Melancholy Gay Arabia
Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa confronts the challenges of gay life in the Mideast in An Arab Melancholia
A recent opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times by the novelist Abdellah Taïa began: “In the Morocco of the 1980s, where homosexuality did not, of course, exist, I was an effeminate little boy, a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid.” Beneath a portrait of the pensive author, all of 38, a tag: “Homosexuality didn’t exist, and yet boys like me were sometimes raped.”
This was our introduction to an emerging Arab author reaching out to a large American public. Taïa’s essay, translated from the French, reveals the way in which homosexuality is the site of a cultural and religious “war” in today’s Middle East and North Africa. Within a few years, he has come to personify the conflict between the old Islamic world of hidebound sexual practice and a new world of modern youthful aspirations.
Taïa’s op-ed coincided with the American publication of his most recent work, An Arab Melancholia. Two years ago, we had Salvation Army, an autobiographical novel covering his early family life in Salé. It devotes special attention to his adored older brother, Abdelkébir, idolized with nothing short of incestuous longing, and then follows Taïa’s emerging homosexuality and a troubled affair with a Swiss academic. The book’s second half concerns his departure for university in Geneva to complete studies in French literature, where for an intense few days he is left to fend for himself at the local Salvation Army hostel.
Like Salvation Army, the voice of An Arab Melancholia is unsentimental yet emotionally naked. The story takes Taïa from his youth—a threatened sexual assault by neighborhood toughs—to the teeming streets of Cairo on a French film production, and back to Paris, the sorrowful city he has finally come to call home. A couple of romantic obsessions with unreliable men give the story its emotional color, revealing a narrator engaged by self-doubt and self-examination. Sometimes his “exile” as an Arab seems both geographic and existential.
Taïa has been writing for the last eight years from the safety of Paris; he has become the Francophile intellectual of his juvenile dreams. He travels abroad—including a short stint teaching at Bard College in upstate New York. But his frankness has caused embarrassment and some estrangement from family members. Clearly, his exile to France places him at a remove from traditional Moroccan culture, but being an openly gay writer puts him in dangerous opposition to forces in his home country. Some years ago, he was in Tangiers on a promotional tour when an interview was published where he spoke freely of his homosexuality. His candor prompted momentary second thoughts: “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.’ ”
The position of homosexuals in the Middle East and Islamic North Africa is fraught, their existence, as Taïa notes, denied. But the 2001 arrest, torture, and show-trial of Egyptian men on the Queen Boat in Cairo captured international attention. Michael Luongo, author/editor of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, describes, in an article from 2010, a situation where major cities in the region each have a different “gay” vibe. Beirut retains its Frenchified cosmopolitan reputation; even one Israeli said to Luongo, “We’ve heard there is better nightlife there than here.” And while Luongo claims Beirut is the “most gay-friendly city in the Arab world,” its main gay rights organization, Helem (an acronym for “dream”), is hoping to overturn anti-gay Vichy-era regulations.
Of Damascus even before the past year’s anti-Assad demonstrations, Luongo describes “how truly creepy the place can be” for a young sub rosa gay movement. The possibility of crackdowns hangs in the air, so movement leaders hide their identities. Similarly, neighboring Jordan can seem a “modern paradise … where shopping malls [are] filled with international brands,” while “glamorous Queen Rania” speaks on American television; Luongo portrays its capital city, Amman, as a “Potemkin village of tolerance.”
Yet nothing in the region is ever entirely black and white. For example, Khalid, a handsome Jordanian model, launched an online magazine, My Kali, which seeks “Middle Eastern enlightenment around homosexuality.” Bekhsoos.com is a “queer Arab magazine published weekly” and in Taïa’s home country, there is Mithli, which means “homo” or “like me” and bills itself as “the first gay on-line magazine from Morocco.” While it aims to offer a “breath of fresh air,” it is produced “in an apartment in Rabat in the most absolute secrecy” in a country where the law sentences homosexual acts with six months to three years in jail—and a fine.
The situation in Israel is vastly better. Gays enjoy legal protections, serve in the military—one obvious mark of citizenship—and benefit from established institutions like Jerusalem Open House (JOH) and the Aguda, Israel’s National LGBT Association, which provide crucial community services and sponsor Pride parades in June. One doesn’t have to engage in so-called “pinkwashing”—a term critics use to indicate that Israel’s gay-friendly tolerance is merely a “cover” for its less sanguine policies of occupation—to acknowledge these facts.
Yet as in other democracies, all is not rosy; where religious orthodoxy is given free rein as the price of free speech, there is always the chance that condemnation can morph into extremist action. In 2005, the city of Jerusalem hoped to ban the Pride parade, but a district court opposed the move. Unfortunately, as JOH’s website explains, “religious Jews turned out in force to protest the event, which culminated in one protester stabbing three marchers” and the 2006 parade was “preceded by violent rioting in one of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.” In August 2009, a young man and woman were shot to death at the Aguda Center in Tel Aviv, and others were seriously injured.
And as long as some Israeli youth bear the burden of being “marked” by their sexuality—which is the case in even the most tolerant countries—their integration into society will continue to be at risk. Thus, we have, as one article in Haaretz put it, “the midnight cowboys of Tel Aviv”—boys and young men discarded by their families who turn tricks in the “horseshoe” of streets that surround the old central bus station. Gay Palestinians who make it illegally into Israel seeking safe harbor, or young Israeli-Arabs thrown out by their families, also work the Tel Aviv tenderloin and are thus subject to the problems inherent in such a marginalized life, like substance abuse, addiction, clinical depression, as well as social isolation deepened by exile from kin.
Two new memoirs, Memoir of a Debulked Woman and Fierce Joy, offer inspiring models for coping with illness