Sexuality is often used to determine where civilisation begins and ends, and for homosexuality that cuts both ways.
(Robert Aldrich (Ed) From All Times, In All Cultures, 2006).
Marrakech’s new district of Guéliz is all but deserted just after sundown. The shops are closed, the only passers-by are tourists. After fourteen hours of Ramandan-fasting the ftour has finally arrived. The whole city is hunched over dishes of dates and bowls of harira, devouring hard-boiled eggs, plates of bread and cakes dripping with honey. The country’s dietary experts might very well warn of the digestive problems that a third of those fasting face, it’s to no avail. “What should be an exercise in piety and sobriety,” complains one doctor on his website, “has in practice degenerated into a phenomenon of sleepless nights of partying and excessive eating that can seriously engender people’s health”.
It makes me think of Abdelhak Serhane’s famous first novel Messaouda, in which he virulently criticises the collective devotion of the ninth month (of the Muslim year). He sees it as a charade – the communal aspect and the mandatory abstinence from eating, drinking, smoking and sex have no fundamental content or impact. “After the month of Ramadan, piety once again takes leave of absence. The whore Messaouda returns and the men once again devote more time to their organs than to their children. He becomes deaf and dumb and His holy word is once again stashed away with the prayer mat and prayer cap”.
My atheist friend Jamal (33) has invited me to his tasteful apartment for his version of the ftour. The uncorked bottle of red Boulaouane is on the living-room table next to an ashtray and two recently dried wine glasses. Here, drinking is all about anticipation, since the sale of alcohol is forbiddenfrom the month before the start of the fasting.
Jamal has brought in a nice little supply and he wasn’t the only one. “I’m convinced”, he says, whilst taking stock of the wine, “that the Assima warehouse does record business in the eighth month, almost exclusively due to the astronomical increase in alcohol sales. You should look into it some time”.
Jamal, who graduated in medicine in France, fills up the glasses and lights a cigarette. He sighs, he never thought of establishing himself in Paris. He is at home in Marrakech, although the hypocrisy and schizophrenia that characterise this society are increasingly repugnant to him. “You would think that you would get used to it, and that probably also goes for the majority of my compatriots. They don’t have my exceptionally liberal parents, followers of Descartes who believe in sincerity and principles. Quite simply, most Moroccans have been forced into the shackles of conformity since childhood and rarely ask any questions”.
The young doctor empties his glass and serves himself again. He is clearly getting into his stride. “Believe me, this country is ripe for collective psychoanalysis, it’s a pity we don’t have enough experts. Until recently, one couldn’t study psychology or psychiatry. King Hassan II really didn’t like shrinks. During his rule there was no room for truth and real feelings. Terror and silence reigned supreme”.
“I swear that if I were the Minister of Health, I would start straight away with the schools. One afternoon on the psychiatrist’s sofa would be made obligatory for all students. It’s a truly revolutionary thought, but I like it”.
Whilst Jamal gets lost in contemplation about the abject mental health of the Moroccan psyche, my mobile phone rings. The young man who will shortly be waiting for me at the train station wants to know whether I have forgotten about our meeting.
His text message is exceptional. Generally, I’m the one who has to remind my promised interlocutor about our appointment half an hour after it was supposed to have started. However, this man doesn’t seem to be taking any risks. Despite my confirmatory answer, he sends several more text messages. “You are already a minute late”, runs the last one, “you are still coming, aren’t you”?
In front of the run-down train station, there is a somewhat loutish young man, looking conspicuous in a brand-new G-Star shirt. He keeps on pushing his glasses up and just above his slightly feminine mouth beads of sweat are starting to form. They are attributes of his nervous, insecure nature rather than a result of the already much more bearable heat. “Let’s go, I don’t like to be seen on the street with a foreigner. That could give wrong ideas – people like to talk, you know”.
Finally, he manages to flag down a rare taxi that will take us to a recently built block of flats a few streets further on, where his parents, who live on the coast, bought an apartment for their children in school.
I ask whether he would like to choose a name. The student in engineering looks shocked. How could he have forgotten this. The peace that he had gradually rediscovered on his way back to his trusted living room is suddenly replaced again with anxiety. He asks for time to think, he doesn’t want to come across as just any old mug.
It will take until the end of the evening before he even comes back to the question. “The name”, he suddenly says softly. “Call me Saâda, Arabic for everything that I have never had but which I’ve always yearned after terribly – happiness”. Simple human happiness.
“Maybe this can be the start”. Saâda looks at me with hope in his eyes.
As I listen to his life’s story, I realise that he actually had ample choice for a name. He could just as well have opted for the Arabic translation of Friendship, Trust or Warmth, or even for any of the fifty Arab nouns for Love. From the unstained Mahabba to the passion of Jawa, all are foreign territory for Saâda.
This young man with his soft, insecure look is the second of four children. He worships his one-and-half-year older sister, even to the point that he followed her in her choice of study. “No-one is as intelligent, modest, studious and kind-hearted as she is”. At the moment, she’s studying in Rabat and I miss her terribly, but she’s working for her future and I understand that”.
He can’t explain why, and God knows how long he fretted about it, but Saâda has always had a problem with boys and football. As a toddler, he was inseparable from his mother, later he was fascinated with the games that the girls from the neighbourhood played. He loved their calm, civilised interaction, which stood in stark contrast to the manners of the boys on their respective stomping grounds. By some distance, Saâda chose the girls’ shady inner court, protected from violence and obscenities, over the lewd as well as unsafe, scorching hot pavements of the boys.
He says that he wants to show me something and cautiously opens the large orange folder that is lying on the corner of the living-room table, nicely arranged behind the serviettes, glasses and bottles of fruit juice and mineral water.
There are quite a few small, numbered scripts with smooth, laminated covers. They seem to be perfectly devoid of human weakness. Not a single imperfection disfigures the modest threading together of Arabic words. On page after page, the structured, orderly world of Saâda’s childhood secrets is revealed. It contains poems and self-composed songs, images of bears and boy scouts.
“Nice, aren’t they?” He says it with the earnestness of a child, as if hoping for praise for the idealised and chaste creatures that he so carefully cut out of magazines and whose shiny surface he stroked with his fingers on numerous occasions. They were his best friends, he says quietly.
“I was eight years old when I began this”. Saâda points to a carefully aligned little story next to a pretty stamp that he patiently steamed off a letter. “I’ve always had the feeling that unwritten reams of paper were waiting for my words. They seemed to be encouraging me to trust them, to pour out my heart. Above all, they were important during the terrible years at the boys’ grammar school”.
Saâda stands up and runs to the window. “I would really like to sincerely thank you. You don’t understand what it means to be able to talk nor how much I need your undivided attention. You know, I generally try to forget those years, the numerous beatings, the violence I was systematically subjected to. Me, a perfectly innocent child. Or should I consider it a crime that I loved to study, admired the teachers and earned their respect by generally turning in my homework flawlessly. Did I deserve to be spat on and booed at repeatedly, just because I refused to cut school and often tried to prepare the following day’s exercises at home? You see, my sister did exactly the same, how come she received prizes and praise, whilst my only reward was punches and curses?”
“I often complained to my mother about it. She said she didn’t have time for an appointment with the headmaster and that I should try not to provoke my classmates. But tell me, why is bragging about lewd escapades greeted with sympathy, whilst the sincere, eagerness to learn of a shy, earnest boy like me generates feelings of hate and hostility?”
“I sometimes think that I had to be like that, that God wanted to test me and that in this manner He wanted to show me the Light of the Right Way. It is in my suffering that I found Him. He and He alone helped me, gave me the strength to offer my head to the tyranny of my classmates. He who knows everything, sees everything, understands my sadness, He who gives us life and takes care of our parents, He who created all the good in the world, He who taught me to pray, to turn to Him in moments of desperation, to kneel. It was prayers that calmed and soothed me; they were the ointment for my wounds, then and every day since”.
Saâda shows me the diaries from when he was fifteen. Pictures of the Saudi Arabian Medina and a faded photo of a popular Egyptian preacher whose Islamic ideas exerted extreme influence on this young spirit.
The scripts, to which he entrusted the stirrings of his soul on a daily basis, follow one after the other. Along the way, the Islamic symbols make way for stickers of footballers, mainly of young men celebrating, with their shirts in one hand and the cup in the other.
Saâda says that I am his psychiatrist and that it’s not easy to talk, but that he is convinced that he has to do it. With a somewhat dreamy look in his eyes, he stares at the naked torsos of the football stars, his fingers stroking each photo. “I was about sixteen”, he begins, “when I caught myself being attracted to men’s bodies”.
The image in his head is that of an Egyptian film on TV with his mother and sister sat next to him on the sofa. They’re commenting on the actors. Just look at his eyes. And the mouth, Mama, I hope I get onto the marriage boat with a man like that. His sister excitedly grabbed her mother’s hand. They were laughing hysterically, allies sharing a common guilt. They had absolutely no idea what was happening a few centimetres further down the sofa. They were so taken up with their own hormones that they didn’t notice how the boy next to them was seizing up.
Saâda remembers the warm glow that moved through his body and the confusing combination of delight and panic which overtook him when watching the bathroom scene with the crooning protagonist shaving, naked from the waist up. He became infatuated with the sensual lines of the protagonist’s delta muscles, intermittently taut and supple, from top to toe, under an olive-coloured shiny skin.
Whilst the shaving knife went up and down, Saâda began to feel unwell, victim of a chemical process that he had never experienced before.
“I asked them to change channel with the argument that we really didn’t need to watch such frivolous entertainment”. Both his mother and sister protested – they thought that he was being ridiculous and sent him to his room to study. However, the images were irresistible and the boy was unable to get up and leave the room. He felt his blood pounding and remembers to this day how fervently he called out to the Lord that evening.
It didn’t help – on the contrary. Barely a week later, alone at home and in front of the TV, Saâda is watching an Arte documentary on the making of homoerotic films. He can’t believe his eyes. What he assumed that only he thought about in the darkest recesses of his heart was unfolding in reality, shamelessly, almost endlessly, and what’s more, under the watchful eye of a camera that didn’t eschew a single physical sensation. Initially, Saâda was horrified and wanted to switch the TV off, but the warm sensation in his loins and the singing in his heart prevented him from doing so. As a result, the boy locked the door and burned the succession of images into his memory.
Even during the closing credits, he sat mesmerised in front of the screen, which is when he discovered the ‘www-way’, access to the Internet of hidden desires, with a name of a site. “Something to do with ‘gay’, I don’t recall exactly anymore, but I used to think that it was just the English word for boy”.
“The Arte documentary, broadcast in the autumn of 2003, was the ‘9/11’ of my youth. I knew straight away that nothing would ever be the same again”.
For a whole year, Saâda daily visited an Internet café, relentlessly Googling all possible combinations with the word gay, thus becoming infatuated with the photos that left little to the imagination and even finding a few sites that contained free films. At the same time he grew more and more afraid of being discovered and so painstakingly erased all traces of the sites which had him dreaming all day. Still, the yearning got the better of the feelings of fear and guilt that kept him awake at night. Or at least, that’s how it was initially.
“If I could”, he sighs, “I would cut that year out of my life to rid myself of the shame attached to it”. The virtual reality had completely colonised Saâda’s spirit. It had succeeded in eliminating the studious boy who for years had stowed away the gaping void of loneliness with facts plucked from Al Jazeera, maths tables and certainties from the world of physics. With a simple click, Saâda had been reduced to a character in a pornographic game.
He looks at me and sighs. “Time and time again I asked God for redemption, but increasingly my prayers ended in tears”. He understood that the Almighty wanted to test him, to sharpen his faith and to arm him against sin, but the ever-cerebral young man was paralysed. The seed of his youth and of his betrayal had dishonoured his prayer mat. Broken promises had destroyed it, the mouse mat had conquered the prayer mat. “I was unworthy of the Merciful Lord and on certain days that knowledge made it impossible for me to pray”.
He lays his glasses on the table, rubs his eyes and remains sat down with his back bent. A pious young man’s version of capitulation. “The worst of it”, he says softly, “is that I became a zamel, a filthy homosexual, in the way people around here understand it. A good-for-nothing, a sex maniac who lays his hands on the first body offered to him. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror anymore”.
Dark days and even darker nights, the equally satanic and non-erasable 2004 was the last year that Saâda would spend in his place of birth. In the meantime, he came to Marrakech, a city of ochre, liberation and MSN. Marrakech turned the zamel back into a young man, a soul yearning for words, friendship, understanding and affection.
There was as a click of the mouse that differed very little from the previous one. And yet, the first click took the young man to worlds of porn and desperation, whereas the second one brought him to two French homosexuals – to Anthony from Marseilles and next to Arnaud, a Parisian.
You could call the latter his guru. In slightly less than a year of almost daily chatting, Arnaud ordained his Moroccan friend in the secrets of love between men. He shared his experiences and feelings with Saâda and taught him to talk about desire and tenderness. At nineteen to the dozen, he told him about the discussion in French society about homosexuality and about the theories on the Oedipus complex. Arnaud spoke about homoerotic books and films, about cafés, bars and annual gay processions in the capital cities of Europe. In an almost jaunty tone, he described his coming-out to his parents and teachers and the success of their process of acceptance didn’t even seem to surprise him.
They were more or less the same age, but the distance between their worlds was greater than the 2,130 kilometres, as the bird flies, which separated them. Saâda knew that he could never bridge that distance, but the knowledge that Arnaud’s world existed changed him completely.Initially, Arnaud’s jauntiness and carefree attitude took him completely by surprise and his tales went completely over and beyond Saâda’s comprehension, although he tried to not let it show. For a while, he even thought that Arnaud was making them up to cheer him up. Later, they even laughed about this together. Gradually, the young Frenchman became the centre of Saâda’s life and his improbable self-confidence even began to rub off on him.
It’s thanks to Arnaud that Saâda existed, that he was able to invent himself as a young homosexual man. The almost graduated Frenchman gave him the courage, understanding and virtuous words that were meant to protect him against the vitriol that would always be his lot in Moroccan society.
Arnaud and Saâda were friends and became lovers, virtually at least, and verbally. “We were hatching plans to meet up. Arnaud had been to Marrakech once, had liked it and the prospect of being able to come and visit me made him very happy.
Saâda was imagining how he would receive Arnaud in this apartment, what he would cook for him and how he would make love with him. For the first time in his life, his lips would touch another’s and his hands would be able to survey every centimetre of his lover’s body. There were just another three or four months to wait, an eternity for someone as impatient as Arnaud but barely more than a second for those such as Saâda, who have been waiting their whole life. “Arnaud would be my first lover – that was my most fervent wish”.
A shadow of immense sadness comes over Saâda’s face. He gets up, turns the already barely audible Mozart off and sorts the scripts with the orange cover by date. There is a heavy silence in the air and I deduce that Arnaud never came.
Saâda admits it can be read in different ways. He mutters that two terrible things happened on that bright January day in 2006. It was early evening, when, by digital processes he couldn’t comprehend, he lost Arnaud from his MSN friend list for good. Within a few hours, whilst looking for a diversion in Jamaa el-Fna square, a pick-pocket made off with his mobile phone and with it the only chance he had left of contacting Arnaud again – his phone number. “My whole world collapsed that evening”.
For days on end, Saâda tried in vain to get back in touch with his friend. He attempted all possible alphanumerical combinations of his e-mail address, launched SOS calls on other sites and dialled untold numbers with the few digits that he still remembered from his previous phone call with Arnaud.
“I knew that it was pointless”. His mouth twists into a bitter shape. He sits down and stares at his hands. “It was a punishment from God. He, and He alone, knew my sinful intentions. He wanted to lead me back to the righteous path, I’m convinced of that.”
History was more or less repeating itself. It went from the mouse mat back to the prayer mat, from a world of nimble happiness to one of unbearable guilt. Arnaud was reduced to a cyber mirage and with him disappeared the ideals that they had so lovingly nurtured together.
Saâda began frequenting the mosque again. He prayed to God for forgiveness, he begged and cried, but something had changed. However unreachable Arnaud had become, he existed and his legacy couldn’t be erased. The question wasn’t whether Saâda would return to the Internet café, but when.
He believes that he stayed away for about three months, but he had to go back. To live, to fill the void that Arnaud had left behind, even if he knew he was just indulging in pure hallucination.
Saâda then discovered the Moroccan gay sites. He chatted with a man who immediately set up a meet as soon as he discovered that Saâda had his own apartment.
By the following afternoon, they had already met in the park next to the petrol station. After about five minutes, the man asked whether he had any condoms, he was in a rush and was hoping that Saâda didn’t live too far away. Without further ado, they went upstairs. Next, the man wanted to know where the bathroom was, gesticulating to the shy virgin that he should already get undressed.
Saâda says that he can still remember a few seconds of the encounter, despite himself, as he would actually prefer to erase it from his memory. He knows that the alarm bells starting ringing in his head as soon as they went into the apartment, but his voice failed him. Mainly, he knew that it was too late. He heard the toilet being flushed and saw the man coming into the bedroom. “It was awful – bestial actually”.
For years, Saâda had dreamed of the Act, he had imagined caresses like the ones Arnaud had promised him and remembered those from the gay porn he had seen in cyberspace. He had hoped for gentle strokes, tenderness and passion. He had called to mind all kinds of scenarios, but he hadn’t thought of the few words with which the
Act starts and which said everything. “Turn around”. Even if it had sounded less like an order, Saâda wouldn’t have dared to put up any resistance. He felt a wave of panic rushing through his body and closed his eyes.
It didn’t last more than a few minutes. Saâda remembers the man’s shouts and how he then disappeared to the bathroom and mumbled something by way of saying goodbye. The door closed and a feeling of immediate sadness took over him. He thought of Arnaud and cried all afternoon. He felt like a girl who had been raped by a macho brute of man. He says that he doubts whether the man was gay. In any case, he was only interested in sex.
That evening he returned to the mosque again. He promised God that this would be the last time. Saâda sighs and shakes his head. “I don’t understand”. He doesn’t know what, barely a week later, took him back to the Internet café, and much less why he invited a man from Rabat to spend that very night with him. He went to pick him up at the station at five past ten and brought him the following morning for the seven o’clock train. “He was handsome and friendly”, Saâda thinks, “but he immediately made it clear during the chatting that he only wanted sex and no relationship.” He heard himself lying to the man that it wasn’t a problem and that he was also only interested in a fling. He thought of Arnaud, of the Paris in his imagination and of the words that they would one day whisper to each other.
In the ensuing months, he concentrated on his studies and went home for the summer holidays and only returned to Marrakech at the start of autumn. He had undertaken to avoid the cybercafé, but even before the first week was over, he had already arranged to meet someone from one of the city’s outlying districts.
The man in question was a singer of popular songs who supplemented his less than royal salary by walking the streets. He didn’t beat around the bush – for less than ten euros, he would be Saâda’s, if need be for the whole night. It was the end of the month, a student couldn’t spare that kind of money. The singer was an understanding man, he would even come along for less than half the amount. “It might perhaps sound pathetic, but how can you feel happy when paying for sex? However, this was my only positive experience, Ismaël being the first and only man to give me a good feeling. I felt complete in his arms”.
A while later, they happened to bump into each other. Saâda asked whether the singer felt like coming to visit him. Ismaël really wanted to and even said that he loved him. They were all-too-cheap and rash words, they defiled love in Saâda’s eyes and he had scornfully asked the singer whether from now on he would do it with him for free or whether he was merely using a ruse to guarantee himself a fixed customer. Ismaël became angry and walked away.
Saâda stares out in front of him. He says that a man like himself can only find sex in Morocco but not love.
I can’t help thinking of my friend Jamal, who, just as I was about to leave, said that I should enquire as to Saâda’s voting behaviour in the parliamentary elections which took place at the beginning of September 2007. “Only 1 out of 3 people eligible to vote actually exercised their democratic right”, he said. “That’s how little people here expect from parliamentary delegates. And you can’t blame them. The King is so mighty that he has nothing to fear from elections”.
Saâda cast his vote on the first Friday of the month. He voted for the Islamic Party of Justice and Development (PJD), a political entity that would actually prefer to see people of his sexual orientation stoned to death, such as the sharia foresees for recidivists. “Oh, I just voted for a woman that I know”, is how he initially defends his choice. “She’s very dynamic and sincere, not just another complacent kleptomaniac like most of the representatives in this country”.
I argue that individual kind-heartedness and incorruptibility can achieve little in parliament, that it’s all to do with the dynamics of a group and with political ideas that are defended or rejected. A party like the PJD will never stand up for Saâda’s interests, on the contrary. Women striving for emancipation and parity can also expect little from its Islamic social project. I ask whether it is fair that daughters inherit 50% less than sons, whether women who do not wear the veil really want to be raped on the spot – and what must his own life be like under an Islamic regime?
At that moment, something inexplicable happens. Even before I have finished speaking, our relationship has broken down. The timid young man who, for the last five hours, has considered me an ally, who took me to never-before-visited places in his soul and who for the first time in his own house was able to formulate the unspeakable in words and sentences, has gone. The fragile boy who seemed to exist only in fear, uncertainty, doubts and guilt and whose dreams hadn’t yet definitely been written off as unrealistic, has also disappeared.
The man now sitting in front of me has a callous expression on his face. He has straightened his back, lifted his chin. The tone and rhythm of his voice have changed, his words those of a stranger and of God. He is blind, deaf and impervious. The boy has become a man who has become a robot. At most, 55 kilos of skin, hair, flesh and bone, but twenty tonnes of Koran assurance.
He looks at me hard. He tells me straight off that I’ve understood nothing. Islam, for him, is not a system of values, it is not morality you choose from a menu, nor is it a cerebral function which can be switched on or off depending on the circumstances. This person that I no longer know says that he lives in Islam. For an eternity. God doesn’t need him, but he needs Him. Without Him he is nothing.
I often wondered about it later on, but can’t for the life of me work out why, at that moment, he brought up the cartoons in a Danish newspaper, those caricatures with the Prophet as the protagonist. “Hundreds of thousands of people across the world took to the streets”, he says, “men, women, even children. At one with the Lord, they expressed their indignation. They didn’t allow themselves to be put down, not then, not ever”.
The water between us is getting ever deeper. “What really amazes me”, I answer, “is that acts of cruelty in the world, from Darfur to Burma via Sri Lanka, have never got the masses out of their seats”. I say that I can’t understand what a possibly offensive cartoon means in comparison to the death of unnamed innocent people, of someone’s children, someone’s mother and father, someone’s uncle, aunt, nephews or nieces, someone’s friends, someone’s loved ones.
He doesn’t let me finish my sentence and repeats that I don’t understand anything. How can I compare mere mortals with the Prophet who mediates with God on the admission into heaven of believers such as himself? “I would do anything for the Prophet. I would give my life”.
Shouted words, shocked silence. I can’t help thinking of Jamal, of the schizophrenia which he so loves to hate and of my role as an untrained on-the-spot psychologist.
Is there a place in heaven for Saâda? Will the pearly gates be opened for homosexuals? He roars that he has always been a normal person in every respect, except for one, the sexual deviation which he suffers from. It’s an illness, an ordeal. He will however overcome this obstacle with the strength that God will give him. There is no doubt in his mind that he will go through life as a normal, worthy person.
It’s already way past midnight. He accompanies me downstairs and hails a taxi. Saâda seems to have returned. He says that he is sorry and asks whether I can forgive him. “You’ve meant a lot to me”.