Infidels by Abdellah Taïa

Taïa, a Moroccan expat living in Paris since 1998, has published eight novels in French, and has adapted one of these, Salvation Army, for the screen. As one of only a few openly gay Arab writers, Taïa occupies a unique cultural and political perspective. While Taïa embraces the secular values of France, values that have allowed him to live freely, legally, as a gay Muslim man, his writing expresses a critical relationship to both his adopted land and his original home.

Set primarily in Morocco at the tail end of the twentieth century, Infidels follows Jallal, the gay son of a prostitute, Silma, from his childhood to his death. Silma is the daughter of Saâdia Tadlauoi, an introductrice––a woman who assists couples having sex on their wedding night. Saâdia makes sure that blood appears on the sheet of a newlywed couple, no matter what. The social curse of Saâdia’s profession, her public association with sex, follows Silma and Jallal throughout their lives.  It starts with the boy spitting – a memorable opening chapter

Silma works as a prostitute and Jallal himself is forced into sex work, raped by men in the public baths. Silma has a gift with men, passed on from Saâdia, an understanding of desire and intimacy that is foreign to most. Jallal shares in her secrets, and together they also share a love of movies. For the young man, watching television offers a way of seeing the world outside of the oppressive confines of his life.

The most brutal passage of the book comes when Silma is imprisoned by the Government’s secret police. She is tortured horribly and her sexualized punishments mirror the social discrimination and dehumanization she faced for the crime of her intimate knowledge. After her release, she flees the country, but her experiences sharpen her disdain for nationalism. Silma’s final story, of love before death and finding peace in her relationship with God, feels both satisfying and incomplete.

After Silma’s death, Jallal moves to Belgium where, lonely and disconnected from his new surroundings, he meets Mahmoud. Their relationship is positioned as a love affair, though it is never consummated, confined by the blossoming of Jallal’s growing religious devotion. His haphazard shift to extremism at the close of the novel is complicated, a product of his search for love, companionship, and acceptance. His journey reflects a crisis of identity.

We were already familiar with his writing style that uses short and oftentimes simple sentences. The clarity of its written style is like blank verse.

This book is variously travel narrative, poetry and fiction, built as a series of monologues by Jallal’s mother, his grandmother, his stepfather and Marilyn Monroe. Sometimes it’s confusing – who is speaking?

One member of our group found it tedious.

Issues include Islamic fundamentalism, the West’s relationship with its Muslim immigrants, and secularism versus faith.

Physically, the book is beautifully produced. The Sufism, the 99 names of God and the spinning were lyrical – but would a Sufi be an Islamist?

The comparison of explosions to heartbeats was good.

The author: The moment of inspiration for the story dates back to 2000, said Taia, when he accompanied a cousin of his in Brussels to visit a friend who had been hospitalized following an accident. The friend was a Belgian who had converted to Islam, and at the time, said Taia, “we all fell in love with him, he projected a rare form of beauty, of someone who truly has spiritual faith.”

One day, he told himself, he would write about that moment. He created the characters of Slima, the mother, and her son Jallal, in order to be able to describe that moment, back in 2000, when he encountered a moment of purity, in contrast to the confusion about Islam in the West, the growth of religious fundamentalism in Moslem countries, and dogmatic secularism in France that had been developing over the years. Taia said when he created the character of Slima, he had the 8th century Arab Sufi poet and saint, Rabia Al-Adawiya, in mind because of the “inner purity” of both women. Infidels is a complex and multi-layered work that is written a little like poetry, but reading between the lines important questions are asked and contrasts are posed: sociological and political violence (as in Morocco) versus submission, religious freedom versus secularism (in France), Muslim faith versus Islamic terrorism, and violence towards women and feminism.

When he wrote the book, said Taia, it was “as if religious freedom could not exist in France.” With the book he wanted to make a space for his fictitious Islamist who, in most respects would be “against him”, but with whom he also has a few aspects in common. As Taia said in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Our monsters are like us.”

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.

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.

No sooner had I finished this book when I read, in the newspaper The Week: The only surviving suspect from the Paris terror attacks of 13 November 2015 — in which 130 people were killed — has gone on trial in Belgium over the shoot-out with police in Brussels, four months later, that culminated in his arrest. Salah Abdeslam (pictured), 28, a Belgium-born French national of Moroccan descent, refused to answer any questions in court this week, but did give a brief speech in which he insisted that his silence didn’t mean he was guilty. “What I see is that Muslims are treated in the worst possible way,” he said. “There is no presumption of innocence. Judge me, do what you want with me… I am not afraid of you… I put my trust in Allah.”

 Quotations:

I’m perverse. The perverse old woman everyone needs. A bit of a witch. A bit of a doctor. A bit of a whore. The sex specialist. They all came to me for help and they all turned their backs on me. That’s how it goes.

I watched television. That was where I learned to see things more clearly. The connections between people. Evil. Good. Masks. Languages. Illusions.

I change realities, really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.

When you’re old, I’ll still be there for you, though everyone, all the others have cast you out. I’ll talk to God, He will forgive us. God already accepts us as we are. He made us this way. In this condition. In this situation. We accept His decisions. We listen to His voice. You hear Him too, don’t you? Every night, he tells me to watch over you.

Every night, God loves us a little more.

The others crush us, prevent us from seeing the light; more and more, they shut us into a hell they first invented for them­selves. But He, God, Allah, is not them, isn’t like the image they made of Him.

God is in me. He’s also in you. You’re the one who gave me God. I know you also give Him to others, the men who come to our house, sleep at our house, eat with us, get undressed and dressed again at our house.

You see, I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In every body. Every night. Every dream . . . I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders. All languages.

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