Friday, March 08, 2013

An Arab Melancholia

Acclaimed as the first openly homosexual author from Morocco, Abdellah Taïa has spent the better part of a decade exploring the difficult topic of queerness in the Arab world. Mimicking the work of other Moroccan expatriates like Abdelkebir Khatibi and Tahar Ben Jelloun, Taïa has also exposed the contentious and violent ideological dialogue between the postmodern West and postcolonial North Africa. Implicit in much of his prose—a medley of epistles, diary entries, cinematic and musical allusions, and medieval poetic citations—is the promise of writing as a means of speaking homosexual love from within and outside of the Arabic language and the law of Islam. The fourth entry in Taïa’s autobiographical cycle, An Arab Melancholia is a slender bildungsroman that marries transgressive sexual confessions to laconic spiritual poetry, and is an intriguing meditation on whether silenced desires can find liberation through more-mystical forms of expression.
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Proclaimed as the first openly gay writer to be published in Morocco, Abdellah Taïa by writing this autobiographical novel , An Arab Melancholia (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press), might be the unsuspected voice of a subculture. An Arab Melancholia is not likely to be described as a political manifesto, yet it is a radical piece of writing that will likely be referenced in political discourse related to homosexuality and gay civil rights. ... An Arab Melancholia, as the title suggests, is a sorrowful lament of a young Arab man. It is a deeply personal reveal of how a young Arab boy traverses through a world connected by tradition; a male whose femininity threatens his safety in his Arab community and whose Arab ethnicity disconnects him from his adopted home, Paris. Arab tradition disallows his homosexuality as Paris disavows his Arab presence. ...The author begins his story: “It was a second chance at life. I had just found out what it meant to die. I had passed on. Then I came back.” On the surface Taïa’s novel is akin to many gay adolescent coming of age stories. The isolation and alienation that besieges a child dealing with his or her sexuality is apparent in his story. However, Taïa’s story is unique in that it is the story of an Arab man, the unveiling of what it means to be an effeminate man, a zamel (passive faggot) in Arab culture. His is an unapologetic telling of what is to be gay and Arab. The author “came back” a few times in the book after seemingly having “passed on” or descended into the darkness of despair. There is the notion of a miracle at work or some otherworldly force or spirit.
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Yet Taïa’s lyrical, intimate prose—gently moving from his early adolescence in Morocco to his Parisian years as an aspiring filmmaker, to his escapades in Cairo while often returning, in body or spirit, to Morocco—needs to be read as representing how homosexual desire and political Islam intersect, not how they clash. Taïa’s achievement lies in the surprising, even courageous, way he manages to recast this volatile sexual-political matrix. The novel does not carry the flag of liberation against the forces of religious backwardness; instead, it casts a gay coming-of-age story as a constant negotiation with Islam—its beliefs, modes of understanding the world, and pious language. Abdellah’s first sexual experience is narrated as a violent encounter interrupted only by the muezzin’s call, “when God stepped in ... when God saved me.” A long agony over a lost lover results in Abdellah’s plane almost crashing, saved by the hidden force of a miracle. Indeed, the novel is filled with miracles, near-death experiences, a sense of apocalypse, the hovering spirits of ex-lovers, and the persistent presence of possessed people. Religious language is not negated in this book in the face of sexuality; it is further disseminated. ...One could claim that this is all ironic—a Westernized, secular subject describing a world he no longer inhabits, using an idiom he no longer possesses. Yet, standing in front of a mirror in his small Parisian apartment, Taïa understands his own coming-into-writing from this very world and idiom: “He was already writing, writing like a man possessed, a man whose madness came from his mother, from his country. He spoke with his jinns, begged them to help him survive, to find the courage to live differently in reality.” The challenge set by Taïa’s novel is therefore how to take its religious language seriously. Doing so, we may recognize a mode of homosexual experience not preconditioned on leaving behind, and then standing against, the Islamic world, but rather one thoroughly—even if uncomfortably—intertwined with it. This may even lead to a deeper understanding of both.
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Spanning a formative twenty years, Melancholia is a flitting autobiographical sketch that makes contact only now and again with the life of its author. At first the skips are broad and graceful, but the distances between each touch point come sooner and more abruptly, and the story eventually sinks into a passionate, cathartic, revelatory deep. ...The book begins with an emotionally secure ephebe in Salé, Morocco who has already embraced his homosexuality. Even at the tender age of twelve, the boy yearns for love and carnal passions. He also realizes that life will not be easy: "From now on, people would only see me one way. I’d come with a warning label. A tag: effeminate guy. Sissy. They wouldn’t take me seriously. People would take advantage of me every day, abuse me more and more. In their own small way, people would kill me. Slay me alive." ...The novel moves briskly between Morocco, Paris, and Cairo. Along the way there are emotional lows and exhilarating highs. Consistently, Abdellah’s desperate (but sincere) search for love is tripped up by his maddening naïveté. Be it with Ali, Javier, or Slimane—objects of his affection at various times in his life—Abdellah is a man who willingly (and easily) falls in love, despite a lack of reciprocity. As a boy, Abdellah is entranced by Ali, a young man who only wants to force himself onto Abdellah. “I was in love, or to put it in other words,” Abdellah says, “I was going to have a fight on my hands.” In this instance, the fight is literal (as well as erotic). ... Later in life, however, it is emotions—not bodies—with which Abdellah must battle.
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Irresistibly charming, angry, and wry, this autobiographical novel traces the emergence of Abdellah Taïa’s identity as an openly gay Arab man living between cultures. The book spans twenty years, moving from Salé, to Paris, to Cairo. Part incantation, part polemic, and part love letter, this extraordinary novel creates a new world where the self is effaced by desire and love, and writing is always an act of discovery.
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