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 Lula Ali Ismaïl

'Dhalinyaro' Is the Female Coming-of-Age Story Bringing Djibouti's Film Industry to Life

The must-watch film, from Lula Ali Ismaïl, paints a novel picture of Djibouti's capital city through the story of three friends.

If you're having a tough time recalling the last movie you watched from Djibouti, it's likely because you have never watched one before. With an almost non-existent film industry in the country, Lula Ali Ismaïl, tells a beautiful coming of age story of three young female Djiboutian teenagers at the cusp of womanhood. Dhalinyaro offers a never-before-seen view of Djibouti City as a stunning, dynamic city that blends modernity and tradition—a city in which the youth, like all youth everywhere, struggle to decide what their futures will look like. It's a beautiful story of friendship, family, dreams and love from a female filmmaker who wants to tell a "universal story of youth," but set in the country she loves—Djibouti.

The story revolves around the lives of three young friends from different socio-economic backgrounds, with completely varied attitudes towards life, but bound by a deep friendship. There is Asma, the conservative academic genius who dreams of going to medical school and hails from a modest family. Hibo, a rebellious, liberal, spoiled girl from a very wealthy family who learns to be a better friend as the film evolves and finally Deka. Deka is the binding force in the friendship, a brilliant though sometimes naïve teen who finds herself torn between her divorced mother's ambitions to give her a better life having saved up all her life for her to go to university abroad, and her own conviction that she wants to study and succeed in her own country.

Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to Ismaïl on her groundbreaking film, her hopes for the filmmaking industry and the universality of stories. Read on for the conversation, and stream Dhalinyaro here.

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Image courtesy of Adekunle Adeleke

Spotlight: Adekunle Adeleke Creates Digital Surrealist Paintings That Celebrate African Beauty

Get familiar with the work of Nigerian visual artist Adekunle Adeleke.

In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists and more who are producing vibrant, original work. In our latest piece, we spotlight Adekunle Adeleke, a Nigerian visual artist, using digital mediums to paint dream-like portraits of Africans. Read more about the inspirations behind his work below, and check out some of his stunning paintings underneath. Be sure to keep up with the artist on Instagram and Facebook.

Can you tell us more about your background and when you first started painting?

I am a self taught artist. I started drawing from when I was really young. I mostly used graphite pencils and paper. But about six years ago, I think it was 2014, I wanted to start getting into color. I was a university student at the time and I lived in a hostel with three other people, so I couldn't go traditional so [instead], I started making paintings digitally, first on my iPad and then on my laptop with a Wacom. I have been painting ever since.

What would you say are the central themes in your work?

I personally think my work celebrates beauty (African beauty to be precise) and occasionally absurd things. I really just want to make paintings that are beautiful.

How do you decide who or what you're going to paint?
I do not have an exact process. I do use a lot of references though. Sometimes, I had an idea of how exactly the painting would look, others I just make it up as i go along.

Can you talk about a particular moment or turning point in your life that made you want to pursue art or a creative path?

I am not sure–I did not actively pursue art in a sense. I was just doing it because it was fun and I wanted to. Then people all of a sudden wanted to put me on projects and offer to pay for my hobby. I have thankfully been able to make art and also work in a separate field—which I also enjoy–by day.

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The 12 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Sarkodie, Cassper Nyovest, Elaine, Darkovibes, Stogie T, Phyno, C Natty, and more.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our best music of the week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Check out all of OkayAfrica's playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

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Photo courtesy of CNOA

These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."

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