Through Abdellah Taia’s Eyes: Gay Life in The Middle East

By: Christopher Donaldson

Abdellah Taia was the first Moroccan and Arab writer to publicly come out as gay, and he is unlikely to be the last. For as far as anyone can determine, LGBT Arab men and women have never stopped dreaming of a better and more equal Middle East—the same dream that helped catapult Taia onto the international literary stage with such formative works as Salvation Army, Lettres à un Jeune Marocain and Le jour du Roi, which was awarded the prestigious French Prix de Flore in 2010.

His new autobiographical novel, An Arab Melancholia, spins a finely-tuned narrative around a young gay man who runs away from his hometown of Salé, Morocco. Written in 2008, Taia explains, “I wanted to talk about an interior struggle as a metaphor for the political situation of any individual in the Arab world, and on a more extended scale, I wanted to try to reach a more poetic, direct and precise style of writing.” However, this wasn’t Taia’s attempt to discover new things about himself by examining his past.

“I don’t think that literature, even autobiography, is made for that,” he says from his home in Paris. “I write because I don’t have the choice not to. Even though I might not write forever, I do it now because there’s something that wants to come out of me—out of my haunted, possessed body.”

Taia recently opened up about his journey as a writer, the changing tide for gay Arabs, and his connection to Marilyn Monroe.

You were born and raised in Morocco, a country that still criminalizes same-sex sexual activity. How have you been influenced by your upbringing?

The poor Morocco is my whole world (even though I now live in Paris). No doubt, my first inspiration is my hometown, Salé; my neighborhood, Hay Salam. That’s where I learned everything: The justice, the injustice, the sex, the transgression, the desire to scream all the time, the dreams, the poor dreams. That’s where I first dealt with my homosexuality, the humiliations, and that’s where I made some important decisions about myself, my future, how to make them come true, how to become clever, how to hide my true self . . . I have in me several stories about this world. And my intention is to introduce them to other people through literature. Homosexuality is in all these stories.

Why do you find nonfiction so tempting as a literary genre?

Every time I write, the stories that come out are related to my life, my family, my country, my men and my lovers. I just follow my instincts. I think that literature controls me more than I control it. Every writer has a world inside of him. His duty is to remain truthful to the heart of this world, not to the official version of this world. My heart is Moroccan and Muslim. Every time I write, these two aspects come out by themselves.

Why do you think you became a writer?

Because I wanted to be a filmmaker and to continue the stories of those wonderful and free-spirited Egyptian movies I used to watch with my mother, my sisters, and my two brothers on Moroccan TV. I wanted to produce images, to be an element of those images, next to movie stars like Faten Hamama, Nadia Lotfi and Hind Rostom. I decided one day that to make this dream come true, I would have to go to Paris—to exist in the French language.

The problem was I didn’t like the French language: In Morocco, it’s the language of the elite, of power. But I had to master it. That’s why I studied French literature at the University of Rabat. And that’s how, without deciding to, I became a writer.

I had a journal where I tried to write about my world and my problems with the world in correct French sentences. Over the years this journal became my laboratory, a space for existential experiences, a place where I faced myself and my homosexuality. I think that I became an adult in this journal.

Has your family been encouraging of your work?

No. My family wanted only to be reassured about my future. In order to free myself, I decided very early on that my family wasn't free either, that my freedom would not come from them. Still today, I don’t need their blessing for anything I do. I don’t need them to be proud of me.

After leaving Morocco, at the age of twenty-five, you moved to Cairo and then to Paris. How have these cities shaped your writing?

It’s not Paris or Cairo that changed anything in me. It’s me who changed my life. I mean, our interior decisions have nothing to do with the places we live in. They’re beyond that. I decided that I should go to Paris when I was thirteen. But Paris is not an easy city to master, it’s not very welcoming. But it’s a city where you can struggle, become a real fighter.

That’s what I am—a fighter. I don’t love Paris because it’s the City of Lights and of Arthur Rimbaud. I love it because it allowed me to fight, to scream, to be alone: To be gay and alone and to be somehow free.

Cairo, on the other hand, is the most important city in the Arab world. All the Arabs adore it. I love the chaotic state of humanity there. I love how the people fill the streets there. I could live easily in Cairo. It’s by far the most fascinating city in the world. Plus, it’s the city of the movies, of the great actress Souad Hosni and of the magnificent singer Abdelhalim Hafez.

In 2007, you publicly came out as gay in an interview with the literary magazine Tel Quel. How did the Arab world respond?

Soon after I publicly declared my homosexuality, I stayed inside my small apartment in Paris for two weeks without going out. I was scared. I had reached a point of no return. I was so alone. I was sure of what I had done—it was the right thing to do, to speak, to be open, to free myself and other people with me. But, as every gay person knows, it’s not an easy thing to do.

So I stayed in my place and when my family called me on the phone they were screaming. No one bothered to say, “How did you live all these years gay and alone? How did you make it?” I was miserable. The only thing that saved me was the cinema. During those two weeks, I watched the movies of Douglas Sirk several times. And I fell in love with Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return. Since then, I think a lot about her, her fate, where she came from, why she died. I understand her.

Why do you think Morocco and the Arab world in general discriminate against LGBT men and women so ferociously?

Before colonialism, there was no discrimination against homosexuality in the Arab world. But now that we live in the twenty-first century, I think Arabs should grow up and start to change the narrow mentality that was imposed on them by their dictators. The Arab Spring was the first step in this direction.

But the Arab Spring, it seems, has not done much to advance gay rights.

It’s just the beginning. In the Arab world, a historic change is coming. We can’t expect to start this Revolution and change everything in one year. And although the Islamists are winning the elections in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, we have a duty to continue to keep hope in our hearts. Not all the Arabs are Islamists. I know so many people in Morocco, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who don’t take issue with homosexuality. The problem is coming from the Arab dictators—they want the people to stay ignorant.

The Internet is changing everything. The new generation has more freedom, and in turn, great change is coming hopefully sooner rather than later. I am sure of this. In the meantime, we should continue to support, more and more, the brave young Arabs who have made the Revolution come alive.

Do you believe in organized religion?

No one has the right to tell me, or anyone else, what I should or should not do. I am gay. I am an Arab. And I am a Muslim. I have a strong connection to Islam as a culture and as a civilization. It is very important for me to say that I am gay and Muslim. For others, this might sound like a contradiction. Not for me: I reinvent it as I want. My model, in doing that, is my mother, M’Barka.

So you expect that life will get better for Arab LGBT men and women?

I hope. I pray for that. I fight for that. I write articles to prepare for that. And I am not the only one. Take the wonderful Samir Bargachi, for example, who founded the Moroccan gay association, Kifkif, and who co-founded the first Arab gay magazine, Mithly. I admire him very much. Thanks to him, and to his team, the neutral Arabic word “Mithly” (it was invented 5 years ago in Lebanon, I think) for homosexual is being increasingly used by the Arab people and media.

What advice do you have for LGBT youth living in the Middle East?

I have no advice to give them. They know what to do. I learn from them. I learn from the young Arabs who started the Arab Spring. Thanks to them, the Arab world is finally awaking, learning how to face its interior demons and to stop blaming the others all the time.

What are you doing these days and what’s next?

In 2010, I wrote a novel titled Le Jour du Roi. In France, it won the Prix de Flore and it was recently translated into Arabic by the Lebanese publishing house Dar Al-Adab. I am also finishing my new novel. It’s about a Moroccan prostitute, her gay son, Islam, terrorists, and Marilyn Monroe. It will come out soon, at least in France. Et voilà.

For more information about "An Arab Melancholia" and Abdellah Taia’s other books, visit The MIT Press or

(All photos but the last by Bruno Werzinski)