An Arab Melancholia

by Abdellah Taïa

Central Question: Can one speak of homosexual love through silence?
Distance, in kilometers, from author’s birthplace to the grave of Jean Genet: 164; Number of rooms in author’s childhood home: three; Number of family members in author’s childhood home: eleven; Author’s first crush: Isabelle Adjani; Magazine in which author first announced his homosexuality: TelQuel; Representative passage: “Despite the dim light in the room, God could see us. Five naked boys, penises hard and soft in their hands. And a sixth boy, nude and ambiguous, a boy about to be sacrificed. I was a good Muslim too… I didn’t mix God and sex, mix that which was pure with what was impure. I loved them both. Separately.”

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.

Taïa’s earliest recollections of sexual love begin with the threat of an existential silence: his own death. Lured into a neighbor’s home by a local gang of delinquents, the young narrator is targeted as the object of a gang rape, only to be saved by the local mosque’s call to prayer. The boys’ emasculating taunts of “Leïla,” however, inflame his imagination, evoking the medieval Arab yarn of the shepherd’s daughter whose beauty drives the local poet, Majnoun, mad with desire.

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—Erik Morse

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and, with Tav Falco, Mondo Memphis (2011). He is also a contributing writer to Frieze, Bookforum, Frame, Dazed and Confused, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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