If you read anything the novelist Abdellah Taïa, you are likely to get his autobiography before you get a description of his work (an article in The Atlantic, for example, describes him as “the only openly homosexual Moroccan writer-filmmaker”). This is not surprising: his life-story is interesting, and his novels and film draw heavily on it. He’s called his first novel, My Morocco, “The story of my Moroccan life” and his subsequent novels—Salvation Army and An Arab Melancholia—are both bildungsromans of a person like him, from the place he’s from, going on the kind of journey of self-discovery that he has gone on.
I thought I knew what to expect from his newly translated novel, Infidels. Of course, the back cover describes the novel as ending with radicalization and jihad, so I knew it wouldn’t be completely autobiographical. But I began this novel expecting to read a homosexual coming-of-age story, one that ends with a suicide bombing. And I was right.
But I was also wrong. Strictly speaking, there is a narrative of radicalization here; the novel does end with suicide bombs; and the main character, Jallal, does find love with another man, after a short lifetime of living a socially-repressed sexuality. But the risk of reading the novel in those terms is that you miss everything that makes any of this interesting. Words like “homosexual” or “jihad” tell us so little about this novel’s protagonist, smoothing out more complexity than they reveal; they are tidy words for an untidy reality. To use them for this book only demonstrates how limited and limiting a word is, when set against the vast depths and extent of humanity in our bodies and minds.
This, in a way, is what this book is about: everything that such words are crafted to cover over, everything such stories can’t—and don’t and won’t—comprehend, but which, still, speaks out.
So what is this novel? Composed as a series of monologues, Infidels is a succession of lonely and lost voices spewing their life out into the void. The monologues accumulate, and if you connect the dots, there is—as I said—a coming-of-age story that ends in jihad, a Moroccan boy named Jalla who becomes a man, living lost and isolated, in Belgium. But the form of the novel allows Taïa to do something different than just unfold the narrative of how Jalla gets from point A to point B. Each monologue is a story without an ending, an appeal for kindness—for understanding—that may or may not be answered. They are partially interior, and so, like a soliloquy in Shakespeare, they express the unexpressed, desires that find no purchase in the world: when rendered as if they’ve been externalized, as if all the inexpressible need and desire in a human soul could be spewed out onto the open page, the story of this novel becomes the story of that impossible expression.
In this way, if Infidels is a novel, it’s also an anthology of desire, a sequence of odes to need in a world which does not satisfy.
In the first monologue, for example, Jalla is a boy haranguing his mother to go home: as they walk the night streets together—selling her company to men (and sometimes his as well)—his is the familiar insistence of a frustrated pre-teen, demanding that she stop, go home, go somewhere else, anywhere else. He uses every argument or persuasive trick he can think of: He is a man, he tells her, and he can take care of her; or, with just as much certainty, he is a boy, and so, he demands she take him home and take care of him. In the midst of his certainty, he is confused: his is not one story but many stories, the multitudes and contradictions contained in a single voice. It does not resolve; does anything ever resolve? It simply comes to an end.
The second monologue is delivered by Jalla’s grandmother, on her deathbed, decades earlier: the voice of a mother struggling to explain her life and work to her daughter, as both are slipping away. For all of her life, she has been a sex-worker, but of a more traditional kind; though far from honored for her work, she explains that she has been “one of the last of those women who help couples united on their wedding night.”
As a few Bedouin women have done for centuries before her, she does the crucial work of helping to bring frightened and clumsy newlyweds together for the first time, using her intimate knowledge of the body to overcome their ignorance and fear (“Men know nothing,” she explains, simply and universally; “Women are afraid.”) Even knowing that they will despise her for it later—that no one will honor her for her contribution—she nevertheless does what must be done, using her hands to guide sex inside of sex, her voice to sooth fears and to gently guide, and sometimes using violent force to arouse. When necessary, she gives her own blood to create the appearance of a deflowering that is always supposed to be, but rarely is.
Somewhere in between these monologues, Morocco is transforming. Along with so much of the society, as colonialism becomes independence, an old form of sex-work is passing away and a new one being born. But beyond suggesting that only the form changes—as the substance remains the same—Infidels doesn’t try to clarify things like that, and isn’t very interested in the big picture. This novel doesn’t try to tell the story of “sexuality in Morocco,” for example, because, for women like Jalla’s mother and grandmother, that story is anything but a big story: it’s the lonely story of an individual in a society that both needs them and holds them in contempt. Theirs—like those that follow—are monologues delivered without hope of an audience.
Jalla grows out of these stories, a boy who becomes a man who straps on a vest full of bombs and detonates them, in the arms of his beloved. He delivers some of the novel’s monologues; his mother delivers some, and some are delivered by other assorted characters his life touches. He has a character arc whose narrative could be reduced, say, in a CIA dossier, to a few crucial details: background, radicalization, associates, activities. But I can spoil the ending of this novel for you because those details, it turns out, are anything but crucial. Jalla and his beloved die, together, in an empty movie theater, putting on a play without an audience; what they do has meaning, for them, and for the reader who has read this far, and to the person who meets them in the afterlife: the most surprising and perfect person, who delivers the final monologue of the novel.
In the most literal sense, then, Infidels is the story of a homosexual jihadi. But putting those words together reveals the pointlessness of “the most literal sense,” the extent to which saying so seems to say everything and actually says nothing. This novel is not really a novel; it’s poetry. And this is what Infidels is actually about: that which cannot be said or heard or written, and which, for that reason, must be, and is.