An Arab Melancholia seems tailor-made for the contemporary cultural wars between liberal humanists and Islamic fundamentalists. “Abdellah Taïa,” the book’s blurb declares, “is the first openly gay autobiographical writer published in Morocco”—not only a Moroccan gay writer but the first one to write autobiographically about his own gay life and to be published in Morocco itself. These facts, repeated in almost every review of the book, are allegedly indicative of Taïa’s position on the front lines of the battle being waged against the Islamic revival in the Arab world. From within Morocco, Taïa purportedly depicts a life of struggle that stands against rising forces calling for the implementation of Sharia Law.
Or so the story goes. The biases and flaws of this ideological narrative are recognized nowadays even within liberal circles. Some critics of An Arab Melancholia have therefore tried to remove this burden from Taïa’s work, claiming that what seems at first a story of gay awakening in a conservative, religious world reveals itself as a novel about love that ultimately transcends its sexual and political particularities. The Clash of Civilizations has turned into the Sorrows of Young Abdellah—and isn’t that the final victory of Western liberalism?
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.
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.