Abdellah Taia: Feeling Like a Traitor

Taia’s French is based on an economy of language and speaks of the other Morocco that has been rendered invisible by the media and elitist literature. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Muhammad al-Khodayri

Published Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When the award-winning and openly gay young Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taia was invited to a university in his home country to speak about his latest work, the event was mobbed and shut down by angry Islamist students and professors.

Islamist university professors and students from Attajdid Attoulabi (Student Renewal) organization, which is affiliated with the Justice and Development Party (PJD) and the Unification and Reform Movement (MUR), organized a protest against a talk by Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taia at the Faculty of Arts in el-Jadida city.

Islamists have always opposed this Francophone writer who came out as gay in 2009 and has written about homosexuality in most of his publications. Taia crossed another line by including the character of the late Moroccan King Hassan II in his latest novel, The Day of the King.

In their latest protest, as shown in a Youtube video, Islamists accused him of “sexual deviance” and chanted obscurantist slogans such as “Don’t spread homosexuality on campus.”

An Islamist professor appears in the video screaming at Taia’s defenders, his calls sounding like a Friday sermon interrupted by the yelling and threats of an angry mob. The camera turns to a Student Renewal member who yells: “In the name of students and professors, in the name of free people in this country, we condemn this deviant behavior.”

But Taia (b.1973), who had to cancel the seminar, pays no attention to all these protests and calls, he tells Al-Akhbar.

In The Day of the King, which was finally translated into Arabic two years after it was published in French, the author moves from talking about his personal concerns as he did in his previous two novels, The Red Tarboosh and Arab Melancholia, to approach more expansive worlds.

Omar Faqih, the novel’s young protagonist, dreams that he is in the presence of the late Moroccan King Hassan II.
This dream, which Omar recounts to his friend Khaled al-Ghoul, becomes the organizing thread around which the structure of the novel revolves.

Omar’s dream coincides with news that the “sacred” king will be visiting the city of Silla where Omar, a child from the slums, and Khaled, who comes from a bourgeois family, live. The story reflects class differences between two school friends in light of the king’s visit to their city.

“The most important event in my life is the translation of the book into Arabic,” says Taia. “The novel was translated into many languages, but to become available in Arabic, my mother tongue which shapes my being and my imagination, gives me great pleasure and proves that everything I write is infused with Arab taste.”

“Now I feel that I am a full writer! Before the translation, I felt as though I were half a writer,” Taia adds.

The Arabic translation of the The Day of the King remains true to the novel’s style and maintains its revelatory character that sets apart Taia’s writings in French.

We see Arabic chiseled into his French writings, a truth Taia confirms to Al-Akhbar.

“I am forced to write in French! This makes me feel like a traitor. A traitor to my family and my ancestors. I’ve somehow taken on the status of the enemy. This haunts and pains me sometimes,” Taia admits.

“Nevertheless, I have transformed this complex and confrontational relationship with French and my ancestors to my writings,” he continues. “I am a traitor... but I force the French language to accept Arabic, its culture, and its linguistic structure and imagination.”

“I write in French although my relationship with the language is complicated. It is a language that separates and puts barriers between the poor and the rich in Morocco,” Taia says.

He adds that “coming from a very poor family makes me always wary of French. It is the language with which rich Moroccans speak elegantly only to demonstrate their disdain for us, the poor, and their desire to humiliate us.”

But Taia’s French seems different. It is based on an economy of language and speaks of the other Morocco that has been rendered invisible by the media and elitist literature.

The struggle in The Day of the King goes beyond words. It breaks taboos in the extended discussion of the boys’ homosexual tendencies and topics including broken families and the mother who cheats on her husband.

The novel goes even further, talking about the black maid who is exploited by her employer. As such, the king becomes an excuse in the novel for discussing other issues. In this fictional work, we find the dark side of a country that strained under the absolute rule of Hassan II.

“Despite his death 13 years ago, the mere mention of his name triggers panic among Moroccans. Till today, we cannot think about the man in an objective way or overcome his legacy. We cannot say that everything happening in Morocco today is his responsibility,” argues Taia.

“I think that making Hassan II a character in my last novel was necessary. Writing gives you a kind of courage. And here I am not talking about the courage known in the dictionary of everyday life but I am talking about courage that pulls me out of my fear. Because from the day I decided to start writing, I had to stop fearing my father, mother, and all the rest,” he adds.

Perhaps that is exactly why The Day of the King was informally banned from entering Morocco initially. Had Taia not won the prestigious French literary award for young writers, Prix de Flore, the book would have never made it into Morocco, which would have pleased Islamist movements that have called for a complete ban on Taia’s books.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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