Melancholy Gay Arabia
Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa confronts the challenges of gay life in the Mideast in An Arab Melancholia
But even where homosexuality among Muslim youth living in Israel does not result in pathology, the stakes remain high. Majed Koka, a gay Palestinian who fled the West Bank at age 14, lived with an Israeli partner for eight years and, according to Haaretz, requested that the Interior Ministry “grant him legal residency on humanitarian grounds.” Resident illegally in Israel, he had been arrested nine times over a period of 12 years. And when he returned to visit his family, the Palestinian police detained him “on suspicion of collaborating with Israel and subjected to severe torture—which he believes was prompted by his sexual orientation.” Surely a Citizen Koka, integrated into the body politic of Israel with his Jewish partner, would be a better Israeli model for welcoming the stranger in our midst?
Abdellah Taïa’s fiction then, highly personal, non-ideological, and humane, written in exile from Arab culture and Muslim orthodoxy, calls for our closest attention. It would be naïve to assume that Muslim homosexuals will rush Israeli borders if the Arab Spring does not produce Western-style liberal democracies. Yet voices like his hold out the remote promise of rapprochement across typical borders. In one scene in An Arab Melancholia, Taïa, wandering alone at night in Cairo on the verge of an emotional breakdown, having hardly eaten for two days, collapses in an alleyway. He revives to find a small older woman, all in black, sitting beside him. “She had placed her left hand on my forehead and her right hand over my heart. … She was whispering something, saying words in a language that seemed strangely familiar, though I couldn’t understand it. She was praying. … Praying in a way that I couldn’t. She had entered inside me, penetrated my mind, had taken over my soul, examined it with sweetness and brutality.”
After she smacks him hard, she washes his face with her own spittle, then kisses his forehead. Eventually, she helps him to his feet and “without saying a word, invited me to walk with her through the noisy streets of Cairo.” When she has to take leave and enter the subway underground, he kisses her hands and, just as she is disappearing down the entrance, he shouts for her to tell him her name.
In Arabic, she calls back “Ana Yahoudiya!”—I’m Jewish.
“Ismi Sara!”—My name is Sara!
She was, Taïa claims, the first Jew he had ever met.
“All the things people told me about Jews,” he writes, “the things they crammed into my head that I had no control over, it all evaporated, vanished in a single second. All that remained was the person. This woman. Someone just like me. No different.”
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