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Abdellah Taïa: Listening to the Voices of Exile

Born in Morocco in 1973, Abdellah Taïa is the author of several novels written in French, including A Country for Dying, recently translated and published in the United States. In 2006, he became one of the first writers from the Arab-Muslim world to publicly discuss his homosexuality. Taïa has lived in Paris for around twenty years.
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© Lauren Fleishman

First published in 2015, A Country for Dying intertwines the voices of several immigrants from Morocco and Algeria against the backdrop of modern Paris. While in France, a country they saw as the embodiment of freedom, human rights, and wealth in all its forms, their illusions are harshly confronted with a sordid reality. And yet, this is where they feel at home.

When Zahira, a proud Moroccan prostitute in her forties, begins her story, her Algerian friend Aziz is about to undergo sex reassignment surgery. “Leave behind my cock, my gender, men, be a woman,” he says. “Be one of my sisters. With them. Far from them. Cut off all that is masculine in me to become them.” At the age of thirteen, having grown up with seven loving sisters, he had to bow to family and social pressures and “wear the mask of a man.” Ever since, he has been faced with a void, stuck in a limbo without really knowing who he is. In the working-class heart of Paris, voices and memories combine and clash.

The fates of Zahira and Aziz – now Zannouba – reveal a multitude of questions about loss, identities, attributions, taboos, and things left unsaid on both sides of the Mediterranean. Their stories are interlocked like those of Scheherazade, and introduce other characters: Naïma, a former prostitute pulled back from the brink by an unexpected man; Allal, Zahira’s first love, subjected to humiliation in Morocco because he is Black; and Mojtaba, a gay Iranian revolutionary who brings Zahira to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a placed steeped in history that she believed was forbidden to her.

The third part of this dark, disturbing novel turns back to the past to recount the story of Zineb, hired as a comfort woman during the Indochina War in 1954. In a lively, cutting style backed by extensive dialogues, Taïa connects history with the present to perfectly grasp the full ambiguities of the post-colonial world.

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A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa, translated from French by Emma Ramadan, Seven Stories Press, 2020. 112 page, 16.95 dollars.

Article published in the December 2020 issue of  France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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