Why Abdellah Taïa Had to Die in Order to Live

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Abdellah Taïarecalls the night a group of men came to his family home — three rooms for 11 people — and shouted at the windows: “Abdellah, come here, we want to fuck you.” He was 11 going on 12 and lay in bed alongside his sisters and his mother, listening to the mob outside. “Everyone heard—not only my family but the whole neighborhood,” he says. “What I saw clearly was that this is how society functions and that no one can protect you, not even your parents. That’s when I realized I had to hide who I am.”

Taïa always knew he was gay, but it took time to realize how it might be used against him. A young man in his neighborhood, Naim — “a very beautiful name that means, after a manner, soft” — served as a harbinger of his own likely fate. In a culture where men and women are strictly separated, Naim was a vessel — and a victim — for young men in search of a substitute. “They made him just a sexual thing, someone that the frustrated Moroccan man can have sex with,” says Taïa. “They killed him, in their way — they destroyed him.”

If you go to Taïa’s impoverished neighborhood in the Moroccan port of Salé you may or may not find Naim, but you will find someone like him. “There is always one person, this man/boy, singled out,” says Taïa. “Let’s just say I understood that I had to save myself from this fate, that I was the next generation after that guy.”

But first, Taïa had to die. It happened on a stultifying summer’s day, when he was supposed to be taking an afternoon nap. Bored and in need of distraction, he was looking for friends when he ran into a group of older boys who were interested in sex. Rather than comply, Taïa ran, stopping to catch his breath only when he was close to home. That was when he touched a high-voltage power generator and blacked out. He awoke an hour later to find his family, the whole neighborhood it seemed, crammed into the small house, grieving by his bedside. “They thought I was dead,” he says. “I think I did die, but I remembered nothing. I was out for an hour.”

The story of how the young boy died and rose again became a local legend: the miracle boy. And for Taïa it was a rebirth — from that day on he resolved to protect himself. He would not be another Naim. “I shut down everything homosexual,” he says. “As a little boy, it’s OK, but at 13 or 14 you have to be what society demands of you — la Moroccan, macho, et cetera. You have no power, as a child, to face society with your own truth. So you have to save yourself.”

On the cusp of adolescence, Taïa broke off contact with his friends and sought solitude in movie theaters — where he fell in love with French cinema — and in his home, where he nursed a secret crush on his older brother, Abdelkébir, a catalyst, years later, for his writing career. He might have lost a part of his childhood the summer he died, but he found his voice.

“I still have some of the electricity I got that day,” he says. “I was somewhere during that ‘dead time,’ but where, I don’t know. Perhaps the reason I write is because I want to know the answer to that question.”

It is a bright afternoon in Paris, and Taïa is boiling water for tea in his tiny studio in Belleville, a hilly neighborhood of narrow streets in the 20th arrondissement. From the window you can just make out the Arc de Triomphe and the whipped-cream dome of Sacré Coeur. It’s a long way from the Moroccan slums of his childhood, but in his six books and in his journalism, Taïa shows that he is never far from the experiences that circumscribed his youth. “Morocco is with me whether I want it or not. I come from a very poor background, and when I go back I feel like the same poor boy in Morocco, and I’m aware that this limited life — la vie limitée — that I was supposed to have is still there for so many people, even for people in my family.”

He holds up a package of Mariage Frères tea, in its distinctive black and cream packaging. “One of the reasons I love Paris is that we have Mariage Frères. You have tea from all over the world — from Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and it doesn’t cost that much. It’s a sign of democracy, I think, to have tea from everywhere.” As a student in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, where he studied French literature, Taïa saw Paris as the gateway to a tantalizing new life, one that would liberate him from the vie limitée of Salé. “It was clear to me that eventually I had to get to Paris, because this was the city of Isabelle Adjani, and I love Isabelle Adjani,” he says. “This was the city of Rimbaud and Marcel Proust. Paris represented, like London, something very special. The target was to go there to be free as a homosexual, but at the same time to achieve these dreams — to write movies and books, and to dream big, if I may say that.”

Taïa has a small, compact body, alert brown eyes, and the faint fuzz of a moustache. He moves around his sparsely furnished apartment with quick, graceful steps — two or three in any direction brings him to a wall. There is a TV and a DVD player and a few shelves of books, but no desk. When he writes, he uses a copy of Tintin Au Congo as a surface, placing it against his knee for support. He works in the dark, drawing the curtains against the daylight, and writes with a pen. “Writing for me is not just about inspiration, it’s a physical experience,” he says. “Computers feel like a barrier to good writing.”

When he is not writing, Taïa watches movies — an eclectic list that includes Gus Van Sant, Douglas Sirk, the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, and anything starring Marilyn Monroe. At one point he locates a DVD of The Seven Year Itch and we watch Monroe’s breathy “ooohs” and “aaahs” as she stands by the AC unit in her neighbor’s apartment. Movies are among Taïa’s few extravagances. Others include Camper shoes (he pronounces it “compere”), and his cologne, Ambre Sultan by Serge Lutens, which he buys from the Lutens store at the Palais Royal in Paris. “When I discovered this perfume in 2003, I forgot about all the others,” he says, pulling out a piece of paper to write down the name, and giving careful instructions on how to find the store.

In Daniel Defoe’s seminal adventure novel, Robinson Crusoe, the titular hero is captured by pirates from Salé and sold into slavery before escaping on a boat bound for Brazil. Like Crusoe, Taïa always understood that he would have to escape Salé, although the persecution he was fleeing was a slavery of the mind—the suppression of free-thought and self-expression, the absence of opportunity. “Although I had a lot of troubles being gay, it also allowed me to find a place inside myself to look at these things. I don’t know how I found the energy or strength to do that, because when I go to Morocco I see the control everywhere.”