After last year’s phenomenal Infidels Abdellah Taïa returns with his first short story collection translated into English. Unlike Infidels, Another Morocco largely tells stories from the life of the fictionalized Abdellah (the central character in many of Taïa’s works), who, like Taïa, is a Moroccan writer and Parisian expatriate coming to terms with his homosexuality. Another Morocco (gathered from two previous French-language collections) makes clear that Taïa is a writer whose talent shines brightly enough to illuminate the difference between an imitator and an original.
Two indispensable themes in every work Taïa has produced thus far are the power of cinema and imagery and the power of the Mother. From Salvation Army to Infidels, the Mother is ever-present. Whether it is Slima in the latter, or M’Barka in his other works, the son-mother dynamic wields a potency unlike any other in his characters’ lives. Even in a story entirely unrelated – about meeting the writer Starobinski – Taïa ends with her name and her pride in Abdellah: “M’Barka must be proud of me.”
In this collection, Taïa also returns to his profound love and appreciation for cinema. It’s Abdellah, the author’s undeniable love for movies that is always a gem of his fiction. His deep appreciation for the imagery, performance, art, and emotion of movies imbues his writing with a colloquial tone many novelists can only ordinarily imitate (“Bread and Tea”). Whether seen through the eyes of Abdellah the character or not, Taia’s love for movies can’t be mistaken. He knows them and understands their importance in how we define ourselves and understand others.
Whether writing of countless kung-fu classics or 1983’s grim gay film, The Wounded Man, Taia celebrates their everyday power: “[Kung-fu films] were all alike, but that never spoiled the pleasure of reaching the end – after many adventures, ‘Good’ triumphs and the hero walks off victorious and alone.” Of the liberating effect of The Wounded Man, Taia writes: “Patrice Chéreau’s film, in the same tumultuous and brutal way it took hold of me that night and has remained forever in my mind, is extreme in the way it depicts the exacerbation of romantic feelings, extreme in the way it reveals how sex dominates the body.”
The body itself – one’s own body, the family body, and the national body – is the third theme in this collection and Taia’s other works. “From One Body to Another” is more poetic than prose and an unparalleled standout in the collection. It is short but packed with astounding power. In it, Taïa says more about men and women and bodies and privacy than two dozen academic theses on the subjects. He illustrates the power of art to help illuminate these universal elements far more powerfully than many wasted pages of modern academe. He reiterates his talent effortlessly and reminds us why he is one of the most underrated authors of our time.
A few moments later, her father joined his little Eve in her preferred mode of dress… I watched and watched. And suddenly, I found myself in a different hamam, full to the brim, too noisy… This was how I came to understand that women were much more tolerant than men, much freer. I got the message and, as I left the hamam that night, unwashed… I smiled at the little six-year-old girl, with her naked and lovely body, murmuring ‘Thanks’ under my breath.
“The Only Mirror” continues this meditation on the body and intimacy. In it, Taïa writes an ode to himself, divorced by eroticism and intimately rewarding. It is Taïa at his best — an assortment of poetry and imagery that combines the individual body and the family body and knowing oneself through and in contrast to each. It’s a theme throughout the collection (“She inhabited us and we inhabited her. We’d slip under her skin and she would slip under all of ours,” page 91).
Taïa writes about sex, women and men, and their habits and incompatibilities with an appreciation and understanding that is rarely encountered. He doesn’t share the sexual anxiety that might prevent his American peers from writing so candidly. Perhaps it’s his education in France, his upbringing in Morocco, or most likely, it’s both.
“A Night with Amr” details the experience of being gay and foreign without the insufferable need to lecture that many modern writers would have injected. Taïa shares the experiences of many Western-born writers – both from the experiences of being a gay man and an Arab man – and finds a way to produce remarkably thoughtful subtle art. He isn’t polemical; he doesn’t have to disguise an absence of talent with inordinate navel-gazing or philosophizing. He’s talented enough to allow his words to speak for themselves.
In his epilogue to the collection, Taïa tells us: “I’ve placed the bulk of what I think of myself and of the world into books…. What now? Where can I put the rest, everything that I’ll never write, never say?” For a writer as talented as Taïa in a time as much in need of his voice as we are today, one can only hope we’re still a long way from when he has no more to say.