#RivetingReviews: Lucy Popescu reviews INFIDELS by Abdellah Taïa

I first came across Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa in 2006 at a PEN talk on sedition. He had recently caused something of a stir by coming out in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Taïa has lived in Paris since 1998, writes in French and, to date, has published eight novels. At the event, he talked openly about his early homosexual experiences and the difficulties of forging a sense of identity in a country that sees individualism as a threat.

Narrated from various perspectives, Infidels explores the alienation of three generations of one family, and Morocco’s political and social repression. Silma is the adopted daughter of Saâdia Tadlauoi, an introductrice, witchdoctor and ‘sex-specialist’. Saâdia helps couples on their wedding night and has to ensure ‘blood flows onto the white sheet that will be proudly displayed for friends and enemies alike’. She is despised for the service she provides and treated like an outcast. The need for this ritual is a damning indictment of a patriarchal state which seeks to control its citizens’ most intimate moments.

After Saâdia’s death, poverty forces her daughter into a similar trap. Silma works as a prostitute, but enjoys fleeting security with a soldier. He introduces her son, Jallal, to the magnetism of Marilyn Monroe (another outcast of sorts) in River of no Return. Jallal watches his mother identify with the actress: ‘She was an infidel, like Marilyn. Like her, unhappy. A whore. A servant. A goddess.’

Silma and Jallal’s lives fall apart when Silma is taken in for questioning by the Moroccan authorities. Her soldier has already left for the Western Sahara War but is believed to be a spy for the Sahrawi indigenous Polisario. Silma is brutally tortured and remains in prison for three years. She manages to arrange her young son’s escape to Egypt where he is looked after by another prostitute. When mother and son are reunited, Silma is too damaged, mentally and physically to reconnect with Jallal and turns to religion.

Related in haunting, lyrical prose, Infidels is a cautionary tale, a love story, and a polemic against injustice. Following his mother’s death, Jallal has to forge a new life for himself. He moves to Brussels and falls for a young man, Mahmoud, a Belgian convert to Islam, who is apparently dying of cancer. Too late, Jallal realises he has been groomed by Mahmoud to commit jihad. Their religious and sexual devotion intertwine in Casablanca, in the cold, dark Mosque of Hassan II.

Taïa’s powerful tale, superbly translated by Alison L. Strayer, serves as a stark warning to those authoritarian regimes that deny individualism, criminalize love, and torture their citizens. Violence breeds violence, and it is Jallal’s pariah status, Taïa suggests, that propels him towards self-destruction. At the gates of heaven, it is fitting that Jallal is welcomed by Monroe, rather than the prerequisite virgin maidens. She observes: ‘I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In everybody.’

Reviewed by Lucy Popescu

INFIDELS

By Abdellah Taïa

Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer

Published by Seven Stories Press (2016)

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Lucy Popescu reviews books for various publications including the Financial TimesTLS and New Humanist. Her anthology, A Country to Call Home, focusing on the experiences of young refugees was published in June 2018. Her other publications include A Country of RefugeThe Good Tourist and Another Sky. She is chair of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. www.LucyPopescu.com / Twitter: @Lucyjpop

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