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from the June 2016 issue

“Infidels”  by Abdellah Taïa

Reviewed by Gordon Slater

In the wake of this month’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, pundits from across the political spectrum have argued over the language used to describe and understand the fraught cultural, social, and political stakes surrounding this horrific act of violence. To some, the shooting is an act of radical Islamic terrorism. For others, the Orlando attack is better understood as the zenith of a wave of deadly mass shootings fueled by a gun culture run amok. Still others see the attack as a hate crime, implicating a lingering, casual homophobia within mainstream American culture. Into this maelstrom, the recent Seven Stories Press release of Abdellah Taïa’s Infidels feels unfortunately, but profoundly, apropos. 

Taïa, a Moroccan expat living in Paris since 1998, has published eight novels in French, and has adapted one of these, Salvation Army, for the screen. As one of only a few openly gay Arab writers, Taïa occupies a unique cultural and political perspective. While Taïa embraces the secular values of France, values that have allowed him to live freely, legally, as a gay Muslim man, his writing expresses a critical relationship to both his adopted land and his original home. In Infidels, Taïa portrays traditionalist, nationalist, and religious mores found in Morocco, values that exert powerful, often cruel, control over many people’s lives. Taïa’s empathetic, honest treatment of Moroccan and Muslim subjects enables a nuanced exploration of issues of religion, values, and identity that stand in stark contrast to the generalizations of our own often politically polarized dialogue.

Set primarily in Morocco at the tail end of the twentieth century, Infidels follows Jallal, the gay son of a prostitute, Silma, from his childhood to his death. Silma is the daughter of Saâdia Tadlauoi, an introductrice––a woman who assists couples having sex on their wedding night. The social curse of Saâdia’s profession, her public association with sex, follows Silma and Jallal throughout their lives. Saâdia narrates:          

I’m perverse. The perverse old woman everyone needs. A bit of a witch. A bit of a doctor. A bit of a whore. The sex specialist. They all came to me for help and they all turned their backs on me. That’s how it goes.

Saâdia’s femininity and sexuality threaten the norms of conservative Moroccan society. They isolate her as a dangerous, powerful, and otherworldly force. She cannot be accepted or even respected, but ironically, she is needed. While her sexuality is profane, it is ultimately expressed not merely physically, but as a living knowledge. In Saâdia’s profession, families use sex, manipulate sex, to maintain the social norm of female purity for marriage: Saâdia makes sure that blood appears on the sheet of a newlywed couple, no matter what. Sex is a fact in Infidels, often a brutal, painful one, and while the cultural myth of sex––a patriarchal language––is a fiction, it is extremely powerful. Outside of this strict language, the novel revels in the real complexities of sex, between shameful desire and “perfect” fantasy. Saâdia, Silma, and Jallal all transgress irreparably in their knowledge of intimacy, an original familial sin that establishes them as outcasts.

Silma works as a prostitute and Jallal himself is forced into sex work, raped by men in the public baths. Silma has a gift with men, passed on from Saâdia, an understanding of desire and intimacy that is foreign to most. Jallal shares in her secrets, and together they also share a love of movies. For the young man, watching television offers a way of seeing the world outside of the oppressive confines of his life.

I watched television. That was where I learned to see things more clearly. The connections between people. Evil. Good. Masks. Languages. Illusions.

Television gives Jallal a vocabulary to understand the false constructions and the hidden motives of the world, a world that he sees largely through the perspective of Silma. He is able to articulate the hypocrisy of men who visit her for sex, for comfort, and then publically degrade her as a whore. With this language Jallal begins to wield the creative power of the imagination:

I change realities, really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors.

The most brutal passage of the book comes when Silma is imprisoned by the Government’s secret police. She is tortured horribly and her sexualized punishments mirror the social discrimination and dehumanization she faced for the crime of her intimate knowledge. After her release, she flees the country, but her experiences sharpen her disdain for nationalism. Silma’s final story, of love before death and finding peace in her relationship with God, feels both satisfying and incomplete. 

After Silma’s passing, Jallal moves to Belgium where, lonely and disconnected from his new surroundings, he meets Mahmoud. Their relationship is positioned as a love affair, though it is never consummated, confined by the blossoming of Jallal’s growing religious devotion. His haphazard shift to extremism at the close of the novel is complicated, a product of his search for love, companionship, and acceptance. His journey reflects a crisis of identity. Where does one turn for community in the absence of family, when one is an outcast in one’s home country and also not at home elsewhere? In his youth, Silma wove Jallal an identity from the strings of their outsider status. With his mother and her mythology gone, Jallal is lost. 

In Infidels, Taïa portrays a violent, fractured world starved of peace and love, but the book is not without hope. In light of increasing acts of terror throughout the world, in Syria, Paris, Libya and Orlando, Taïa’s exploration of Muslim identity and its relationship to the West takes on great importance. Language plays a powerful role in how we understand this violence. Taïa’s identity represents a paradox; as a gay Muslim he resists the stereotypes of both the West and the Arab world. His writing explores the vital links between people, in a space beyond borders, where there is room for growth, for powerful understanding and love. These moments of unity appear when the various ways we order our world, the socio-religious systems we use to normalize our myriad experiences, collapse in favor of the transient connections between individuals. It is fair to question the power of the written word in the face of bullets and bombs, but with the voice of his final narrator, Taïa writes toward an orthodoxy of connection, of love—the erotic, the personal, and the imaginary.

In the final dreamlike chapter, set between two worlds, Marilyn Monroe, gatekeeper to Heaven, muses to Jallal and Mahmoud:

You see, I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In every body. Every night. Every dream . . . I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders. All languages.

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