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Melancholy Gay Arabia

Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa confronts the challenges of gay life in the Mideast in An Arab Melancholia

Allen Ellenzweig
June 01, 2012
(Michele Campeotto/Flickr)
(Michele Campeotto/Flickr)

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.” 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.

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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Allen Ellenzweig is an arts critic. His book, The Homoerotic Photograph, was reissued in paperback by Columbia University Press in 2012.

Allen Ellenzweig is an arts critic. His book George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye was just published by Oxford University Press.