“You don’t prepare yourself for all the fights; some fights just come and you just know you have to go through it,” says Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa of the moment he agreed to go public about his sexuality in an interview with literary magazine Tel Quel in 2007. “I was not forced but I understood that there was a moment for me to be true to my stories, to my roots, to who I am.”
As the first openly gay autobiographical novelist in the Arab world, an inevitable scandal followed the publishing of Abdellah’s interview but ultimately it only strengthened his conviction to living freely, not in silence. Now based in Paris, he grew up in a large, poor family in the city of Salé, which is separated only by a river to the nearby wealthy Moroccan capital of Rabat. Much of his work draws on the dreams and struggles of those formative years: “I think it’s important to always speak of Salé, always about that poor Morocco and always to be faithful to them, to put them in literature in a naked way. Meaning that they will not be okay with the images and the words that I use,” he explains. “But it doesn’t matter, what is important to me is that my homosexuality is not outside of them - it’s something that is among them. That’s something very important to me, whether they like it or not. Whether they accept it or not."
Despite having very little money, his mother and father sent Abdellah and his eight siblings to school. “My mother always pushed us to study - that’s what saved me actually: the study and the love of cinema.” Egyptian cinema was big in Morocco when Abdellah was a child and he fell in love with the movie stars that slinked across his television set, memorising films scene by scene.
“I think this is where the writing started in my head because I was all of the time remembering these film details: what she was doing here, what she was wearing, what she was saying,” he says, smiling at the memory. “I think we are maybe not aware of that when we are little but when I started to write I discovered that I already had a writing dynamic in my head.”
It was a childhood obsession with the French actress Isabelle Adjani that prompted him to learn French, a language that was largely the preserve of the rich in Morocco. So when he eventually started writing - initially short stories that he shared with a literary circle he formed with three friends - it came naturally in French. He went on to study French Literature at university in Switzerland and finally moved to Paris in 1999 to continue his studies.
“The first thing I did when I arrived in Paris was to try and find a publisher for my books. I managed to find someone in the first two weeks of arriving. I didn’t wait. This was Paris - why would I wait, to wait for what? I would be humiliated? I don’t care. People will always speak and talk. This guy knew someone who was preparing a collection of short stories by Moroccan writers and he told him about me, and this guy said write some and send them to me. I wrote three short stories and he published them.”
From that point onward Abdellah hasn’t looked back. His books include L’armée su salut, Mon Maroc and the award-winning Le jour du Roi and he has been translated into several languages including English, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Arabic. Most importantly to Abdellah, however, is that his books are published in Morocco. “Although they are scandalous for some people, they are sold in Morocco. There is something positive about all these things. Although there is hate, there are people who don’t understand and attacks and so many things, but just the fact that my books are sold in Morocco. That is something.”