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‘An Arab Melancholia’ by Abdellah Taïa

‘An Arab Melancholia’ by Abdellah Taïa

Author: Anthony Darden

May 1, 2012

As the aftermath of the civil uprisings that influenced the Arab Spring settles into a precarious political movement seeking democracy, there will no doubt emerge among the voices of dissenters a voice that will challenge the political rhetoric promising an equalitarian society, a voice that will challenge the morality of a people and the ideals of a culture.

Proclaimed as the first openly gay writer to be published in Morocco, Abdellah Taïa by writing this autobiographical novel , An Arab Melancholia (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press), might be the unsuspected voice of a subculture. An Arab Melancholia is not likely to be described as a political manifesto, yet it is a radical piece of writing that will likely be referenced in political discourse related to homosexuality and gay civil rights.

An Arab Melancholia, as the title suggests, is a sorrowful lament of a young Arab man. It is a deeply personal reveal of how a young Arab boy traverses through a world connected by tradition; a male whose femininity threatens his safety in his Arab community and whose Arab ethnicity disconnects him from his adopted home, Paris. Arab tradition disallows his homosexuality as Paris disavows his Arab presence.

The author begins his story: “It was a second chance at life. I had just found out what it meant to die. I had passed on. Then I came back.” On the surface Taïa’s novel is akin to many gay adolescent coming of age stories. The isolation and alienation that besieges a child dealing with his or her sexuality is apparent in his story.  However, Taïa’s story is unique in that it is the story of an Arab man, the unveiling of what it means to be an effeminate man, a zamel (passive faggot) in Arab culture. His is an unapologetic telling of what is to be gay and Arab. The author “came back” a few times in the book after seemingly having “passed on” or descended into the darkness of despair. There is the notion of a miracle at work or some otherworldly force or spirit.

Arguably, the force is the author himself. Taïa’s resilience is the spirit that centers what is otherwise a journey thwarted with emotional pain and suffering.  The author is able to articulate the suffering of a young Arab homosexual boy with a forthrightness that is more a dramatic display of courage than fear.  And he handles the sharing of his adult male intimate relationships with tender honesty and sincerity.

An Arab Melancholia is on the one hand a sad realization of the pain of growing up homosexual in the Arab world. However, in the wake of the Arab Spring, it might more aptly be considered a selfless act of courage. By disclosing his homosexuality and his personal journey as a gay Arab man, Abdellah Taïa is lending his voice to the revolution, encouraging that the rights of homosexuals be included in the call for liberation.


An Arab Melancholia
By Abdellah Taïa
Semiotext(e)/MIT Press
Paperback, 9781584351115, 141 pp. 
March 2012

Anthony Darden photo

About: Anthony Darden

Anthony Darden is a freelance writer living in New York.

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