Earlier this year I read about the life of Moroccan ex-pat writer Abdellah Taïa in Out. Taïa's from Salé in the north; he one of Morocco's bets-known writers and he lives in Paris. He's openly gay and living in Morocco would be uncomfortable. He lives in Paris.
Last year, when Morocco’s interior ministry announced a crackdown on writing and books “seeking to attack the moral and religious values” of Moroccan society-- code for supporting gay rights-- Taïa responded with an open letter, “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother.” “There is a generation of Moroccan people trying to express itself, and the government’s response is aggression,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t write to a minister-- he wouldn’t respond because they don’t recognize people like us-- but I could write to someone related to me.”
Taïa’s campaign goes beyond gay rights. After two young brothers died in a suicide attack outside the U.S. consulate in Casablanca in 2007, he wrote an editorial for Le Monde titled “We Have to Save Moroccan Youth,” in which he addressed the exploitation of teen disaffection by Islamic extremists. “But I realized I had to go further than that,” he says. “I had to break the isolation of young Moroccans.” Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet-- a series of 10 letters written to a young man entering the German military-- Taïa approached artists and writers of his generation to contribute essays for an update. Eighteen responded, including Tahar Ben Jelloun, one of Morocco’s most famous writers-- a measure of Taïa’s success in transcending knee-jerk prejudice. “Books have given me a legitimacy that I might not have had without them,” Taïa says. “That a homosexual writer-- the one who is demonized, criminalized-- can unite these forces behind him is amazing to me.”
Letters to a Young Moroccan was published last August, but Taïa didn’t stop there. Aware that his target audience could not afford books, he approached millionaire philanthropist Pierre Bergé, who had owned a home in Marrakech with his lifelong partner, Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé agreed to fund the printing and distribution of 90,000 copies of the book in French and Arabic-- the kind of bold gesture Taïa himself would never be able to make if he still lived in Morocco. “They would say I’m crazy, and who do I think I am-- a political leader? Life is when you can think of something and make it happen.” He pauses and shrugs. “But maybe I’m talking too heroically.”
His newest book, a kind of autobiography, is Salvation Army, his first book to be translated into English. "Taïa has defied Moroccan society’s don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude toward homosexuality-- and prison sentences that are still on the books in the North African kingdom-- to write five autobiographical novels about growing up poor and gay in the northern coastal city of Salé."
The novels, peppered with sexually explicit passages, have catapulted him to fame in his native country and made him the de-facto poster child of its budding gay rights movement.
His work has sparked harsh criticism. Taïa said some outraged critics have called on him to renounce Moroccan citizenship so as “not to bring shame” on the country.
It’s also alienated him from his parents and eight siblings, who figure extensively in the books and complain that Taïa has publicly humiliated them.
But the 35-year-old author insists he’s never been cowed by fallout from his work.
“When I write, I feel a sense of urgency, as if my life depended on it,” Taïa said in an interview in Paris, where he has lived for almost a decade. “When I first started writing, it never occurred to me to invent some fictional character and talk about made-up things.”
His latest novel, L’armee du Salut, or Salvation Army, focuses on his decision to move to Europe. An English translation recently came out in the United States, with an introduction by author Edmund White.
Though Taïa immigrated legally-- he was awarded a scholarship to study in Switzerland-- his experiences in Geneva paralleled those of thousands Moroccans living in Europe without papers.
After his older Swiss lover who was supposed to pick him up at the Geneva airport never shows up, a penniless Taïa seeks refuge at the Salvation Army, where he lives among illegal immigrants from throughout the developing world.
...Like nearly all Arab countries, Morocco considers homosexual relations a crime, punishable by fines and prison sentences of six months to three years. Such penalties are rarely applied, though, and in practice Morocco has a long history of leniency toward homosexuality and other practices forbidden by Islam.
Last week my friend Danny, knowing of my affinity for Morocco, sent me an article from Carnal Nation, First Arabic-Language Gay Magazine Scandalizes Morocco. The name Mithly has a double-meaning in Arabic: "homo" and "like me." It was published this month-- in Rabat... and in secret. "The editors and publishers of this bold new publication emphasize that Mithly is first and foremost a forum for those suffering under Islamic laws that criminalize homosexuality. Indeed, the appearance of the magazine has so incensed conservative officials that some have called upon the government to hunt down "sleeper cells" of homosexuals like terrorists.
Gay pride parade in Kathmandu
A couple of years after my first visit to Morocco, I found another country I fell in love with and have returned to many times, Nepal. It's more remote and, in many ways, even more foreign. But very live-and-let-live, at least in practice, and not homophobic, at least not for foreigners. It's a Buddhist kingdom that is mostly Hindu and now-- as of 2008-- a republic. And now live-and-let-live has turned into a gay-oriented marketing theme as tourist promoting Nepal looks for gay dollars by offering same sex weddings... on Mount Everest. I sure hope the grooms don't have to trek to the base camp the way I did in 1971.
“We’re completely changing this country. It’s a newborn republic-- and we want to showcase this change,” Sharat Singh Bhandari, the Tourism Minister, told The Times. “We also want to re-establish tourism as a major industry.” He aims to attract one million tourists in 2011, more than double the number last year.
He kicked off the marketing campaign in October with a written message to the International Conference on Gay & Lesbian Tourism in Boston-- an unprecedented gesture for an Asian minister. “As the world knows, Nepal is the land of Mount Everest, world’s highest peak and the birth place of Lord Buddha, light of Asia,” the message said. “I, therefore, would like to take this opportunity to invite and welcome all the sexual and gender minorities from around the world.” ...The tourism board is already talking about same-sex weddings on Everest, elephant safaris for gay honeymooners and other specialist activities.