Abdellah Taia, the Award-Winning Moroccan Author Talks About his Book, "Infidels", Recently Translated into English
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Abdellah Taia was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1973. An award-winning writer and filmmaker, he has published eight widely translated books, including Le jour du roi, (The Day of the King), which won the French Prix de Flore in 2010. He is the first Moroccan and Arab writer to publicly declare his homosexuality, a subject often central to his novels. His film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, L'Armée du salut (Salvation Army) was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 and was praised by The New York Times for giving "the Arab world its first on-screen gay protagonist." His novel Celui qui est digne d’être aimé (He who is worthy of love) was published this year, and his novel Infidèles (Infidels), published in France in 2012 and in English in 2016, translated by Alison Strayer, was recently long-listed for the new Albertine Prize which recognizes American readers’ favorite French-language fiction titles translated into English.
Infidels tells the story of Jallal, the son of a Moroccan prostitute called Slima, who encounters a European-born Islamic militant and too late, realizes that he is a terrorist. Abdellah Taia answered a few questions for Bookwitty on the genesis of his novel.
How the idea for your book come about?
I remember very well—I went to Brussels in 2000 to visit my aunt. My cousin was going to visit a friend in the hospital who was recovering from a car accident so I went along with him. There, in the room, was his friend who was an Islamist, Belgian, Christian and converted. He was a religious guy, but not a “bad” guy. The encounter was magical, complex, fascinating, disturbing, and bewitching. We all fell in love with him; he projected a rare form of beauty, of someone who truly has spiritual faith. I told myself that one day I would tell this story. From that moment on until this book, I carried this image with me. I invented the story of a mother and her son in order to arrive at the hospital room and describe the scene.
I’m talking about subjects [in the book] that have been an obsession for the entire world since the invasion of Afghanistan: faith, ignorance, Islam. I’ve been feeling an upset of all values and reference points. I wanted to put all these issues into a cauldron and mix them up and treat them. My character Slima and her son have a certain purity within. I had in mind the Arab sufi poet, Rabia Al-Adawiya, who traveled the road from sin to love for Allah when I created my character Slima.
Is religion important for you?
I’m religious in my own way. This book was also about what was building up around secularism and Islamism. In France something was happening and I was starting to feel like I was seen as an enemy. There was the debate going on about the veil, and all this tension about secularism. There was no space for religious freedom. I was part of this debate yet I was being accused of things I wasn’t responsible for. A dominant ideology was being imposed on us [secularism] and I wanted to create a space for this Islamist who in principle is against what I stand for but with whom I share certain beliefs.
What was the reaction to Infidels when it was published last year in the US, as opposed to when it was published in France?
It was published in May or June in the US and then the Orlando shootings happened. So there was lots of interest—articles in Bomb magazine, the Los Angeles Times Review of Books, I was invited to the PEN World Voices festival and we talked about important subjects in depth.
In France you can’t talk about faith in a complex manner, you are meant to first condemn religious belief. Infidels was the book that allowed me to take stock about many things and not to fall into a new form of submission. As a Muslim Arab who is gay, you’re chased from Morocco, then you’re here [France] and fall into another form of submission. It’s a sort of neo-colonialism. This book also allowed me to become more attentive to the repercussions of French colonisation.
I cannot remain indifferent to this issue. Colonisation runs so deep and has changed how we see ourselves and the world. I am in the process of liberating myself in both worlds [Morocco and France] and refuse to be submissive in one or the other. This book was a turning point for me, I got away from a certain fear and jumped into the fire. There’s fire in this book!