APRIL 11, 2014
PARIS — HE was born inside the public library of Rabat in Morocco where his dad worked as a janitor and where his family lived until he was 2. For most of his childhood, he hid his sexuality as best he could, but his effeminate demeanor brought mockery and abuse, even as it would later become a source of artistic inspiration.
About eight years ago, the author Abdellah Taïa, now 40, came out to the Moroccan public in his books and in the news media, appearing on the cover of a magazine under the headline “Homosexual Against All Odds.”
It was an act that made him one of the few to publicly declare his sexual orientation in Morocco, where homosexuality is a crime. The hardest part, he recalls, was facing his family. They probably always knew, he said, they just never talked about it. Still, it took years to overcome the rifts.
“They cried and screamed,” said Mr. Taïa, who now lives in Paris. “I cried when they called me. But I won’t apologize. Never.”
In February, Mr. Taïa screened his film “Salvation Army” at the National Film Festival in Tangier, an adaptation of his book of the same title, and a promising directorial debut that gave the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist. The film, which has already been shown at festivals in Toronto and Venice and won the Grand Prix at the Angers Film Festival in France, was shown at the New Directors Festival in New York last month.
“Salvation Army” is based on the author’s life growing up in Morocco, his sexual awakening, his fascination with a brother 20 years older, his encounters with older men in dark alleys and his complex relationship with his mother and six sisters who mocked him for being too girly or too attached to them.
SHOOTING the film in two countries, he made clear artistic choices: no voice-overs, no music, no explicit love scenes. The film details a trip with his brother on which the two men bonded and also, a few years later, an affair with a Swiss man. After he moves to Switzerland in his 20s, he connects again with his mother.
But the film also shows the anger and frustration of the young Abdellah, as he fends off the advances of older men in a society that publicly rejects homosexuals.
“A lot of men in Morocco have sexual relations with men, but I looked feminine so I was the only homosexual,” he said. “In Morocco, sexual tension is everywhere and I wanted to show that in my film without having crude sex scenes; to stay true to these secretive behaviors.”
One night when he was 13 and with his family, drunken men outside called out his name and asked him to come down to entertain them, a traumatic scene he recalled in a New York Times Op-Ed article, “A Boy to Be Sacrificed.” After that he decided to change his persona, to eliminate his effeminate mannerisms to stop men asking him for sexual favors.
He worked hard to learn French so he could move to Europe to escape the oppression, moving to Switzerland in 1998 and then to France the following year.
“I can’t live in Morocco,” Mr. Taïa said in an interview in a Parisian brasserie. “The entire neighborhood wanted to rape me. A lot of people in Morocco are abused by a cousin or a neighbor but society doesn’t protect them. There, rape is insignificant. There is nothing you can do.”
Mr. Taïa spent his childhood watching Egyptian movies, detailing them in a scrapbook where he collected pictures of movie stars he admired, like Faten Hamama and Souad Hosni. The freedom in Egyptian cinema, where women appeared without veils and alcohol was consumed openly, pervaded his living room and gave him hope. In a scene in “Salvation Army,” the family is seen watching “Days and Nights” (1955) by Henri Barakat, and a scene where Abdel Halim Hafez sings, “Ana Lak ala Tool” (“I Am Yours Forever).
“Egyptian movies saved me,” he said. “There was already the idea of transgression through television happening in my house with my sisters. In my head, I connected that to homosexuality.”
THE author says he considers himself Muslim because he is very spiritual, and he believes that freedom has existed in Islam through those such as the Arab philosopher Averroes and the Iranian poet Rumi, and in works such as “1001 Nights.”
“I don’t want to dissociate myself from Islam,” he said. “It is part of my identity. It is not because I am gay that I will reject it. We need to recover this freedom that has existed in Islam.”
His books have stirred some negative reviews and reaction. His writing, in particular, has been criticized as undisciplined, as if it were dictated. Others say that it is the rawness of the writing that makes his work authentic and touching.
Mr. Taïa says he always wanted to become a filmmaker. He became a writer by accident after writing all his thoughts and experiences down in a journal to learn French. While he draws on his experiences growing up, he says he has never looked to art to exorcise the pain and abuse he experienced as a child and teenager.
“Books, like the film, do not solve anything,” he said. “My neuroses are, at some level, what we might call my creativity. But what I produce artistically does not help me in any way in my real life. Nothing is resolved. Everything is complex, complicated. I sincerely believe that there is only love to heal and soothe troubled souls.”
He says he has no preference between writing and filmmaking. “To me, both have the same source: the wonderful Egyptian films that I discovered with my family on Moroccan television during my childhood. Everything comes from images. For years, my brain has been structured from images of films I thought and rethought, in a manner at once naïve and serious. I will continue to write books inspired by images — and by my neuroses, of course.”
Today, he has patched up relations with most family members, though there are still awkward moments. His older brother, always cold and distant, remains estranged, a point of particular pain for Mr. Taïa. The brother was worshiped by the entire family not only for his charisma but because he saved them from poverty when he took several government jobs before marrying at the age of 35.
His mother died shortly after Mr. Taïa came out, and he now has a cordial relationship with his sisters. He has over 40 nieces and nephews who symbolize a new more open-minded generation of Moroccans — they often post messages of encouragement on his official Facebook page.
Still, Mr. Taïa finds it very difficult to go home.
“I can’t talk to them,” he said. “I am just a human being. They were ashamed of me. I always felt they were. I don’t want them to be proud of me. And anyway, they’re not.”
HE was one of the few Moroccan authors to denounce the oppressive policies of the kingdom and to strongly back the Feb. 20 movement that led protests in Morocco in 2011 demanding democratic reforms. His thoughts on this experience are detailed in chapters of the book “Arabs Are No Longer Afraid,” which was released at the biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York in March.
Mr. Taïa is working on his next book: a tale about old Moroccan prostitutes who at the end of their careers touring the world have landed in Paris. He lives in a small studio apartment near the central Place de la République, and worked as a baby sitter for over 10 years to finance his work. He still hasn’t found love but is convinced it is what will heal his wounds.