John Maybury & Abdellah Taïa

The first openly gay Moroccan writer and an icon of queer cinema chat about the marriage equality vote and the Arab Spring

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In 2006, the Moroccan writer and thinker Abdellah Taïa became the first Arab writer to publicly declare that he was gay. Since then, he has become an iconic figure in his homeland of Morocco and throughout the Arab world, and a beacon of hope in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Currently living in self-imposed exile in Paris, Taïa is the author of eight published novels, many of which draw on his brave autobiographical experiences. Two of his novels, Salvation Army (2009) and An Arab Melancholia (2012) have been translated into English and published by Semiotext(e).

Since his early work as a set designer on Derek Jarman's punk odyssey Jubilee (1978), the filmmaker and artist John Maybury has come to be revered as a legend of underground cinema and queer culture. Perhaps his best-known work is Love Is The Devil (1998), a portrait of Francis Bacon starring Derek Jacobi as Bacon and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as his gay lover, while his 1993 art film Remembrance of Things Fast (1993) spliced documentary footage with abstract imagery to create a highly-seuxalised visual bohemia starring gay porn star Aiden Shaw alongside Tilda Swinton. His blend of an underground aesthetic with a uniquely exotic touch has had musicians looking to him for visuals, too, and his pop videography includes Sinead O'Connor's 'Nothing Compares 2 U', Neneh Cherry's 'Buffalo Stance' and Pet Shop Boys' 'It's A Sin'.

Today, Dazed Digital presents a conversation between Maybury and Taïa in the wake of the historic decision on Feburary 5 to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales. With passion and a keen interest in the other's views, the pair reflected on the significance of the new legislation, as well as the slowly-changing attitudes in the Arab world in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and how new technology is enabling a new kind of communication and solidarity. 

Abdellah Taïa: For me, it's weird that the hostility to the gay marriage debate happening in Paris at the moment is coming from the Right Wing - but in England it's the Right Wing that are imposing gay marriage! (Update: France's National Assembly has now passed the same sex marriage bill.)

John Maybury: [laughs] It's very peculiar, especially when 20 years ago the conservative introduced Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. For the same political party to push for gay marriage now is a very strange contradiction. It's an interesting game-play. In a weird way, he's mirroring the liberalism of Obama. And at the same time, there are terrible cuts being made to benefits of poor people, and the social underclasses are being pushed further and further back in time. I'm all for civil partnerships and rights and equality on every level, but I don't necessarily believe that gay people need to be married. I don't believe we need the language of heterosexual culture. But if somebody else wants that, I want the same rights. When I was very young I lost somebody to a drug overdose, and I wasn't even allowed to be with his body - I wasn't considered to be his partner because I was gay. 

Abdellah Taïa: I remember when I was 12 or 13 I told myself that one day I would have the same kind of marriage in the Mosque that I saw in Egyptian movies. [laughs] That dream has to be true for some people. I don't know if I will get married, but you should have that equality. 

John Maybury: It must have been strange for you Abdellah, having seen at first the extraordinary excitement and social change of the Arab Spring, and then how very quickly women have been sidelined in some of those governments, even though they were a very important part of the revolutions in those countries. I mean, I can't pretend to know very much about the rights of gay people in Islamic countries…

Abdellah Taïa: They don't exist! Homosexuality still doesn't exist in these countries. They say "we don't have gay people in Morocco or Tunisia or Egypt". It's not the end of the Arab Spring. These people - the Islamists, the parties - have been preparing to get in power for a century, but people who started the Arab Spring are young people, and (the revolution) was stolen from them by the Islamists. That doesn't mean that these voices died, and I'm quite determined to keep the hope that this Arab Spring brought to all Arabs. I think it would be another betrayal to let this hope go, because that would be a double win for the Islamists. 

John Maybury: My optimism is entirely on the side of young people. The fact that they are able to connect and have a dialogue with each other with new technology like Facebook and the internet is really exciting.

Abdellah Taïa: Exactly. Just to write something is already a revolution. When I was younger I had nowhere to write. I had no computer or books - it was only in my head. In Morocco people are still poor but they have computers, they have Skype and they have many websites to go to and express something. I'm sure that this is how the Arab Spring started.

John Maybury: It's beautiful that technology can enable that.

Abdellah Taïa: If I take myself as an example, I have published eight books that are all available in Morocco, and there is always something gay in these books! (laughs) Just the fact that these books are there is already a thing for me. And when I came out I was not alone. A lot of Moroccan journalists and newspapers supported me. Journalists in Morocco are talking openly about homosexuality in a neutral sense, without condemning it. Six years ago they invented a word to say 'homosexual' without any condemnation: mithly. Since the Arab Spring started, you have many websites coming from young gay people, who are not trying to emulate Western civilisation, but invent themselves as gay Arab activists. You now have five or six gay monthly magazines in Arabic.

John Maybury: Fantastic. 

Abdellah Taïa: For the 39-year-old man that I am, that's unbelievable! 

John Maybury: In many ways we've been incredibly lucky and privileged in this country. From when I was a teenager in the 70s in London, I was openly gay. It was confrontational back then, and there was a lot of prejudice in certain quarters. I think what's interesting about being homosexual, being gay, is that we're not the same. And maybe to some degree there has been a homogenising effect of the liberal agenda that has taken away some of the excitement of difference. Let's not forget that Stonewall was started by drag queens! Drag queens and transgender people are still pretty radical, and they're still looked down on by the 'straighter' element of the gay community.

Abdellah Taïa: Well, one of the biggest stars in Morocco is a transgender belly dancer named Noor. She used to be a man, and she (transitioned) in front of the public, and she does fashion shoots and she is on the cover of magazines. Her name is Noor, which means "the light" in Arabic. She still performs in festivals. And I don't know if you heard about the Egyptian girl Aliaa Magda Elmahdy? She took a naked self-portrait of herself and posted the picture on her blog, and she did that as a gesture to support the Arab revolution in Egypt, and for the homosexuals and transgender people. It was a huge scandal, and very brave of her. 

John Maybury: I think cinema can play a role in this for sure. The great thing about film is that it's a visual language, and it transcends boundaries. In world cinema there are beautiful examples of representations of different cultures, and you come to understand different cultures through that. When I worked with Derek (Jarman) back in the 70s and early 80s, he chose very purposefully to be radical and to be an outsider, and to be of a counterculture. And his sexuality was central to his aesthetic. Even today, the aesthetic of someone like Almodóvar is so obviously informed by his sexuality. I have dealt with homosexuality as a subject in my cinema, but it's not always my objective. I've recently been shooting and editing with iPhones and iPads - people can now put their own movies out there, and produce an Outsider Cinema without outside interference!

Abdellah Taïa: For me, life is cinema, cinema is life! I used to watch Egyptian movies on TV in the 70s and 80s. Egypt invented the stars of the Arab world, they invented sensuality and even Arab love, how to be in love, how to dance - and they put it in images. And those images came into my house when I was sitting next to my six sisters and my mother. I am gay and I was gay among my family. I invented myself as a gay person when I was surrounded by these heterosexual people and I was influenced by the same images. I didn't invent it when I left Morocco, or in Western civilisation.

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