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Abdellah Taïa on Illuminating the Immigrant Experience

Abdellah Taïa on Illuminating the Immigrant Experience

Author: Todd Reeser

November 27, 2020

A native Arabic speaker from Morocco who writes in French and lives in Paris, Abdellah Taïa has published seven novels and directed a cinematic adaptation of his novel Salvation Army. In 2016, I sat down with Abdellah for Lambda Literary to talk about his relation to the Arabic, French, and English languages and about three of his novels translated into English: Salvation Army (2009), An Arab Melancholia (2012), and Infidels (2016).

His novel A Country for Dying (Un pays pour mourir in French) came out in 2015 in French and was recently released in the States by Seven Stories Press, beautifully translated by Emma Ramadan. The poetic novel tells the stories of three marginal characters making their way through Paris: Zahira, an aging prostitute, Zannouba, a young Algerian-born trans woman, and Mojtaba, a gay Iranian fleeing his home country to settle in Western Europe. The book follows these characters as they strive to create inspired lives for themselves in a challenging postcolonial world.

To note the publication of the English translation of the novel, Professor Todd Reeser (TR), Chair of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh (USA) and a scholar of gender and sexuality, interviewed Mr. Taïa about some of the elements of his new novel that he found especially interesting. 

Abdellah, the city of Paris—your adopted home—plays a central role in the novel. None of the characters are Parisian in any kind of traditional sense, but some of them are very closely connected to the city. What is the role of this urban space?

[In my book,] Paris is the city of immigrants–those rendered invisible by power. I center their stories and their voices. Not only do these characters not care about the mythical idea of Paris, they also destroy it. They speak the dark version of Paris. These people, I know them personally. I have relationships with them. We have seen it all in the French, we know their darkness. Why fear them? These characters don’t feel small next to the white French. They say the truth. And my novel welcomes them and their truth.

For me perhaps the most striking element of the novel is the way in which characters are connected—across boundaries of time in some cases—or have resonance, often in unexpected ways.

At one point as Zahira is talking to her deceased father in her head, she says that “the body doesn’t end. It speaks with another tongue.” She is talking to her father, of course, but would you say that she is also saying something about the novel that we are reading? That we can have conversations with the past and with our personal histories?

What you just said and understood about the core meaning of my novel is why I am obsessed with the experience of going to the hammam (in Morocco, where I was until 1998, and in Paris, where I live now). I am extremely attentive to what comes out of us that is not under our control. What is being said between us with any authorization from us. There’s another life, another body in us that we don’t pay attention to. We think that we know but we really don’t. We think that our ideas today are the best and we don’t see just how limited we are, how limited we have become. As a boy I used to go to the hammam with my mother and my sisters until the age of 9. I remember everything. Everything. And these memories influence the way I am today and, of course, the way I write. 

The hammam, as I lived it, was not the very racist and orientalist view of baths in the West. As a little boy, I had no idea about the West. We didn’t care about the West and what the West thought of us. When I write, I try always to stay true to this space: me, a little bit effeminate, my six sisters, my mother screaming and trying to find food for us, my father continuously falling down and his cigarettes, the desperation, the poverty and, yes, there was a way, always, to survive.

A Country for Dying is very political, very much about what’s going on today in our postcolonial world, about France and its shameless exploitation of the Arab immigrants. And to say all that, I had to make a link between this and what I lived. The language of childhood is the only true truth. The rest is only made up of accommodations and lies.

The question of freedom, in all its complexity and with all its complications, is a recurring theme in the novel. At one point, you mention Simone de Beauvoir, whose book The Second Sex is about the constant conflict between women’s freedom to be autonomous subjects and recurring situations in which women are forced to be or act a certain way because they are women.

Was one of your aims in the novel to show the conflict between freedom and constraint for your characters?

Yes. I agree with you. All these characters are disillusioned about Paris. They have reached the point where they can no longer lie to themselves. Not only did France not save them, but this country exploited them (economically and sexually) much more than it saved them. 

Disenchanted, they understand that they have to invent another space where they can live and, one day in the future, die. So, they dream; they dream again and again. The novel might seem very dark but it’s full of unexpected moments of strange and beautiful poetry. People meet who should not meet; they connect and they dream together without having to explain themselves. Though they are together, they are down, so down. At some point, the miracle happens. These characters are fully aware of the lies of the West, of France, because they experienced them in their own bodies. My novel gives them the space in which to invent something else. Un autre rêve, another dream.

One of the main characters, Mojtaba, is a gay refugee. I wondered if, even though he is Iranian, you were inscribing an autobiographical element in the body of that character.

No. Mojtaba is Mojtaba. He is inspired by an Iranian friend who had to leave his country and ask for asylum. When he got to Paris, he realized this: I am only 22 and I will never be able to return to my country. Because of this revelation, he ended up in a real state of depression. He was very, very fragile. Faint. He was falling. The novel offers him a hand. It offers help. The main character of the novel, the Moroccan prostitute Zahira, meets him and, for a while at least, saves him.

I also wondered how your literary depictions of male homosexuality, since Salvation Army—which you published in French 14 years ago now—have changed over time and what this gay character in A Country for Dying means about your own literary trajectory over time. 

I am 47 years old. So, of course, things have changed. There isn’t only one way to be true to oneself. There isn’t only one way to be gay, to be lesbian, to be trans, to be LGBTQ+. Yes, the world is dominated by what is being “invented” in the West, and especially in America, but this should not blind us to people who live in other parts of this world. The American way is not the only way. To help the other, gay or not, is to think about him/her and how he/she lives. Not to impose ideas constructed in very specific political and historical conditions in the West. To think about the other does not have to mean dominating them. There’s true emancipation and there’s fake emancipation. Almost all the movies of the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder are about this idea: they present characters in Germany post-World War II trapped in a false idea of freedom. Fassbinder is the artist I love and admire the most in the world. He radically spoke the unpleasant truth to his own country and, in so doing, he made so many masterpieces.

Another key character in your novel is Zannouba, a trans woman from Algeria…

Zannouba exists in real life. I didn’t invent this character. I saw her before her gender confirmation surgery in a male Algerian bath in Paris. I was immediately attracted to her. She had a very special aura all around her. Something melancholic and happy at the same time, something so real and yet not like from this world. She was not afraid of the other customers. By being simply who she was, she imposed on all the other male customers her identity, her body, her beauty, and her poetry. No one bothered her. No one insulted her. No one. For me, to witness this moment was highly moving. I was touched deeply. At first, I wanted to go and talk to her. And later, I understood that I shouldn’t: she was already offering so much to me, to all of us in the hammam. So brave. So generous. And so subtle.

This woman, before her operation, was saying so many complicated things about the world, about our destinies, about immigration in France, about the sadness and the joy of our reality. I decided in that moment that I should one day honor her by writing about her: to write what she gave us. This was the direction of what I imagined: our identities are not narrow, they are much larger than we think. My novel A Country for Dying is about lost immigrants in the loneliness of Paris. Zannouba is one of them. Lost, yes. But not afraid of France and the racism of the French against the immigrants. Lost and still dreaming. Still resisting.

Also, is it significant that Zannouba is Algerian instead of Moroccan?

It’s very important that she is Algerian. In the last 10 years, I became obsessed with Algeria and with the way the people of this country freed themselves from French colonialism in 1962 (having lasted more than 130 years). I find the Algerian people extremely inspiring, extremely courageous. Whether the Algerians accept her or not, Zannouba is part of this political courage and bravery.

Zannouba tells Aziz, as her former self, not to “leave [her] alone” and that she is “nothing without [him].” Why this need for her former self?

Things are more complicated than we think. Freedom and emancipation are not the phrases we hear in the media. Sometimes, all we hear are slogans, stock phrases, and clichés. Aziz is Zannouba. Zannouba is Aziz. Zannouba is the true self of Aziz. But Aziz, as a boy, lived things as a boy that Zannouba suddenly remembers after the reassignment. Of course, Zannouba is not regretting the operation. Of course not. It’s just that to go from one space to another, from one body to another, while experiencing Paris as hell for Arab immigrants, it’s not that easy. Not easy at all. I thought, while writing that chapter, that I should listen to what that woman in the Algerian hammam was saying. I should listen and not impose on her my “modern ideas of freedom.” Literature is the right space to express all these very complicated layers of reality, of being in the world.

Where are you headed now in your literary work? Can you give us a little preview of your next novel?

Now, I am working on the production of my first play, Comme la mer, mon amour [Like the Sea, My Love]. I wrote it with the actress Boutaïna El Fekkak. And we are going both to direct and play in it. It’s about two Moroccan immigrants who reunite after 19 years of separation. It’s a play about the end of friendship, about immigration in France and about how Egyptian movies are so important to these characters in order to resist the political ideas France is trying to impose on them. This will be my first experience in theater. We started working on it at the end of 2016. The first performance will be in December 2020, and we will perform it in Paris in April 2021 at the Théâtre Ouvert.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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