Interview by Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Photos by Teresa Suárez
Styling by Marwa Asserraji
Makeup by Hicham Ababsa
Shoot assistant: MaxX 
Written and Edited by: Eliza Marks
Transcribed by: MaxX 
Arabic Translated by: Hiba Moustafa  
Cover design by Morcos Key 
Cover designs assembled by Alaa Sadi
Editor-in-chief: Khalid Abdel-Hadi
This feature is part of  My Kali magazine’s The Wawa Complex issue

Literature and the written word have the power to convey the intimate textures of life of everyday life and the reflections and desires of their author. And, it has the power to shed light on the forces that limit how we live our lives and ways to confront them. 

Moroccan writer and filmmaker, Abdellah Taïa, achieves both through his diverse collection of work. Greatly influenced by his childhood and upbringing in the town of Salé, his relationship with Moroccan and French societies since his departure to France in 1998, and love lost and found along the way, Taïa used his platform to intervene in debates regarding both homophobia and Orientalism. His early novels Mon Maroc (2000) and Le Rouge du Tarboush (2005) and subsequent media attention introduced Arabic and French-speaking audiences to his work and public-facing articles that further pushed discourses on homosexuality in Morocco amidst the shifting social contexts of the early-2000s. Now well-established, his nine novels are broadly circulated in multiple languages and highly celebrated in international literary competitions, and his first directed film, Salvation Army (2013) (adapted from his 2006 novel by the same name) was selected and screened across a number of prestigious independent film festivals.

In this extended interview with Khalid Abdel-Hadi, Taïa shares about his relationship with his mother, media collaborations and controversies, his relationship with pop culture, and how maturing has impacted his understanding of relationships, romantic and otherwise. The text has been edited for brevity.

Pearl necklace; Au Printemps Paris. White top; Saint Laurent. Baby blue suit; Vintage Dior. Heel boots; ASOS. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

To begin, tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I like to think of myself as walad M’Barka, my mother’s son, Allah yer7amha (may her soul rest in peace). During my childhood and my teenage years when there was a fight or a problem, when people were upset about me or criticized me, there was always somebody to tell them “This is M’Barka’s son.” This sentence would always protect me. 

We lived in a neighborhood called Al-salaam in Sala City and my mother had to fight against poverty, for us to enter school, to build a home. So, she would yell and argue with people; she was tough. She never actually had to defend me as gay, it was enough for me to be known as her son. 

What a powerful figure! Were you able to be open with her about your orientation?

I’m sure she knew – we lived together for 25 years. I am the 8th of 9 kids, the first of us is my big brother, then came 6 girls, then me and my little brother. They wanted another son and I was the boy they were waiting for. 

But we never talked about it directly until 2009, when I published an article “L’homosexualité expliquée à ma mère” (“Homosexuality explained to my mother”) in a Moroccan French-language magazine called TelQuel (As it is). My brothers and sisters knew and spoke to my mother about the “shame” I brought her, and they made her speak with me even though I was living in France. She confronted me, telling me that she had never said “You’re not my son” (as the article may have alluded to) and that my brothers and sisters were saying this and that. “Why did you say that?” she asked. I was crying because to me it was so stressful; I was sweating and felt naked, exposed to the whole world. 

She told me what people were saying and asked if it was true. She also had a crying tone. She told me, “You went to France and spoke about these things but we are the ones who are going to live with the problems here.” I understood her point. She and my siblings were the ones facing homophobia aimed against me, but she didn’t want to cut me out. 

When I told her I wasn’t talking about them but about society, she responded, “I always told you that we are not like other people.” I didn’t understand what she actually meant until after she died: the society in which she was born, raised, and lived didn’t deserve the confession of our truths. According to her, whenever you tell your family, community, or society about yourself, they use it against you, to exclude you. She told us “People can’t be trusted”; this is how she found her way through poverty and Moroccan society and kept pursuing her dreams. Some people in her community did nothing about their lives except talk about other people. And I understood that only after she died.

Black silk cape, head-piece, black pants; LANVIN. Tights worn; DIM. Leather heeled boots; System. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

Was this your first step towards speaking about your orientation on the public stage?

I first talked about my orientation in the same magazine (TelQuel) in January 2006. They did an interview with me while I was in Morocco after publishing my second book, Le Rouge du Tarbouch. The magazine asked if I wanted to talk about my homosexuality in the interview, and I said yes. I knew I would face consequences but thought I would have been betraying my younger self if I didn’t mention it.rds speaking about your orientation on the public stage?

That February, two Moroccan newspapers – Al-Ayyam and Al Jarida al Ukhra – published two long interviews with me in Arabic. I spoke about everything. I insisted on being referred to as mithli (gay) and not shath jinsian (a sexual pervert). I tried to explain myself in a way that was as sincere and pedagogic as possible, simplifying, explaining, and clarifying everything. 

These interviews changed my image in Morocco, largely because they were in Arabic. There was no problem when I published in French or spoke about literature and writing. Prior to these interviews, people loved me. I had done two TV programs in French on 2M channel in 2005 and they thought I was a nice kid who spoke French in a way they could understand, rather than coming off as “bourgeoise” or arrogant. But after, there was trouble and scandal sprung up around me.One of the renowned columnists of this very famous daily newspaper called  Al Masaa, Rachid Niny, used his daily chronicle to attack and demonize me. He had a huge platform as one of the best-known journalists at the most successful newspaper. He would criticize the monarchy and government, was traditional, and would target specific people. People thought, “Oh, he’s not afraid,” but I was.

Another media blast came when TelQuel magazine put me on the cover in 2007 with the title “Homosexuel envers et contre tous” (“Homosexual against all odds”) with a 10-page feature. In March 2009, the Minister of Communication in Morocco published a statement in which he condemned people who spoke about the abnormality of homosexuality and that he wouldn’t stop fighting them. I thought about writing an open letter as a response, but then I didn’t owe him that; history isn’t going to remember him. So, I responded indirectly by publishing “L’homosexualité expliquée à ma mère”  

Black silk cape, head-piece, black pants; LANVIN. Tights worn; DIM. Leather heeled boots; System. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

And you continued writing full-length books during this time?

Yes, the articles came as something spontaneous as I was writing my books. I left Morocco in 1998, when I was 25, to enter a doctorate program in French literature at La Sorbonne. My mother was upset when I told her I was leaving, but she understood I had to go and helped me prepare my bag and took me to the train station in Rabat. During this period, I was just trying to make a living and get accustomed to living in the West. I wasn’t making money and didn’t have financial support; I just had the ability to explain and stay determined. I published my first book, Mon Maroc, in 2000 and my second, Le Rouge du Tarboush, in 2005.

Le Rouge du Tarboush is a compilation of autobiographical short stories about my life in Morocco and part of my life in Paris. In one, I write about not having a real mirror when I was young, only a tiny one like a “tableau” that could be easily moved. My father would shave while looking at it, then one of my sisters would use it to put on makeup, then my brother. I would look at myself, undressed. I wrote about seeing myself in the same mirror as my family, afraid they would see me naked. I spoke about homosexuality in a subtle way, saying I didn’t feel like I belonged. The book was first published in French in Morocco through Tarik Editions, in part because it was cheaper to print in Morocco and so very accessible. People bought it because it was so publicized, even after the interviews.

Scarf: Abdellah’s own. See-through top: Saint Laurent. Low waist jeans: Urban Outfitters. Heel boots; ASOS. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

As someone who works in the media a lot, how do you think these outlets use your image or your voice? I feel like the media in our region use homosexuality to support their political agendas or to create a buzz. And here, in the occidental countries like France, the media uses Arab queers to serve racist and Islamophobic agendas or suggest some sort of “cultural hierarchy”.

I actually feel like Moroccan media stayed by my side during and after the publications. Perhaps it was the context that drew the media to me. They were waiting for someone like me, someone to embody the subject, to speak directly about this subject. This was also a period of rising Islamic movements. In 2005 or 2006, Islamist students at Fez University attacked another student who they heard was gay. They went to his room and took him outside for a trial, and then outed him to his parents. The story went viral, and I think people felt compassion for this gay student who disappeared even though they didn’t approve of his homosexuality. There was another scandal in 2004 in the city of Tetouan, when homosexual students enjoyed wearing female clothes at a birthday party in a city nearby. A man suspected they were homosexual and asked to have sex with them, and when they refused, he went to the police and got them arrested. It created another scandal, particularly because some of them were minors of important politicians. They were released shortly after.

Because of this, I was able to write and speak with empathy and emotions toward my own community. It was evident that the next generation of queer people in Morocco was living and navigating Moroccan society in a new way. For example, in 2007, Al Saba7 published a very long interview – almost 2 pages each day over the next 4 days –  with young activist, Samir Bargachi, about his work. It was amazing and a surprise to the country. 

Around this time in 2006, you also worked to produce several interviews with Egyptian artist Ruby, who was also facing her fair share of controversy. How did this come about?

I think someone heard of me in Morocco and spoke with Paris Match, a weekly magazine that published an international version every two months. I wasn’t yet “known” in France. They contacted me about doing an issue on Morocco, focusing on the youth, new faces, etc. I handled three interviews and helped them prepare the issue, which, in retrospect, is full of clichés.

Paris Match Monde December 2006 of Artist Ruby, photographed by Sébastien Mick and interviewed and creative directed by Abdellah Taïa. Group photo (from left to right): Man who worked with Sherif Sabry; Ruby’s little Cousin; Abdellah Taia; Ruby; French photographer, Sébastien Mick

I heard them speaking about an Egypt issue, and I knew Cairo very well. I told them about Ruby and everything that has happened around her since 2003. At the time, she was scandalous and people looked down on her, but I understood who she was as a character and a professional, and valued her presence very much. You needed to be queer from the region to get it. I think we defend stars like Ruby when people talk badly about them – and no one was writing about these artists or their feminism or social stances, or how representative they are of their time. And, I feel like queer people understand their lyrics and messages as if they were written for them; they give us hope. So, they sent me to Egypt.

Samira Saïd (who I was in touch with when I interviewed her previously) helped us get the phone number of Sherif Sabri, who directed her clip “Yom Wara Yom.” and was managing Ruby at the time. I worked for three days on the interview – I went to Ruby’s home and we went for coffee – and then we did the photoshoot. It was incredible and the photographs were so raw and fresh. The article goes deeper than her private life or music. Maybe she felt she could trust me,  and opened up about her childhood. She also opened up about how she wanted to make another hit without Sherif Sabri’s involvement. When Sherif Sabri saw how much I loved Ruby, he asked us to do a TV interview together, discussing her new album then ‘Meshit Wara Ehsasy’.

Coat; Vintage, stylist’s own. Dress and ring; Saint Laurent. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

When people think about you and your work, they often think about literature, journalism, and academia, but you also have another side that loves pop culture and entertainment.

These all come together. At the beginning of my novel, Une Mélancolie Arabe (2008), the young hero is leaving high school and running home to watch his favorite TV series Hekayat Howa Wa Heya, starring Souad Hosny. In the novel, he explains why he is so obsessed with her. The passion I’m referring to is the same as the one I get from those artists, and the people interfering with his love for Souad Hosny are the same as those who don’t understand the feelings we get from those songs. But when you’re 12, it’s what helps you live. It was great to have had them as part of our lives. There was nobody like them.

Even if these stars’ political positions weren’t modern, we often understand that they are forced to take these positions in public because they want to keep on dancing and making music. 

Scarf; Balenciaga. Pearl necklace; Au Printemps Paris. White top; Saint Laurent. Baby blue suit; Vintage Dior. Heel boots; ASOS. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

Does this young character’s appreciation of Souad Hosny’s work parallel your own life or how you came into your sexuality or gender expression?

I don’t really remember when I realized I was gay, but I guess my first “life souvenir” was when my sisters dressed me up and put makeup on me. I danced for them. It’s probably one of my happiest memories, the beginning of my life as a belly dancer. I don’t know what pushes people that live under the same roof to suddenly emancipate themselves from all the restrictions and gender norms, or convince them to do this to bring him joy. But for me, as a gay person, it was obvious that I was comfortable and wasn’t ashamed. My femininity is a part of me. Femininity was important to me and to my sisters, and they were happy to have a brother like me. 

I was raised in an environment that didn’t have gender norms; there was little distinction between me and my sisters when we were young. At first, my family was happy with my “gender fluidity,” but when I was a teenager, people in my neighborhood started to molest me. I was 9 or 10, and you know violence against children was an issue. I also remember how my brother-in-law would hit me saying, “Act like a man!” At some point, I tried to kill myself and understood that I needed to hide every inch of my femininity. I don’t even know how it was so obvious to others but I felt like I lost a part of myself. It was very authentic being a gay effeminate boy; I was happy about myself and my sisters, too. Those memories still come up in my writing. Al hamdoulilah ana gay (Thank God I’m gay), because being gay is deep down a happy thing to me, far from the misery or violence of our society. I transformed these perceptions they associate with hell and punishment, into something beautiful. I created this happiness by being authentic since I was a kid.

Red Jacket and pants; LANVIN. Heel boots; ASOS. Blue sunglasses; Vintage Chanel. Black top; Vintage, Stylist’s own. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

How do you see your experience with coming in terms of your own sexuality influenced your relationships and romantic, and dynamics?

It keeps me alive, even if my dreams of finding such a man haven’t come true yet. Every time I’ve had a love story, I find myself having to repeat the same cycle; unable to understand my partners or feel like they try to possess me. Sometimes I question my tendencies as something I’ve inherited from my mother, which is something I don’t necessarily like about myself.

I’ve never been able to trust someone; it’s a consequence of my past. I’m now 48 and feel like I haven’t really progressed. I found that if I wanted to create, I had to be by myself. The years passing with this strategy became important to me, and now I feel like I wouldn’t be capable of relationships even if I were in a good place to start one. It’s like I forgot how. 

Our skin starts to change even if we don’t feel like we’re getting older on the inside. I find myself disappointed by occidental men, sometimes, who come across as “better” than me as an Arab or as an immigrant, or with an attitude that they have the freedom that we don’t. I can’t live with someone who has these kinds of thoughts, and I’m not ready to start a relationship and explain myself again to someone who doesn’t want to or isn’t ready to understand anything about our culture. I don’t have the energy. 

In previous conversations we had, I felt that growing up, and age in general, played a role in how you position yourself in society and how it could’ve impacted certain friendships, even your view on relationships. Can you say more about this?

I don’t mind getting old, but I’m affected by societal pressures. At my age, I feel that I would also like to have a “stable home” although I don’t really fit that frame because I am queer. I feel views shift when people get older, especially when female friends get married and become moms. People forget about us as queer folks when they settle into societal comfort. It’s like they deny all those years we’ve spent side by side, what we gave each other, and the beautiful things we shared. If I dare to bring it up, they’d tell me that I’m the one who changed.  

I know you give what you get but, at my age, I need people to support me, too, because I can’t do everything myself.  I had to stop giving so much. I should have realized this many years ago, but I’m making tough decisions by saying goodbye to people who don’t value me or take me for granted. I was ok being used when I was younger, but now I just want to free myself or resist this. It’s not that I just lost kindness. 

Hoodie silver top: LANVIN. Pants: Vintage, Stylist’s own. Photographed by Teresa Suárez. Styled by Marwa Asserraji. Makeup by Hicham Ababsa.

In my opinion, queer people often experience a second adolescence, or some sort of “behind-ness.” [A “second queer adolescence” refers to the theory that queer people don’t have access to meeting certain developmental ‘milestones’ until after they become somewhat comfortable with their queer identity.] Are there any aspects of your life you reminisce about? Do you ever look back at things? Are you nostalgic for anything?

Samira Saïd addressed this in her 1979 song ‘Benlef’. But even if we don’t like our present, we need to remember that change is constantly happening and something better could come soon. 

There is one moment I would go back to, one of my deep regrets. In 2000 and 2001, I was in love with a Tunisian man in Paris. It was one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever lived. I was the one who broke it off, and now regret that decision; I never found anyone who loved me that much. I broke up with him because of his jealousy and because he was constantly insecure about leaving him. At the time, I knew I wanted to become a writer and was working toward that. I think the kind of life I was aiming for scared him. I’d like to go back and reassure him, stay with him. But I was arrogant in my approach and harsh with my words. I didn’t know how I could have appeased him. 

He would write me poetry. I recall how we used to write to each other in the same diary. When he broke up with me, he pulled out all his pages and threw them away. I still have the diary, but not his pages, or his words. That love story was the most beautiful thing, so poetic, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was more than love; we would bathe each others’ feet, speak in Arabic with one another, and make love. It lasted a year and a half. It was 20 years ago but I still feel like he’s with me. 

On the cover

Featured on the cover is Moroccan writer and filmmaker, Abdellah Taïaa. Cover on the left: Abdellah is wearing Red Jacket and pants by LANVIN. Heel boots by ASOS. Blue sunglasses; Vintage Chanel. Black top; Vintage, Stylist’s own.
Cover on the right: Abdellah is wearing Hoodie silver top by LANVIN.
Interview by Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Photos by Teresa Suárez
Styling by Marwa Asserraji
Makeup by Hicham Ababsa
Shoot assistant: MaxX 
Cover design by Morcos Key 
Cover designs assembled by Alaa Sadi
Editor-in-chief: Khalid Abdel-Hadi
This feature is part of  My Kali magazine’s Wawa Complex issue