Arts + Culture

Infidels is a Novel About a Gay Jihadi, and Also Not About That At All

Billed as a homosexual coming-of-age story that ends with a suicide bombing, Infidels, by Abdellah Taïa, is so much more.

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.

Abdellah Taïa

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.

Aaron Bady is a writer and recovering academic in Oakland, CA. Check out and follow him on Twitter @zunguzungu.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

'The Spread' Is the Sex-Positive Kenyan Podcast Offering a Safe Space for Women and LGBTQIA+ Issues

'The Spread' is the podcast dedicated to "decolonizing" the way Africans talk about sex and sexuality, say it's creator Karen Kaz Lucas.

Karen Kaz Lucas is the revolutionary brainchild behind Africa's best-known sex positive podcast, The Spread. Three years in, the 52 podcast episodes, covering a range of diverse topics including: The Male-Female Pleasure Gap, Sex positive parenting, LGBTQIA+ issues, Kink, Reproductive Rights, and Porn vs. Reality, has listeners ranging from 6,000 to 21,000 and episode on SoundCloud.

Recently, The Spread had its first major event TheSpreadFest, a day-long event attracting over 600 people with diverse panels, workshops and more. It's been hailed as a truly safe and inclusive space for people of all sexual identities. Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to The Spread creator Kaz on her journey to decolonize sexuality, her motivation, and her hopes for the continent relating to matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the conversation below.

Karen Kaz LucasImage courtesy of 'The Spread'

What made you start The Spread podcast?

It was to address the key gaps in discussions around sex and sexuality and to create a safe space to discuss them. Younger people were either learning about sex from porn or on the flip side from a religious standpoint or the education system, where the focus is on the risks of engaging in sex (teen pregnancy, STIs etc). As such they were either getting information from a fear-based system, shame-based system or porn that has very little to do with real life sexual situations and intimacy. I wanted to create a safe space where people could talk about all issues related to sexuality but in an open, accepting and enlightening way. For me, this is an informal form of sex education that allows people to explore their sexuality from an unbiased perspective—no judgement, no shaming.

What's the reception been like so far?

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I had no idea that the podcast would grow and be as successful as it is now. People are hungry to meet similar people and have discussions without judgement. Of course, there are also people who react negatively to my work and say that this is a result of "Western influence." To those people, I say that they should know that the majority of my work is focused on decolonizing sexuality.

Great transition. I first saw the term "decolonizing sexuality" in your Instagram bio. What exactly does that mean?

Prior to Western intrusion, we already had our own sexual culture. I'm trying to remind people that certain things we embrace as "African" and defend when it comes to sex and sexuality, are elements that came to us through religion, Westernized education etc. The shame associated with sex and sexuality on the continent are remnants of Western teachings.

Prior to colonization many ethnic groups had religious healers who were neither considered male nor female but were gender fluid or intersex. There were ethnic groups that didn't base gender on anatomy but on energy. Gender fluidity on the continent was observed even more than you would find in the most liberal country right now. For some, you could physically have male features but possess female energy and live as a woman. Some people worshipped androgynous or intersex deities and believed that the perfect human being is both male and female. Certain tribes did not ascribe a gender to anyone until the age of puberty. In other communities, their priests were transgender, and they were the only ones who could conduct certain spiritual ceremonies. There is evidence that for several ethnic groups gay and lesbian relationships were not taboo. Unfortunately, a lot of this history has not been publicized or it is being revised as it does not fit in well with the idea that the continent is trying to now uphold as a patriarchal, heteronormative society. That is why the work of decolonizing sexuality is extremely important as we now have a generation that is open to questioning themselves. The generation of our parents lived in a time of oppressed and suppressed sexuality (among other things) as they themselves or their parents had suffered the colonial rape and pillage [both literally and metaphorically] of their lives. All they could carry was anger and fear. To survive they had to conform to what the oppressor enforced on them through religion, western education etc.

[Recently deceased] Kenyan writer and gay activist, Binyavanga Wainaina clearly outlines how it is only former British colonies that have anti-sodomy laws, which came during colonial times from the fear that British soldiers and colonial administrators would be corrupted by the natives while they were away from their wives. The law, the fears by the British government at the time, really are proof that some of the natives were already practicing sodomy.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What for you is the link between sex positive work and women's empowerment?

The average person might think that the type of work I'm doing is frivolous, but the reality is that when a society believes they have any right over women's bodies, we see all the terrible things that happen to women: rape, rampant femicide, violence against women and more. Reclaiming your sexuality as a woman is about asserting your own authority over your body—declaring the right to fulfilling, consensual sex of your own liking, the right to having children, or not having children if you don't want to, postponing or terminating a pregnancy. Once we accept the policing of women's bodies, it's a slippery slope.

Feminism is about women having equal rights and opportunities as men, and that also extends to their sex lives. My body, my choice. For those who are always ready to bash feminism, seeing it as women somehow trying to take over, dominate men, oppress men etc. They should realize that the only reason feminism exists, is because we live in a patriarchal world. Women are at the bottom of the rung, oppressed in thousands of ways. All we are trying to do, is get the same rights that men take for granted. Of course, to the ones who hold power, it will feel like a loss of power.

This is the reason why the topics we cover span everything from women's sexual pleasure to gender-based violence to LGBTQIA+ rights to women's reproductive health. All these discussions must happen in tandem.

Let's talk about the state of affairs in Kenya around various key issues, starting with female reproductive rights.

I'm working very closely with two organizations working on women's reproductive rights and abortion rights. The problem in Kenya is that there is so much misinformation. I plan to release a video very soon on the topic. I only recently found out all public hospitals in Kenya provide post-abortal care. Even though, abortions are illegal except in certain circumstances, post-abortal care is available throughout the country. Lack of information makes women especially vulnerable to the influence of quacks, back-alley doctors, or police who threaten them with imprisonment if they don't pay exorbitant bribes. The Kenyan law is that you are not allowed to administer an abortion unless the health of the mother or child is in danger. Health also includes mental health. As such, people with severe depression or suicidal thoughts do legally qualify for abortions, but most people don't know this.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about on the issue of sexual violence against women and children?

Sexual violence against women and children isn't taken as seriously as it should be. Sensitivity training across police stations is still lacking. Rape is extremely underreported in the country as most people don't expect to be treated with discretion, sensitivity or any consideration once they do get into the system. I did a whole video series years back interviewing female rape survivors and their experiences highlight the challenges with our police system including the trivialization of the crime by police officers who consider rape almost routine, given how often this happens. The statistics are masking the issue, rape survivors don't know who to turn to and feel completely isolated. The issues of male sexual violence against men isn't even spoken about as the survivors fear further shunning and stigmatization from society. Kenya doesn't yet have the right structures—including mental health structures—to deal with the normalization of rape and sexual violence against women.

In 2015 three men gangraped a teenage girl as she was on her way home from her grandfather's funeral. After the attack, they dumped her in an open sewer, leaving her with a spinal injury that has confined her to a wheelchair. When the men were taken to the police station, their punishment was to cut the grass around the police station. The incident made it to the news, sparking international outrage, resulting in a signed petition and leading to protests in the country demanding #justiceforliz. As a result, the men were eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. While we can celebrate this particular win, it also makes us reflect on all the other hundreds of thousands of cases, where the survivors remain silent or seek justice, but never get it.

What about LGBTQIA+ rights?

The definition I adhere to for this group is actually a longer, more confusing acronym, but also one I hope makes more people feel included. LGBTQQIAPPK, which is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual & transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, polyamourous, pansexual and kink.

We have some cause for celebration, but also a very long way to go. We were hopeful recently when the High Court reviewed the key law banning gay sex, but unfortunately, they chose to uphold it. Last year, we did have a small win when the courts deemed unlawful the use of forced anal exams to test whether two men had sex.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission of Kenya are doing a really great job in trying to get colonial era penal codes repealed. They are the legal team behind the court cases for the repeal of these laws. From a legal standpoint it's great, but from a social standpoint, it's still so sad that our binary understanding of gender is tied to what the colonizers forced on us. The worst argument is when people say that any deviation from the heteronormative narrative is "un-African." My question then is "Do you really know your history? Are you willing to educate yourself and to take off the yoke of colonialism and even consider the idea that what you consider normal is based on systems that came to you through oppression and repression?

For a country that is so progressive in many ways, this particular issue still remains an uphill battle.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about women's sexuality, sexual pleasure?

All the events we have are 95% women. Men are scared to admit they might not know it all. Society paints them to be macho and [makes them think] that they should somehow know it all, but they are scared to learn about their sexuality as they feel that it will take away from their masculinity. For women, it's empowering. Men are frightened about women learning and embracing their sexuality.

I want to be a part of this revolution, spearheading it on the continent.

Finally, tell us about The Spread Fest and your plans for it?

Our objective for the festival is to foster learning, inspiration and wonder—and to spark conversations that matter. The aim is to be more empathetic about our diversity, but also to leave people knowing more about sex and sexuality. This year we had 600 people in attendance, 5 panels, one workshop and it was a full day event. Next year, we plan to double everything.

DOHA, QATAR - MAY 03: Caster Semenya of South Africa races to the line to win the Women's 800 meters during the IAAF Diamond League event at the Khalifa International Stadium on May 03, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Caster Semenya Has Been Cleared to Compete Following Suspension of IAAF Ruling

The Swiss Supreme Court has suspended the controversial testosterone ruling in light of the South African athlete's recent appeal.

Last week, Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya filed an appeal, challenging the IAAF's controversial decision to go ahead with a rule that would force athletes with naturally higher levels of testosterone to alter their levels through medication or surgery in order to compete.

The athlete took the appeal to the Swiss Supreme Court asking that they "set aside the decision of Cas in its entirety."

"I am a woman and world-class athlete," said the 28-year-old Semenya. "The IAAF will not drug me or stop me from being who I am."

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Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi (L) reacts in court as she attends a trial to face charges for cyber-harassment and offensives communication, in Kampala, on April 10, 2017. (Photo by GAEL GRILHOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Jailed Ugandan Activist, Stella Nyanzi, Wins PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression

The outspoken activist, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a poem she wrote about the president's mother's vagina, won for her resistance "in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her."

Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, activist, and vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for freedom of expression, given to writers who "continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution."

Nyanzi is currently serving a 15 month sentence for "cyber harassment" after she published a poem in which she wrote that she wished "the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's (the president's mother) vaginal canal had burn up your unborn fetus. Burn you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda."

According to the director of PEN International, Carles Torner, her unfiltered outspokenness around the issues facing her country is what earned her the award. "For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her," said Torner at the award ceremony.

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