'There's a Place for Gays in Islam'

Morocco's only openly gay filmmaker discusses the inspirations behind Salvation Army and his home country's changing attitudes toward homosexuality.

AP / Domenico Stinellis

In an edition of the Venice Film Festival notable for the prevalence of works grappling with global and societal woes (unemployment, terrorism, pollution, war) perhaps no film has blended the personal and the political as strikingly as Abdellah Taia’s L’Armée du salut (Salvation Army).

A promising directorial debut presented in the independent “Critics’ Week” category on Wednesday, the movie is adapted from Taia’s autobiographical novel about growing up gay in Morocco.

Today, the 40-year-old Taia is the only openly homosexual Moroccan writer-filmmaker. He is based in Paris, where he moved in 2000 to pursue a graduate degree in 18th century French literature.

Salvation Army observes the adolescent protagonist’s sexual awakening, as he meets with men in shadowy alleys and empty lots, careful not to be discovered in a country where homosexuality is a crime punishable by prison time.

The film’s final section finds Abdellah living in Switzerland 10 years later, free from the severe restrictions of Moroccan society, but nostalgic for his native land.

I sat down with Taia for an interview about his film, his life, and his views on homosexuality, Islam, Morocco and France. Here are some highlights.

Are you hoping that Salvation Army will be released in Morocco?

More than hoping—I really want it to be released in Morocco. Before shooting, I submitted the screenplay in its original form to the authorities at the National Centre for Moroccan Cinema. I didn't cut anything. I didn't want to sugarcoat things in order to get the green light to shoot. They approved the screenplay, and I hope they end up following through by allowing the film to be released.

I know a lot of people will be shocked when they see the film. But I don’t see anything shocking in it, because it portrays a reality. I’m not the only person to have lived this reality, nor am I the only one who sees it.

You’re known as a novelist, and this is your first film. What inspired you to make the movie?

Cinema has been an obsession of mine for a long time. Ever since my adolescence, I’ve had this dream [of making movies], which came from my love of Egyptian cinema. That was the only culture that we had access to in Morocco, as a poor family. Egyptian films were the only ones on Moroccan television. They taught us a lot about love, about society, about ourselves. And as a homosexual, they pretty much saved me, because they allowed me to escape to this whole other world.

There are also films and filmmakers that inspired me, but that I didn't discover until I was an adult: Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy; the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for its dark romanticism, its taste for melodrama, its critique of World War II-era Germany and its subversive, but tender, portrait of homosexuality; and Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, which directly influenced Salvation Army.

Tell me about what it’s like today for homosexuals in Morocco. Have things evolved at all?

The law still considers homosexuality a crime, and people are still are very harsh in their views of gays. So that has not changed.

On the other hand, the Moroccan press has dramatically changed its view on homosexuality—for example, they defend me. They also give gay people in Morocco the chance to express themselves. There are young gay Moroccans who created a gay magazine in Arabic. And there’s now an Arabic word for “homosexual” that is not disrespectful: “mithy.” It was created just six years ago, and is now used everywhere.

It’s the government that has not changed. It’s still impossible to come out of the closet in Morocco and anywhere in the Arab world. Morocco is actually ahead of other Arab countries when it comes to homosexuality, because at least the issue has been debated in the press.

At the end of the film, the protagonist seems nostalgic for Morocco (he’s living in Switzerland, but cries when he hears a Moroccan song). What are your feelings about Morocco today?

I definitely feel a connection to my homeland, and will for the rest of my life. I lived in Morocco for 25 years. I feel attached to the land there, the sky. Morocco is inside of me: its culture, its violence, its folklore.

At the same time, I am aware that in Morocco, I was prevented from becoming what I am today, from feeling free. And I see that people over there are still suffocating. But that doesn’t take away from the very strong emotions I still have for the country.

Paris is not heaven on earth, either; it’s tough like any other place. There are unhealthy power dynamics and manipulation. But there’s also extraordinary access to culture, even if you don’t have money. Moreover, Paris helps artists, even those who are not French, to pursue their projects and fight for them, despite the obstacles, the racism, the fact that we’re looked at as immigrants.

Are you a practicing Muslim?

I consider myself culturally Muslim. I feel connected to the great writers and thinkers of Islamic civilization, the great philosophers, sociologists and poets. I believe firmly in secularism, and I think that Muslims would be better off liberating themselves from religion. Islam should have no role in government.

I don’t want to deny my Muslim roots. I come from a place where people need to free themselves from religion. If I spent my time saying that those [religious Muslims] are bad, I’d be doing them a disservice. The best thing I can do for them is affirm and re-affirm the attachment I feel for them, while simultaneously being myself.

Is there a place for gays in today’s Islam?

Of course there’s a place for gays in Islam. The greatest Arab poet, Abu Nuwas, was gay. He wrote poems about his love for boys. So a place for gays in Islam exists. Those that want to deny that place are not going to win in the end. For me, that’s obvious.

A version of this post also appear on France 24, an Atlantic partner site.