all they see.’

His credo, as he said in the interview, is ‘I believe that books help us to live. When you read a book or a poem it connects you to something new inside of you or it confirms some premonition you’ve had. Using my books as a cultural instrument in the fight for freedom, for individuality, is something I’m very happy to do. Since I come from a world where individuality doesn’t exist, where homosexuality is still considered a crime, where you don’t completely own your body, and where you can’t speak freely, it’s the least I can do.’

Asked whether this book is memoir or fiction, he said,I don’t believe that my work is autobiographical or memoir, though it has been described like that. I write novels, texts. They are not expressions of my social self, they are expressions of something else. I don’t know what label we should put on them. Though the experiences and scenes are coming from my life, when I start to write there are so many things that come out and put themselves into the text. I have no idea about those things five minutes before I start writing. The fictionalized always comes out and puts itself into my writing. But I don’t agree with the definition of fiction. Is it something that has nothing to do with us, that is made up? I don’t believe in that. As human beings, in order to make our lives acceptable and not too sad, we imagine things. We do it all the time. How would you label that? Fiction? Not for me. What I invent, what I imagine, is part of something.’

There is an innocence about the author, who has a (too?) trusting nature. He contrasts his warm home world with the coldness of the West whose freedom results in fleeting encounters lacking depth, though this is obviously from his perspective. What did Jean think? What about his sisters? Is he interested in their struggle?

There is a strong atmosphere in his recounting an experience in Marrakech where the police seek to protect tourists and scorn the local ‘queers’. Many tourists are users but the locals can also be exploitative. ‘Everything was for sale’. This could equally describe Morocco, Geneva or Paris.

Some characters appear once only (like real life, I suppose, where many gay men have fleeing encounters) and some are introduced later, after you’ve wondered who they are

There are some memorable phrases, e.g. ‘I had a fit. In silence, obviously.’

It is rare to read a book in translation where it is uncontaminated by the translator yet this book is one such rarity. However, some better proofreading would have helped to root out Proof reading ‘busses’ for buses and ‘hbibe’ for habibe.

Our group loved this book. We want to meet the author.

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