Language as a space of origins

November 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

An Arab Melancholia. Abdellah Taïa, Frank Stock, trans.; $20 cloth 978-1-58435-111-5, 144 pp., Semiotext(e)

An_Arab_MelancholiaAppearing recently at Toronto’s annual International Festival of Authors, novelist and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, a Moroccan living in Paris, spoke about his relationship to the French tongue. “I write in French, but it’s not my language,” he said. In Morocco, he added, French is the language of the rich. Taïa grew up in poverty, and the French he spoke was not the kind you learn at the Sorbonne. Rather, it was confined to “little words,” a lexicon that the author would develop into a spare, minimalist prose stye. “I feel I can do things with little words.”

What Taïa has done in An Arab Melancholia is to marshal those little words into a vivid picture of life as a young man in Morocco, Paris, and Cairo. Taïa is the first openly gay novelist from Morocco, and An Arab Melancholia is frankly autobiographical; the main character shares a name with the author, along with major life experiences. (“Everything I write is autobiographical,” says Taïa.) The result is a story that is deeply felt, made all the more immediate by being told in such direct, almost austere language.

Taïa follows the fictional Abdellah from the rough streets of Salé’s Hay Salam neighbourhood, where the effeminate twelve-year-old becomes the target of local youths who torment and nearly rape him, to life as a burgeoning filmmaker in Cairo and Paris. It is also a love story, detailing a series of romantic entanglements that befall the young Abdellah, from an Andalusian named Javier to an Algerian named Slimane, to whom the narrator addresses a lengthy letter that draws an explicit connection between Abdellah’s love and his native tongue: “I spoke to you in Arabic. In our language, the language we made love in, a love beyond what the law allowed.”

Here, as elsewhere, Abdellah explicates aspects of his identity in terms of his conflicted relationships with his country of origin, the Muslim religion, and the life he has fled in order to survive. While filming in Cairo, Abdellah meets a Christian from Darfur, and finds a “little moment of eternity” in which he is able to talk to the other man in Arabic. Elsewhere, he elaborates on the significance of this mindset as a Moroccan exile in Paris: “The Arabic language as a space of origins, a real, mental space where I dared to redefine who I was, dared to talk about everything, reveal everything and one day, write about everything, everything. Even forbidden love. And call it by a new name. A name that had dignity. As if it were a poem.”

In this sense, An Arab Melancholia is a story of borders – geographical, linguistic, and spiritual. Abdellah’s identity is inextricably tied into his experience as an outsider, an experience that is actualized in his literal position as an exile in Paris, but which is also compared to the experience of women in his native country, who find themselves similarly marginalized: “I existed for those traditional women, women who could be strong when they had to be, women who, like me, had been incarcerated by rules despite themselves.”

The novel opens with an image of Abdellah running, a metaphor that has resonance with the character’s attempts to escape the stifling environment of intolerance and repression that prevent him from living an authentic life. “Where was I headed?” Abdellah asks in the novel’s opening lines. “Why? I don’t know right now.” An Arab Melancholia offers a jagged and tentative road map charting its protagonist’s journey toward answering those questions.