Abdellah Taia’s “An Arab Melancholia”

Reviewed by Shaun Randol

Image of Abdellah Taia’s “An Arab Melancholia”

Abdellah Taïa is Morocco’s highest profile gay writer, a point underscored in the accompanying blurb to his recently translated An Arab Melancholia. Since the book is billed as an autobiographical novel, one might expect—wrongly, it turns out—a gut-wrenching exposition of the existential dilemma of growing up gay in Morocco. Taïa came into his own awareness in Islamic Morocco, where being openly gay is taboo, which of course complicates an already complex and formative realization. When Taïa publicly embraced his homosexuality, the local press went into convulsions—some bloggers even called for Taïa to be stoned.

Yet, throughout this wistful tale, it is not homosexuality or an Islamic culture that torments Abdellah, the narrator of Melancholia; rather, love is the tyrant in this brief, emotional saga.

Abdellah’s story transcends sexual, cultural, gender, and any other identities. Melancholia is only superficially about coming to terms with a homosexual identity—and in fact that dimension seems incidental to the narrative itself. This is the chronicle of a man who repeatedly searches for, finds, wrestles with, and loses love. It is the story of the triumphs and pitfalls of a universally human condition. The sex is just as passionate as any heterosexual affair and the love as intense.  Abdellah—the thinly veiled protagonist—just happens to be gay.

Spanning a formative twenty years, Melancholia is a flitting autobiographical sketch that makes contact only now and again with the life of its author. At first the skips are broad and graceful, but the distances between each touch point come sooner and more abruptly, and the story eventually sinks into a passionate, cathartic, revelatory deep.

The book begins with an emotionally secure ephebe in Salé, Morocco who has already embraced his homosexuality. Even at the tender age of twelve, the boy yearns for love and carnal passions. He also realizes that life will not be easy:

From now on, people would only see me one way. I’d come with a warning label. A tag: effeminate guy. Sissy. They wouldn’t take me seriously. People would take advantage of me every day, abuse me more and more. In their own small way, people would kill me. Slay me alive.

The novel moves briskly between Morocco, Paris, and Cairo. Along the way there are emotional lows and exhilarating highs. Consistently, Abdellah’s desperate (but sincere) search for love is tripped up by his maddening naïveté. Be it with Ali, Javier, or Slimane—objects of his affection at various times in his life—Abdellah is a man who willingly (and easily) falls in love, despite a lack of reciprocity. As a boy, Abdellah is entranced by Ali, a young man who only wants to force himself onto Abdellah. “I was in love, or to put it in other words,” Abdellah says, “I was going to have a fight on my hands.” In this instance, the fight is literal (as well as erotic).

Later in life, however, it is emotions—not bodies—with which Abdellah must battle. 

I was only too familiar with my reactions inside the arena of love. I rushed right in. I don’t like waiting. I believe in love at first sight. I need to know everything, everything right away. I’m not afraid of heartache. I don’t like playing the game of seduction for long. I always want to know exactly how somebody feels about me. I’m too curious not to ask. I never know how to pretend . . . I take things very seriously, unfortunately.

On a film shoot in Morocco, Abdellah (now an adult) falls—hard and fast—for Javier, a member of the film crew. It’s only on their return to Paris that the cruel truth is revealed: Javier was only in it for sex. Abdellah is devastated, and the pattern of falling in and out of love is established.

The novel climaxes with a devastating letter to his former love Slimane, in which the answers to why he and Slimane failed to find true love are fully exposed. Seeing the narrator’s feelings spread before him on paper, one cannot help but hope that the confession also reveals to the author the innocence (gullibility?) with which he chased unrequited love.  

Taïa’s writing is spare, but it is not without feeling. Melancholia often reads as if the author is trying to catch his breath. Long sentences are followed by gasping deliveries:

I wanted to be in love and I wanted to be loved back and that was the exact moment when Javier appeared in my life, showed up in my homeland, right there on the red earth that had been red forever.

It wasn’t his fault.

I forgive him.

How much of Taïa is in Abdellah? It is hard not to conflate the two, which lends to the idea that An Arab Melancholia is less a tale and more a diary. It is a testament to Taïa’s restraint, however, that the reading of Melancholia feels only mildly voyeuristic.

The fictionalized memoir ends on a sad note, but not because it terminates with any sort of end to Taïa’s journey. In the final, emotionally draining lamentation one gets the feeling that Taïa is writing the conclusion right now, as you read. The story is unfinished because there are chapters yet to be written. As such, Melancholia offers a view into the life of a man still very much in the making, a man still searching for love and answers. At one point, he wonders, “How are you supposed to go on living when you’re totally entangled in the sad, bitter, exciting memory of someone who didn’t love you back?” It is a question that cuts across gender, sexual orientation, culture, and time—and stumps anyone unfortunate enough to find himself in its path.