June 2012

Christopher Merkel


"Without Pride, Without Shame"

Another move, another opportunity to come to terms. To terms, literally, with the pile of words that constitutes the stack of articles, reviews, and opinion pieces that have accumulated somewhere in the apartment awaiting the (hypothetical) time that would finally be the right time for my getting around to reading them. More often than not, however, I'm forced to admit that the reading is never going to be gotten around to; and if what I have in the stack doesn't seem likely to complement the décor of the next place (which is to say, when I accept that I'm not going to feel like moving it), I end up just taking an hour or two to read through titles and rationalize why I'm going to let most of the words in my pile go unread. And I assume that most people have already gone digital and wouldn't understand why I would still practice that recurrent ritual of grief. But the thing is, if I'm going to procrastinate, I like the look of my stack much more than the look of my web browser with two dozen open tabs; and the thing is, sometimes I find something.

When I found it, I was sure that I remembered having saved that one particular page from the March 25 New York Times for the piece on the electric car -- even if I didn't remember why I had wanted to read it. But had I not saved it, I wouldn't have seen the piece by the photographer Lise Sarfati on the reverse, in which she describes having begun her series "On Hollywood" out of the concept of the psychogeographical dérive, a subject which I'd just finished reinvestigating myself. (Creative drifting had been as good an excuse as any for not getting around to coming to terms with my pile.) And had I not taken the time to look over Sarfati's photographs, I probably would have missed my opportunity to be introduced to Abdellah Taļa on the opposite page.

Abdellah Taļa is an author. He lives in Paris and writes in French, but he was born in Morocco, which is where he spent his childhood and his adolescence. And as he wrote in the opinion piece that was published in translation, his childhood and his adolescence in Morocco were particularly challenging (to say, for my part, the absolute least). Abdellah Taļa is gay, but he came out in Morocco only in 2006, seven years after he had moved to Paris. In the Morocco of his childhood and his adolescence, "homosexuality did not, of course, exist." That did not, however, stop Moroccan society from sacrificing effeminate boys like Taļa to the sexual desires of frustrated men. In what concludes as an appeal for the world to support the homosexuals participating in the "political and individual liberation" of the Arab world as it had begun with the Arab Spring one year earlier, Abdellah Taļa remembers the effeminate boy that he was, a boy who was sacrificed by his own family and who Taļa eventually killed to save himself. Taļa left the world of his childhood and his adolescence and became a writer. And he has used his books, as he puts it, "to impose [his] homosexuality on the world of [his] youth." And after reading what he had written on that page from my pile, I ordered one.   

The book, An Arab Melancholia, is incredibly and diversely intense. (But, I mean, incredibly.) The second of Taļa's books to appear in English from Semiotext(e), it was published this spring in translation by Frank Stock. It's a novel, but it's also autobiographical, and Taļa could hardly have laid himself barer than he has in its pages. Of course, the desire and the love in the book are homosexual, and Abdellah, the book's narrator, is an Arab Muslim. But we would sell it short to give it the Brokeback Mountain treatment, because its exaltations and ruminations on desire, love, and identity make it much more than what might simply be inferred were it to be regarded only as that book about the gay Arab. An Arab Melancholia is, so to speak, universally personal. Abdellah is a gay Arab, but the world in which he discovers himself is, irrepressibly, ours (and regardless of whether we're gay, Arab, both, or not).

Personally, I'll admit that from the outset the book was almost too personal. The incredible intensity of its first section is unabashedly sexual. Young Abdellah desires men, and he desires that the men who desire him, see him, as well, as a man. Their advances are violent, but Abdellah is aroused, imagines happiness: "Everything he suggested sounded pretty good to me. A chance to fool around a little, get through the afternoon and survive its insanity by having a shot at sex, especially sex with him." And his aversion to the sexual encounter described in that first section is not a result of Abdellah's fear but of his anger that the young man threatening him with rape would refuse to think of him as a man: "Sex was one thing... But letting him call me Leļla, forget that, no way. I wasn't about to be turned into a girl just so I could make the guy happy." And there I unexpectedly confront myself. Maybe it's a gay thing, a kind of sympathetic lament -- or maybe it's something much more basically, and deeply, human. Should I be ashamed at having been excited myself by the account? And then, despite the unabashed sexuality of An Arab Melancholia, can I myself write that my excitement at reading the description of that sexual encounter was unabashed? 

Should I be ashamed because of the connection of the story in the first section to violence, or to adolescence? Or should it be because Abdellah is Moroccan and I'm afraid of perpetuating the sexual exploitation of his country by the West? Are these rational questions? Too personal? Should I be ashamed at all? Would Abdellah Taļa shame me for this reaction to his personal story? Through An Arab Melancholia we come to terms.

As we'd expect (although still without reducing the book to just the one about the gay Arab), An Arab Melancholia does raise the topic of the contrast between Arab and other identities. Or, more specifically, it plumbs the identity of an Arab (more more specifically, a gay one) living in the European world. Abdellah leaves Morocco for Paris in pursuit of a dream to work in film. In Morocco, Abdellah was a homosexual in a place where such a thing didn't exist. In Paris, Abdellah is an Arab (and a gay one) in a place that judges while it's at the same time completely indifferent. Everywhere, Abdellah is looking for love. Then he goes to Cairo. To shoot a film (while trying to forget an unrequited love for a man named Javier). Made in Egypt. And it's there, back in Africa, in another part of the Arab world that he discovers himself in contrast to the world at large. Abdellah Taļa is a gay Arab, and maybe that's not exactly what he or we thought.

Abdellah's trip to Cairo is intense. In Cairo, Abdellah comes to know other Arabs, Arabs who are not like him. He comes to know other Africans, black Africans who are not like him. And as a result of a panic attack that is the ultimate result of his confusion over Javier, Abdellah meets a Jew, his first, who helps him: "Someone just like me. No different." And the incredible intensity of the section about Cairo is bittersweet, because Abdellah realizes that his previous Arab identity might have been improperly founded. He attempts to rediscover himself and is scared: "The West, the West, it was all their fault. I had no more leniency when it came to the Arab world... losing it even faster than I was... We were both falling, caught in the CRY and in the nostalgia. The nostalgia of ignorance."

And maybe then we awake to the shame of discovering that all of our identities might have been determined for us, imposed at first from the outside, but then perpetually reestablished within us. Are we ashamed now to be ourselves because we've allowed ourselves to be fashioned by others? What of those social, familiar, or religious identities for which we feel love? In Black Skin, White Masks, the first book on colonialism and racism written by the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (and a book to which I was introduced by a friend born in Angola and raised in Europe when I told her about my introduction to Taļa), its author writes: "There can be no argument that... the constitution is a myth only for those who seek to overstep it." "If from a heuristic point of view," he continues, "one must deny the existence of the constitution, the fact still remains that certain individuals endeavor to enter into preconceived categories, and we can do nothing about it. Or rather, yes, we can." Fanon agrees with Sartre in this statement on Jewishness: "It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew." "Let us have the courage to say," Fanon writes, "It is the racist who creates the inferiorized" [emphasis Fanon's].

And who creates the gay Arab? In An Arab Melancholia it is, in the end, Taļa, and saying so doesn't at all mean to give up on our endeavors not to essentialize him or to parochialize his story. Fanon: "We shall see that another solution is possible. It implies restructuring the world." And Taļa, in the middle of a movie theater in Cairo, "packed with men... servicing one another only a few feet from the police officers who patrolled the entrance to the theater": "There I was, rediscovering the first religion I ever believed in... The moving image of the flesh... The Arabic language as a space of origins, a real, mental space where I dared to redefine who I was, dared to talk about everything... Even forbidden love. And call it by a new name."

I don't remember that Taļa goes on to share that name. Maybe -- likely -- it is something intensely personal. Or this, maybe, is An Arab Melancholia. The final section of the book recounts a flashback to "a great love story," a love story that unfolded in and around Abdellah and an Algerian man in Paris -- and ended four years before Abdellah's trip to Cairo. Abdellah expresses a desperately profound experience of love. And if here we are ashamed, it is at wondering whether we've tried hard enough to open ourselves to the same experience while we play voyeur again to Abdellah's. The story of the Moroccan and the Algerian isn't all satin sheets and roses. It is, in fact, quite a far cry from picture perfect. There is seduction, passion, intimacy, sex. Through his relationship with the Algerian, Abdellah also discovers writing. But there are also jealousy, dreams discarded -- and even if not physical -- what many would consider violence as Abdellah submits himself to the Algerian's dictatorship. All of this in love. Or maybe this is love. Between two Arab men. Between two people. Abdellah gives himself over to it, and in love identifies himself and his lover. "Down there, down at the lower end of my stomach, there you were, your body beefy and naked. You were a zamel. A homo. And I was too. I was your fag and you were mine and we were gay for one another, gay without pride and gay without shame."

An Arab Melancholia is no literary revolution. And the apparent conclusion that we are simply who we are, individual collections of intersected identity, and that we can only do our best to remake ourselves as the best of what we can from what others have made us, it might sound kind of, well... gay. But to make either of those statements is not to deny the beauty of both the writing and the story, nor the courage it should take to expose oneself through such a personal narrative, and with the enviable and brazen vulnerability that Taļa exposes in his book. As for my personal coming to terms, yes, I might have encountered Abdellah Taļa earlier had I been more diligent in getting around to confronting that stack. But as it is... what can I say? Well, first: I think it's still a while before I go digital. Then, that I feel absolutely no shame at having procrastinated my introduction to Taļa to the point that my writing about his book wouldn't be in time to coincide with pride festivities in June.