The gaze of strangers: Morocco, male love and modernity

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About the author

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between North Africa and France. KA Dilday is currently planning a New York office for openDemocracy.

In December 2007, the Moroccan court of justice sentenced six men to jail terms of between two and ten months for the crime of homosexuality. The men had been filmed participating in a mock wedding of two men in the northern town of Ksar el-Kebir. Moroccans saw the video on the internet: someone, and than many people, loaded what appeared to be low-quality mobile-phone videos of the ceremony onto You Tube.

YouTube has become the Moroccan samizdat. Moroccans post videos of officials accepting bribes, and of all the things that are forbidden in the establishment press. It is likely that the video was posted by someone friendly to the guests, but once it was in cyberspace it was available to everyone.

In Morocco as in most Muslim countries (and many non-Muslim countries across the world), homosexuality is technically a crime. But in truth being gay isn't the taboo in Morocco. Refusing to live in the shadows is. Morocco isn't like Egypt where the police actively hunt gay men by luring them with internet ads and arresting them when they turn up for a meeting. The man who received the harshest sentence in Morocco was already a well-known gay figure in the town. The men were prosecuted because the video was so prominent. After it became popular on You Tube, an Islamist faction held an anti-gay rally in the village and attacked one of the men featured in the video at his home. Imams and other religious figures likely insisted that the men in the video be punished to remind Moroccans not to get too cocky in flouting the religious stipulations which form a large part of Moroccan law.

"Moroccans are the greatest comedians in the world", Abdellah Taia told me, using the French word for actor. Before the trial, the novelist Abdellah Taia was famous as the only gay person in Morocco. Other gay Moroccan writers have used pseudonyms or initials to protect their identities. In 2006, the Moroccan press called Taia, "the first Moroccan to have the courage to publicly assert his difference", after he acknowledged that he is gay when questioned about his sexuality by a Moroccan newspaper reporter. Taia is certain that his family knew he was gay but they suffered when the news became public because Taia had broken the unspoken taboo.

"Have you lost your mind", his mother asked him, "Saying these things which are not said?" Gay Moroccans are expected to marry and have families and if they pursue their desires at all, it should be discreetly.

I've often written about the illusions societies build and the private illusions we reserve for ourselves: the acts of writing, photographing, filming, force people to confront these illusions. Homosexuality has been an open part of Moroccan culture for centuries even as it remains taboo. One of Arabic literature's most famous poets, the 8th-century writer Abu Nuwas, wrote paeans to his gay lovers.

"I die of love for him, perfect in every way,

Lost in the strains of wafting music.

My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body

And I do not wonder at his beauty.

His waist is a sapling, his face a moon,

And loveliness rolls off his rosy cheek

Also in openDemocracy on Moroccan politics and society:

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism" (5 February 2003)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?" (25 March 2003)

Ivan Briscoe, "Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (27 May 2004)

Rashi Khilnani, "How Morocco's free media is silenced" (19 April 2006)

Yto Barrada, "Morocco unbound: an interview" (17 May 2006)

Gregor Noll, "The Euro-African migration conference: Africa sells out to Europe" (14 July 2006)

I die of love for you, but keep this secret:

The tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope.

How much time did your creation take, O angel?

So what! All I want is to sing your praises."

Nuwas lived in Baghdad and is honoured with a statue and grand boulevard. Taia remembers studying these poems in school. But this is consistent with the complicated relationship with homosexuality, and with culture and learning in the Muslim world (see Brian Whitaker, Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East [Saqi, 2006]). The conundrum of Morocco is mirrored in many Muslim countries. It is two countries; one rich, well-travelled and at home with western culture; the other, poor, poorly educated, conservative and devoutly Muslim. Rich Moroccans attend university in Europe or America and return to Morocco with the coveted foreign degree and a taste for western culture. Legally, Morocco is a conservative Muslim country with a penal code rooted in sharia law, but women in rich neighbourhoods wear the latest revealing European fashions and go about with uncovered heads. The wealthy serve alcohol at parties; they invite gay people into their homes. In poor districts, the public attire for women is a foulard and a shapeless djellaba, the loose-fitting garment Moroccans wear to cover their clothes.

When Abdellah began attracting notice, the (Islamist) Justice and Development Party (PJD) complained in its official newspaper that the news media gave him too much attention. Readers wrote to the magazine, calling him a zamel, a derogatory word for gays in Moroccan Arabic. They said that if Morocco were truly a Muslim country, Taia would be stoned.

People cringed when the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an Columbia University audience in September 2007 that there were no gay people in Iran. In recent years, gay men as young as 17 have been publicly executed in Iran for the crime of homosexuality. Taia said that had he revealed his homosexuality in another Muslim country he would have been banned and the newspapers that covered him censured. The king that inherited Morocco's throne in 1999 has tried to make the country more liberal. But this latest news about the trial changes how Taia feels about Morocco. It no longer seems progressive, but dangerous.

A far country

It's a strange paradox that in some cases the regard of others protects people and in some it endangers them. While the regard resulted in men being persecuted in Morocco, another case in December 2007 at the opposite end of the Arab world - in the United Arab Emirates - showed publicity's other face. There, three local men were found guilty of raping Alexandre Robert, a male French teenager. But until Robert's mother, a journalist, used all of her resources to focus international attention on the case, Robert had to leave the country because he was at risk of being prosecuted for homosexuality; and the authorities were uninterested in prosecuting his attackers. Robert's mother took the story to papers in the United States, Britain and France in addition to involving the government. Only then were the attackers charged and prosecuted.

Abdellah Taia's writing has made him famous in Europe. His books have been translated into Spanish and Dutch, and he is featured in newspapers across the continent. In Morocco itself, Taia's European success has made him a welcome guest in the salons of the wealthy, a long way from the poor neighbourhood where he grew up, and the last place, Taia, who is proud of his origins, only ever wanted or expected to find welcome and acceptance. But he's fortunate that this fresh challenge finds him caught between two worlds rather than trapped in jail. Taia, who lives in Paris, admits that coming out in Morocco was easier for him because he knew he could leave the country and return to France.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other organisations have called for the six jailed Moroccans to be freed. Their jail terms are short, and likely they will quietly be released in a few months with their conviction serving as a reminder to gays in Morocco to remember their place, which is in the shadows. It will also serve as a harsh rebuke from the imams to the Moroccan public, a reminder of their reach.