Defiant Deviance and Franco-Moroccan Cinema's Queer Representations of Masculinity

in Journal of Bodies, Sexualities, and Masculinities
Author: Lowry Martin1
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  • 1 University of Texas at El Paso, USA

Abstract

In the last decade, Franco-Moroccan directors have begun to explore culturally taboo and unrepresented sexual communities within Morocco. This article examines how two pioneering films, Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army and Nabil Ayouch's Much Loved, contribute to an emerging cultural politics in the Arab-speaking world that is reframing marginalized or invisible sexualities. While these films address issues of sexual tourism, incest, and prostitution, among others, the focus of this article is on the films’ critiques of internalized homophobia, sexual tourism, and the sociopolitical power structures that occlude, marginalize, or shame those males outside of the heterosexual matrix. Analyzing the films’ portrayal of the semiotics of forbidden desire, internalized homophobia, and the circulation and spatialization of queer sexualities in Morocco, this article argues that Salvation Army and Much Loved complicate our understanding of Arab masculinities and add to a growing queer visibility that stretches from the Maghreb to the Gulf.

This article explores how two Franco-Moroccan films have used their transformative potential and diversity to challenge notions of fixed sexual identities and lift the veil on representations of nonnormative Arab sexualities. Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army (2013) is considered to be one of the first films from the Arab-speaking world directed by a gay man, centered on an openly gay protagonist, and comprising the autofictional narrative of the director's life (Alami 2014). Salvation Army is juxtaposed with Nabil Ayouch's Much Loved (2015), a film that offers strong criticism of the underground sex trade in Morocco—which is particularly supported by rich Saudis. For the purposes of this article, I focus on the representations of queer male sexualities woven into the main narrative of three prostitutes that live and work together in Morocco.

These filmic representations do more than just allow the spectator to escape into a carefully crafted narrative for the pleasure of it, they also provide important cultural commentary and serve as “public pedagogy and a form of cultural politics” (Giroux 2004: 122). Instead, these films offer alternative subject positions, they make visible and mobilize desires, they influence us unconsciously, and they help us to construct images of not only of Morocco but also of a broader Arab-speaking geocultural landscape. They remind viewers of a time in the history of the Arab Islamicate world when “homosexuality was more prevalent and socially tolerated—at times admired,” which is especially “surprising considering how taboo the topic has become in Arab and Muslim societies especially since the mid-nineteenth century. Homosexuality encounters severe repression in most Muslim-majority societies today” (Amer 2014).

These films speak to cultural locations and dislocations as various queer communities of all kinds emerge and challenge more Western monolithic notions of queerness and its phenomenological experiences while breaking Islamicate taboos around same-sex practices and desires. What I mean by monolithic notions of queerness is a poststructuralist binary of heterosexual/homosexual that imagines a unified and stable homosexual identity without taking into account the tensions and fault-lines of queerness, which is incessantly evolutionary and fluid. These representations not only add to a global conversation about sex tourism, forbidden sexual identities, and ideas of masculinity, but they also implicate real and imagined borders—economic, cultural, and gendered— that confine, configure, and conscript. These films from and about Morocco contest traditional ideas of masculinity and sexuality, and they contribute to a growing queer visibility that stretches from the Maghreb to the Gulf.

I begin my analysis with Michel Foucault's assertion that marginalizing taxonomies such as “queer” or “Arab” can function synergistically to form alliances that serve as a basis of resistance to hegemonic and constitutive identitarian processes. Within this framework, my article illustrates how terms such as “Arab,” “gay,” and the unwieldy concept of “queer” are interrogated and reconsidered in these aforementioned films in a variety of ways that both acknowledge the cultural particularities of the diegetic setting while gesturing to more global possibilities of understanding.

The very “queerness” of these films is located in their heterodoxy or nonconformism to the traditional values, customs, and socially accepted modes of being in the cultures represented.1 If we consider Judith “Jack” Halberstam's assertion that queerness is “an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” (2005: 1), then queerness is more expansive in its theoretical underpinnings and scope than just sexual identity. The fullness of this critical term allows us to consider subcultural practices portrayed in these films—the hidden social undergrounds—as well as alternative modes of alliance, affective networks, and transgendered bodies. For instance, how do the shared dangers and experiences of the sex trade and its concomitant social opprobrium function to create community and affective networks between female sex workers and their transgendered counterparts? In Islamic theocracies such as Saudi Arabia or in conservative Muslim countries such as Morocco, how might the networks of nightspots and revelers, sex workers and clients, unwed single mothers and children, create and challenge dominant heteronormative models of kinship and affective structures?

Biopolitics and Geography

One of the cornerstones of Foucault's analysis in The History of Sexuality is that the production of sexuality is foundational to the biopolitical order that forms modern polity. Foucault (1978) argues that society's preoccupation with the production of sexuality results in the proliferation of various dissonant sexualities. Leo Bersani summarizes this idea by stating

that power in our societies functions primarily not by repressing spontaneous sexual drives but by producing multiple sexualities, and that through the classification, distribution, and moral rating of those sexualities the individuals practicing them can be approved, treated, marginalized, sequestered, disciplined, or normalized. (Bersani 1995: 81)

Thus, the multiplicity of sexualities such as gay, lesbian, and polyamorous that are produced through various discourses dovetails with those kinds of discourses that produce other categories of power/knowledge such as prostitute, transsexual, and queer that must be disciplined through spatialization. The sociopolitical discourses that generate the identitarian formations of queer “are overlapping, mutually determining, and convergent fields of politicization. In fact, most promising are those moments in which one social movement comes to find ‘its conditions of possibility in another’” (Butler 1997: 269). These Arab-speaking films illustrate the dynamic of overlapping or convergence, in that they speak to the social constructions of prostitution, same-sex desire, and masculinity while simultaneously exposing oppressive power structures, legal invisibility, and economic injustice as well as the devaluation of queer affective relationships. Both Salvation Army and Much Loved reveal a dissonant Moroccan sexual underground traversed by sexual tourism and sexual dissidents. These intercommunity narratives of Moroccan/Muslim queer communities illustrate the effective and generative interplay described by Judith Butler when two or more marginalized identities produce intercommunity narratives that communicate their social liminality to the outer world.

In order to understand how power/knowledge is being produced to generate queer overlapping communities and identities within Moroccan and predominantly Arab-speaking Muslim societies, one must necessarily ask how “Moroccan” these films are, and to what extent they can be considered “home products.” In other words, can one reasonably expect that Moroccans would see these films as accurate “insider” depictions instead of imposed Westernized representations? Most importantly, are Moroccans and other Arab-speaking people viewing these films?

First, it should be noted that these films were primarily shot in Morocco, thus, despite their polemic subject matter, the Moroccan government both knew and gave approval for their filming and ostensibly their content. In fact, both Taïa and Ayouch have publicly stated that they submitted their screenplays to the National Centre for Moroccan Cinema for its approval (Frosch 2013).2 Even though Taïa is Moroccan and Ayouch is Franco-Moroccan, neither of their films were produced in Morocco or distributed by Moroccan companies. According to both directors, economic considerations were determinative in choosing production locations and distribution companies. Indeed, Ayouch partially funded his film with the help of two other producers; although he did eventually receive some funding from the Centre National du Cinéma et de l'Image Animée (CNC) in France.3 Strand Releasing distributed Salvation Army and Pyramide Distribution distributed Much Loved, but while the production expertise may be French or European, these films are Moroccan in their setting, cultural context, themes, and language—Much Loved uses a salty Moroccan Arabic while Salvation Army is also primarily shot in Moroccan Arabic. These films, meant to target and resonate with Moroccans, were banned from distribution in Moroccan theaters by the Moroccan Minister of Communication (Orlando 2019).4

While both directors/screenwriters explicitly stated that their films were meant to be social mirrors of and for Moroccan society, these films have certainly reached a wide international audience. Taïa's Salvation Army played in various LGBTQ film festivals such as the Venice Film Festival (2013) and the San Francisco International Film Festival (2014), and Ayouch's Much Loved played at numerous film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival (2015).5 Although the majority of these films’ receipts came from Western viewership, Much Loved did show in other Arab-speaking countries such as Tunisia (Morocco World News 2015). In fact, within days of Much Loved's premiere, video clips from the movie had received over two million views on YouTube from around the world—testifying to its global interest. Both films are available through various Internet entertainment streaming sites such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, Strand Releasing, and YouTube (Amazon Prime and Netflix are available throughout much of the Middle East). Thus, while the films may not be available in Moroccan cinemas, they may well be showing in Moroccan homes. Their circulation through various prestigious international film festivals and their availability on numerous international entertainment platforms means that these “home-grown” films with limited local distribution also appeal to global audiences.

Likewise, conceptions of Moroccan masculinity are not only dependent on their own cultural, religious, and historical narratives, but those ideas are also influenced and mediated by

the diffusion of Euro-American culture: cinema, music, the media, advertising and gay pornography disseminate this vision of gay identity far beyond the Western cultural domain. The power of new means of mass communication, particularly the Internet, accelerates this circulation. Thus, men and boys are exposed to these narrative elements too. (Rebucini 2013: 394)

The role of the Internet has been incalculable in creating and shaping ideas of masculinity and the social role of the masculine in societies around the world.

In light of these divergent discourses, I would like to discuss briefly some of the ideas about masculinity in Morocco. Generally, Morocco remains a country that is traditionally patriarchal in social structure, particularly outside of its urban centers. Sociologist Abdessamade Dialmy researched Moroccan men's views on masculinity, and his findings indicate that while males’ perspectives on masculinity may vary in urban centers and in different geographic regions, masculinity is still often equated with ideas about male strength, economic status, family maintenance, and being a “commander.”6 Addressing no specific questions about male same-sex desire, his research illustrated that, central to many respondents’ construction of masculine identity, heterosexuality was foundational: “‘Being a man is being heterosexual.’ This recurrent phrase signifies the rejection of homosexuality because it is understood as an anomaly that undermines masculinity” (Dialmy 2004: 93). While Moroccan ideas about masculinity may be slowly changing, same-sex desire among men remains firmly incompatible with masculinity.

Heteronormative ideas of masculinity are also anchored in Moroccan law. Article 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex, and violations of this article carry a fine and potential prison time. Such a law reinforces heterosexual heteronormativity and stymies the open expression of nonnormative sexualities. This penal statute, which represents Moroccan society's mores, values, and ethics, has enshrined in the state's social fabric a legal interdiction that clearly rejects displays of same-sex desire. Within this cultural context, Article 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code shapes and reinforces constructions of patriarchal masculinity in Morocco by “normalizing” heterosexual desire while serving as a tool to vilify, penalize, and to often humiliate men that love other men. Two sequential scenes early in Much Loved illustrate the heterosexual desire with masculinity. As Soukaina is walking to the restroom, she sees Ahmad's friend having wild sex with Noha and two other prostitutes. Noha breathlessly joins her in the bathroom to complain about what an insatiable lover he is. In the subsequent scene, as Soukaina and Noha are in the taxi returning home from the Saudi party, she admits to Noha that she did not have sex with Ahmad. Noha mockingly replies: “Money, poetry, and no sex … He's a fag for sure.”

If masculinity remains firmly tethered to heterosexuality, then what is it like to be a gay effeminate adolescent in the Arab-speaking world—and more precisely in the Maghreb? Taïa retells his story of sexual awakening as a gay adolescent and young man in Salvation Army. The film begins with Taïa as a 15-year-old boy living in his parents’ home in Salé with six sisters and a younger brother, but his biggest secret is his sexual desire for his much older and virile brother. The narrative traces Taïa's sexual education from adolescence to young adulthood, where he engages in sexual relations with Westerners, often with financial benefits. Taïa recounts the kind of sexual relationships that he encountered as an adolescent from sexual fantasies about his brother to anal intercourse with a neighborhood man. Through one of these sexual relationships with a Swiss man, he is able to migrate to Switzerland as a student, where he experiences the disappointment of Western myths of openness and acceptance. According to Taïa, the film and the novel upon which it is based are about transformation—the disregard for tradition and religion—but they are also about naming that which remains silent, obscured, or ignored, such as male same-sex desire, sexual tourism, and pedophilia (Whittaker 2009). Salvation Army reminds us of Bersani's (1995)—and others’—assertion that societies produce multiple sexualities with varying degrees of visibility, normalization, acceptance, and validity.

Much Loved also explores the dangers of silent sexualities—the imposition of silence on sexual dissidents whose societies condemn them or even threaten them. Ayouch's film is just one of the latest in a cinematic evolution in Morocco that has become increasingly subversive since the late 1990s in its portrayals of nonnormative sexualities as well as other culturally taboo subjects such as drugs, police brutality, and corruption (Orlando 2011). Much Loved, along with earlier films such as Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army, is an important part of a growing body of Moroccan queer films that contribute to the wider emerging Queer Arab and Queer World cinema (Orlando 2009; Temple 2017). While these filmmakers are part of a transnational Moroccan cinematic community, their filmic diegesis and creative inspirations remain firmly planted in Morocco. Depicting the underbelly of society and its outcasts, Much Loved shows prostitutes partying in Marrakesh, speaking raunchy Arabic, and servicing wealthy Saudi clients; gay transvestite prostitutes; drug use; lesbian sex; sexual tourism; and police corruption. Like Taïa, Ayouch sees the cinema as a social mirror able to reflect social truths and where no subject is taboo. And despite Morocco's censored society, he gives a voice to those prohibited stories—particularly those deemed most queer (Hopewell 2017).

Salvation Army

In a region that criminalizes and drives its sexual minorities underground, Abdellah Taïa boldly recounted his same-sex desire in his novel, Salvation Army (L'Armée du salut), that was published in France in 2006, making him one of a mere handful of contemporary openly gay Arab-speaking writers from the Maghreb including Rachid O. and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri (Ncube 2014). Even though the filmic version of Salvation Army is autofictional rather than autobiographical, it gave the Arab world its first onscreen gay protagonist and his narrative (Alami 2014). In both works, Taïa broke cultural taboos by not only representing same-sex desire in Morocco, but also describing his own incestuous desire for his older brother. Although he links queerness with both gay sexual tourism and migration, his narrative decenters stereotypical notions of Arabic masculinity such as marrying, financially supporting a family, and protecting the family's honor.

In both the cinematic and novel form, Salvation Army recounts Taïa's quasi-coming-of-age story depicting the hardscrabble life in a large blue-collar family. As the adolescent middle son surrounded by five sisters, Abdellah's familial role is sometimes gender-ambiguous as he is still somewhere between childhood and manhood. For part of the film, he still sleeps in the room between his mother, sisters, and baby brother and also helps with traditionally gendered chores such as preparing food, washing clothes, and taking bread to the baker. It is only as he grows that his nonstereotypical behavior, such as crying easily, becomes a source of ridicule for nonconformity with expectations regarding masculinity. While he negotiates new roles and ways of interacting in Moroccan society, Abdellah concomitantly discovers his sexuality. Growing up in Casablanca as a gay youth, Abdellah is in love with his oldest brother, about whom he fantasizes while lying in his brother's bed or sniffing his underwear. Discovering trade routes for sexual tourism and learning to navigate the sexual dynamics and codes with closeted Moroccans are just two examples of this film's portrayal of the acquisition of different types of queer knowledge to illustrate how Salvation Army complicates national narratives surrounding sexuality. Some critics have argued that the film's protagonist is “neither a victim nor oppressed by the socio-economic and patriarchal conditions of his existence but rather that his sexuality is naïve and perverse, exploited and exploitative” (Georgis 2015). A reading of the film without the consideration of Taïa's written works or interviews may seem justified in light of the film's stark silences and emotional restraint. Taïa tells quite a different story in interviews:

“What destroyed me, killed me, was when I discovered that no one will help me,” he says. “The society wants to rape me, men were harassing me, some others insulting, touching, and I was the one always condemned. People felt they had the right to exploit me sexually. All the neighborhood knew. Even my family knew. But they abandoned me. This was very cruel. Very tragic. I always felt and I am still feeling that way attached to my family, to the poor class, to our poor imagination, our poor situation.” (Dehghan 2014)

Thus, Taïa meant for Salvation Army to be a very conscious challenge to a Moroccan society that had abandoned him and continues to abandon its queer children.

Although this film is based on an autobiographic work, Taïa stated that he wanted to objectify his story so that it became more than just his story. This meant that he had to find not only the right critical distance but also to find the appropriate images to convey the hard reality of Morocco and the silences it imposes on everyone (Knegt 2014). In the context of queer sexualities—those that fail to adhere to heteropatriarchal norms—Taïa has stated that he views this silence as a function of Morocco's religious-political institutions that condemn and penalize nonheteronormative sexualities through censorship, religious discourse, social stigmatization, and discrimination. This mantle of silence is not only imposed on those whom the law would penalize or imprison for their sexual desire but also their families that cannot or will not defend their children, brothers, sisters, and others. To a large extent, it was these social, religious, and familial prohibitions that prevented his family from speaking up in his defense and that left him feeling “vulnerable as a gay boy in a society that would always sacrifice the weakest, the most fragile, the poorest of the poor” (Dehghan 2014). Ultimately, the filmic protagonist Abdellah flees his Maghrebi past and family to create a new life in Europe, one that appears more liberating for a gay male.

While many queer French films representing Franco-Maghrebis (French citizens whose families immigrated to France from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) integrate dialogue, music, and dance as modalities for the transmission of knowledge, expressions of desire and resistance, and seduction, Taïa eschews these cinematic conventions of his adopted country.7 It is precisely through silences that Taïa highlights different ways of expressing same-sex desire in an Islamic, Arabic-speaking country where knowledge structures, particularly sexuality, are conveyed through unarticulated modes of expression that bypass verbal discourse. Thus, Abdellah's sexual encounters with Moroccan men do not involve conversations rife with innuendo, flirting, compliments, or other verbal expressions of interest and desire, which might be considered essential to Western ideas of attraction and seduction. Unlike commercially successful films that have portrayed Arab male nonnormative sexualities, Taïa's articulation of Moroccan queerness is based on his lived experiences and fantasy. But his film is specifically intended to speak to the Arab world—especially Morocco—in the hopes that its authenticity will resonate with its viewers. According to Taïa, growing up as an effeminate Muslim boy in Morocco he learned through sexual experience at an early age how vulnerable he was. The slight frame, fine features, and smoothness of the younger Abdellah in the first part of the film coincide with a classical view of homosexuality in the Arab-speaking world in which a male adolescent's beauty can be acknowledged as desirable and natural.8

The film's privileging of the gestural or physical that supplants the verbal may frustrate Western expectations of psychological access to a protagonist's feelings and thoughts. The film's accentuation of nontraditional manifestations of sexual desire outside of Western sexual epistemology and the film's notions of queer communities contribute to a broader conception of queerness and a deeper understanding of how members of those communities live and experience the world and the role of masculinity within that social structure. In the first third of the film, Taïa presents three of Abdellah's sexual encounters. The first one occurs with an older Moroccan who follows Abdellah in the street. Few words are exchanged as he leads Abdellah into a construction site. After entering and closing the makeshift door, the only words spoken are the man's sexual commands as he prepares to penetrate Abdellah and his observation that Abdellah is already sexually aroused. The second episode takes place in the market as Abdellah is shopping with his father. As they pass a fruit vendor's stall, he hails Abdellah to come over. His father asks him who the man is, Abdellah responds that it is a brother's friend, and the father tells him to go and see what he wants. The next scene is of Abdellah and the vendor at the back of the stall holding hands and sitting close to one another, which exposes a more tender type of seduction by an older man as opposed to the raw directness of the young man in the first scene. Abdellah then exits the market with a watermelon as his father patiently leans against a wall waiting for his son. The entire sexual transaction—the telegraphing of desire—rests not on verbal cues such as flirting but rather on physical semiotics.

One must be careful not to equate Taïa's comments on the silence surrounding nonheteronormative desire with lack of opportunity. While these older men might be read as predatory in their pursuit of sex with an adolescent male, Taïa makes it clear that Abdellah is also quite capable of sexual cruising. Shortly after his encounter with the fruit vendor, Abdellah goes for a walk down a street, where he sees a younger man, in his early twenties, who is rolling a cigarette. Abdellah asks him if he can help him, and within minutes Abdellah has taken him to the same construction site where the two do not speak, but through gazes and physical gestures move closer toward one another until they are kissing and caressing one another. Their desire and mutual consent to a sexual encounter are transmitted and negotiated through physical cues rather than through words. In portraying these scenes, Taïa is exposing Western audiences to a different type of sexual knowledge, one that is not mediated through language but rather through a complex semiotic system familiar only to those within a specific social group.

Besides exposing a primarily Western audience to alternative ways of thinking about same-sex relations, networks, and interactions outside of gay bars, bathhouses, chat rooms, and other clearly defined queer spaces, Salvation Army also interrogates ideas of family. Salvation Army reminds the spectator of the incest taboo and the possibility of familial love metamorphizing into the erotic. One half of the film is dedicated to Abdellah's erotic interest in his hypermasculine older brother, Slimane, who supports the family and acts as a type of paterfamilias. His obsession with his brother clearly passes into the sexual as is indicated when he leaves flowers on Slimane's pillow, watches him sleep, helps wash his hair, or smells his brother's underwear as he masturbates in his brother's bed. Thus, the spectator is not only made to confront the possibility of this forbidden love but to participate in it through the close-up camera shot of Abdellah doing these acts and the emotional response that his character elicits. The consequence is to unhinge epistemological certainties, to see askew, to imagine, desire, and experience outside socially prescribed avenues of sexuality. How can love and sexual intimacy be rethought and lived outside traditional categories that define brothers and sisters or straight and gay? The director's filmic “confession” of his erotic desire for his brother encourages queer speculation as to what the normalization of consanguine sexual relationships might look like.

Whether or not Abdellah's family, besides his father, knows of his sexual orientation is never made clear, but this ambiguity provides fertile ground for comment. Article 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex with penalties that may range from six months to three years in prison and a monetary fine, and within Morocco the dominant Islamic discourses condemn same-sex attraction as immoral (Puterbaugh 1990). Despite Abdellah's family having been formed and steeped in the religious and moral climate that informed this law, there are no scenes of any family member disciplining Abdellah's desire, even though it may be known but not acknowledged. Only one scene in the film may be interpreted as a social or communal manifestation of opprobrium meant to discipline Abdellah for his failure to conform to heteronormative ideas of gender and/or sexuality. Anonymous residents, hidden behind closed shutters, pelt him with small stones as he carries his mother's bread dough to the baker's ovens. This is traditionally a role for the daughters, and it remains unclear why he is being stoned. Is it because he is doing women's work or because residents had gotten wise to his homosexual trysts in the neighborhood depicted in the preceding scenes? Or are both reasons valid?

Certain residents recognize Abdellah's queerness—his feminine features and effeminate behavior—and they may even know about his sexual availability for the neighborhood men. However, if his family knows or suspects his dissonant sexual orientation, they remain silent and never address his queerness in the film. Even Slimane, Abdellah's macho brother and the object of his desire, does not seem to notice or wish to comment on his effeminate little brother. The willful ignorance or intentional misrecognition is exemplified by the father's actions, which make him a sympathetic accomplice rather than just the paterfamilias whose duty is to enforce the “law”—the heterosexist and theocratic rules of Moroccan society. When the father catches his son sitting in their small garden, who is picking petals from a flower and distinctly saying “he loves me, he loves me not,” the father pretends not to have heard it. Despite the unequivocal revelation of Abdellah's queer subjectivity, the father ignores the sexual realities that his son has just conveyed, and he inquires about his health, happiness, and whether he has eaten. All of his questions demonstrate tenderness and concern for his son. The father's almost maternal caresses and solicitude are sharply juxtaposed with a later scene in which the siblings must rescue their mother from their father's physical abuse.

The father's role as accomplice/confidant in Abdellah's subversive sexual practices is further gestured to in the scene already discussed between the older fruit vendor and Abdellah—a scenario that should have made the father suspicious given his son's sexual orientation and effeminate comportment. The father does not pursue any questions regarding why Abdellah was gifted with the large watermelon nor why he was away so long. The apparent quid pro quo of sex for remuneration is accepted. This scene resonates with a later episode in which an older Abdellah and his Swiss lover are sightseeing by boat. As the couple sails by the sites near the coastal city of El Jadida, the intrusive rowboat-owner tells Abdellah that he is lucky to have nabbed a rich guy. The subtext is that their relationship is fundamentally an economic one: it is “gay-for-pay.” Abdellah does nothing to correct the boat-owner's assumptions. The hypocrisy and silence around same-sex desire that preoccupies Taïa's film is clear: having gay sex for money is acceptable, whereas engaging in emotional same-sex intimacy born from sexual desire is haram—forbidden. These scenes point to a social complicity and construction of masculinity that incorporates sexual acts between the same sex provided that these queer sexualities remain underground and inconspicuous.

Other indications of the father's tolerance, if not acceptance, of Abdellah's homosexuality are that he neither questioned Abdellah's unexplained long absence with the unknown older man nor questioned why his son returned with the generous gift of the large watermelon. These actions, when read in tandem with the father's knowledge of Abdellah's sexual orientation and effeminacy, provide a much more nuanced paternal image from the physically abusive father that enforces a heterosexist and theocratic morality. The filmic representation of the father is even more interesting when one takes into account Taïa's admission that his sexual experiences began early in life but that the men always wanted him to be a “little girl” because he was so effeminate (Dehghan 2014). Furthermore, the author and filmmaker has spoken of the trauma of a family that failed to defend or protect him from men who wanted to engage in sexual acts with him, recalling how drunken men once gathered outside his house and yelled for the family to send him down so they could have sex with him. Taïa (2012) detailed this traumatic and pivotal event in an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “A Boy to Be Sacrificed.” To deal with some of this trauma and to tell his truth about Morocco, the filmmaker specifically set out to make a film about secret semiotics, “of hidden secrets”—one that requires the decoding of silence and gesture. Taïa's statements as recently as of March 2016 demonstrate that he is particularly troubled by Moroccan parents’ reactions to their children's same-sex desire, which may often end in physical abuse or, at the very least, the renunciation of their children. These same remarks offer some insight into the filmic representation of Abdellah's father.9 Because the father's response to hearing his son's verbal pining for a male is not met with overt paternal censorship or discipline but rather parental concern and even tenderness, Taïa offers possible alternative narratives to the socially expected responses in Morocco based on conservative Islamic influences in that country.

Even though the father's choice to neither condemn nor renounce his gay son provides a potentially subversive and uncommon response to male same-sex desire in Morocco, Salvation Army, as a whole, does not offer a celebratory vision of gay life. On the contrary, this film offers a coldly objective critique of gay sex, sexual tourism, and the power relations between young men in Third World countries and traveling queers from the First World. As the movie illustrates, part of the queer influence of these travelers and tourists is not just the sexual component, but also an exposure to Western perspectives, mores, and ideologies that differs from those in Morocco. While Abdellah acts as a guide for Western gay men to whom he reveals Morocco's past, these Westerners introduce him to potentially new phenomenological possibilities: alternative ways to experience and understand himself and the world. For instance, the film makes it clear that it was a Swiss tourist with whom Abdellah became romantically involved that convinced him to leave Morocco to pursue a higher education in literature rather than remain in Morocco and perform a heterosexual charade of marriage and family. The queer overlapping of cultures, sexuality, and social paradigms make possible Abdellah's escape from Morocco to Switzerland. Consequently, while the diegesis may contribute to our better understanding of queer sexualities in a non-Western society, it also contributes to our understanding of the heterogeneous and mutually determining factors involved in queer identities and community formations. One thing that Abdellah's relationships with Western men illustrate is the cultural and intellectual cross-fertilization that these intimate encounters may engender and their power to reshape social relations.

Ultimately, Salvation Army is important because it is one of the first films devoted to the depiction of same-sex relations in an Arab-speaking country—namely Morocco—where it was partially filmed. Avoiding the exoticization of the Arab body often found in Western cinema, Taïa details the lived realities of a queer Moroccan youth without censorial judgment: the same narrative might have expurgated unsavory details if a straight Moroccan still living in his native country had made the film. Even Taïa, who lives in France, expected resistance from the Moroccan government during the filming because of the movie's homosexual themes (Knegt 2014). As the first film written and produced by a gay Moroccan filmmaker about his own queer sexuality, Salvation Army is a pioneer in representing gay sexuality not only in an Arabic-speaking country but also in a predominantly Muslim one. Moreover, his film is important because of his integration of other socially taboo topics such as domestic violence, the desire for an older brother, the queer use of the male body as currency and a site of pleasure, and the unacknowledged sexual tourism that occurs in Morocco. Because Taïa has openly acknowledged that the diegesis is based on his life, the film has an aura of emotional veracity and social realism that insulates it from accusations of exploitation or exoticization that could have occurred had Western screenwriters authored the narrative. Through the life of Abdellah, Taïa offers us a glimpse into the world of an effeminate, queer Moroccan youth and the muffled but polyphonic voices of dissident sexualities—those that whisper in the marketplaces, the construction sites, and the alleys where Taïa both takes and gives pleasure. In both the literary and filmic versions of Salvation Army, Taïa uses his voice to shatter the silences around same-sex desire and queer affective networks that suffocated him as a youth in his country of birth. By guiding the spectator down these affective and literal paths of desire, the author/director succeeds in opening up a space that challenges “hegemonic Moroccan norms and value systems” (Ncube 2014: 476–477) while offering new perspectives on Arabic sexualities.

Much Loved

Unlike Salvation Army, queer sexualities are not central to Much Loved's plot; rather, they function as subtle counterpoints to ostensibly heteronormative sex practices. While Ayouch has stated that his primary goal was to critique sex tourism in Morocco, he is also very careful to include nonnormative sexualities and communities that intersect and destabilize a symbol of heterosexual desire—prostitution. One of the three main female characters, Randa, is the queerest figure of the three main protagonists in the film. Portrayed as the most resistant or discriminating of the sex workers, she dances with the Maghrebi wife of a visiting French tourist at a posh local club, and she feels a desire stir in her that eventually leads her to the woman's hotel room where Randa begins to explore her sexual attraction to women.

However, the most unexpected depiction of queer desire in the film emerges in the character Ahmad. Less than six minutes into the film, he is introduced in the opening scenes as a rich Saudi client visiting Marrakesh—a man representing a type of predatory male heterosexuality that trades on an objectifying misogyny and socioeconomic power differentials. He is smoking a hookah and voyeuristically enjoying Noha and Soukaina's suggestive dancing, before selecting Soukaina to dance with him in the bacchanalian atmosphere of drugs, booze, music, and exposed flesh. As the party moves into the early morning hours, the sex workers dance one by one for the Saudi men in hopes of being chosen not just to party with them but to sleep with them. As the sex workers dance provocatively—egged on by the Saudis’ catcalls and raunchy innuendo—Ahmad appears to be so sexually attracted to Soukaina that he springs from the couch and begins to dance suggestively with her. These two consecutive scenes function to portray Ahmad as a wolfish hypersexual heterosexual male unable to control his desire. As the men pair off with the women they have chosen, Ahmad takes Soukaina to his bedroom, where he recites a poem he has written. As the camera follows Soukaina's hand from Ahmad's crotch to his face as she kisses him, he remains passive, unaroused, and the close-ups reveal his frozen features. Claiming to have drunk too much, he does not have sex with her. On the drive home, Soukaina describes her evening to Noha, and Noha replies: “Money, poetry, no sex—He's a fag for sure.” The analysis of this worldly wise woman reinforces the stereotype that any “real man” would never pass up the opportunity to sleep with a woman, thereby equating Moroccan masculinity with heterosexual intercourse. Ahmed's recitation of a love poem can be read as placing him in the classical poetic tradition (adab) in which male same-sex desire was pervasive in classic Arabic cultural production.10 As the film progresses, Ahmed's continued inability to bed Soukaina becomes increasingly problematic: he cannot hide his lack of desire and arousal, which bruises her ego. This sexual impasse results in a climactic scene in their relationship. When he is unable to stimulate himself manually in order to have sex with Soukaina, he suggests watching a porn film. Ayouch's close-up and camera angle's focusing on Ahmed's desperate grimaces as he stimulates himself visually highlight the struggle between his sexual desire for men and the expected heterosexual reaction leading to a subsequent performance. In frustration, he leaps out of bed and goes into the bathroom, leaving Soukaina with his computer, which she begins to browse. Finding a file with pictures of young hairless men, she confronts Ahmed by shouting that he never manages to get hard with her and instead she finds pictures of naked guys, which leads to an explosive encounter. She calls Ahmed a faggot, tells him that he is not a real man, and that he has no dignity. This loss of dignity—of honor—puts Ahmed in a passive position, that of a zamel. Soukaina's derogatory articulation of his desire unleashes a violent reaction, and he beats her.

Part of Ayouch's representation of Arab sexuality—in this case Saudi sexuality—is one of a compartmentalized sexual orientation disassociated from an authentic, integrated identity in which one's sexual orientation and social performance are more unified. Ahmed's ostensible heterosexual desire performed for and with his male friends as part of homosocial bonding underscores the heavy heteropatriarchal expectations of certain classes of conservative Islamic societies. Even Ahmed's poetry relates the inner struggle between heteropatriarchal expectations and his own sexual desire that makes him less of man. He recites:

Oh my love, fill my heart with your love. Release me from both worlds. If, ever I offer my heart to someone else but you, let the flames invade me. Oh my love, take all that I desire, take all that I know, take all that I need. Take all that could take me away from you.

Seen through the lens of Ahmed's repressed homosexuality, his poem can be understood as a manifesto of internalized homophobia that disavows his same-sex attraction for a socially imposed sexual desire that is impossible. Yet, even as Ahmad speaks these words of love the camera's side close-up of Ahmad and Soukaina shows Ahmad looking down or away from Soukaina, because his eyes might betray the truth of his desire. To take away all that he knows, desires, and needs would be to raze his libidinal landscape and reconfigure his psyche. Ahmed represents an Islamicate masculinity firmly rooted in social construction and power dynamics. If one man's attraction for another man is often underplayed or ignored in classical Arabic poetry and prose except in ribaldry (mujun) and obscenity (sukhf), then Ayouch's choice of desired male objects for Ahmed falls in line with more traditional historical representations of male same-sex desire (Lagrange 2000: 173). As Soukaina browses the files on Ahmed's computer, the camera zooms in on the photos of young males to reveal naked, hairless young male bodies rather than those of older and more muscularly developed men. Thus, while Ahmed's sexual desire is transgressive, in an Arab context it does not represent an abdication of his virility for a submissive position in the way that photos of more physically developed and hirsute men would be interpreted. Thus, while Ayouch's queer representation of the Arab male body violates socioreligious norms, it falls nevertheless within a historically recognizable and pseudosanctioned category that goes back to classical Arab literature. Importantly, neither Ayouch nor Taïa frame male homosexuality as a consequence of Western contamination but rather as an embedded part of Islamicate life whether in the Maghreb or in the Gulf.

The primary queer characters in Salvation Army (Abdellah) and Much Loved (Ahmed) provide oppositional visions of nonnormative male sexualities. The adolescent Abdellah is portrayed as effeminate and passive, circulating often in feminized domestic space, while Ahmed is always portrayed as a “bro,” drinking, partying, and ogling women. However, Ayouch nuances queer masculinities by juxtaposing an array of male transvestite sex workers that form part of the female protagonists’ social world with the hypermasculine misogyny of the Saudi sexual tourists. This alternate vision of queer male bodies that have relinquished their virility and submitted themselves to a subaltern and passive position falls into the Arab category of khinath (effeminacy). Yet, their circulation and demand as sex workers indicate an unacknowledged market among Arabic as well as foreign “straight men” that calls into question ostensibly heterosexual men's desire and sexual practices. The sex workers in Much Loved complicate notions of binary sexual categories while opening up discussions of sexual fluidity and nuances of desire. As close friends of Noha, Randa, and Soukaina, these queer bodies serve as a literal and metaphorical bridge between toxic notions of masculinity and a non-threatening camaraderie. The friendship and interactions between Noha's little “family” of sex workers and the transgendered prostitutes, particularly Oussmana, create an affective network of support, protection, and wisecracking familiarity that offers not only alternative visions of masculinity but alternative visions of kinship as well.

If sexuality is always political, as Kate Millet (1968) argues, then Taïa's and Ayouch's representations of queer male sexualities are a cinematic cry against the very power structures that oppress those people that the films portray. These works have destabilized traditional notions of masculinity by offering alternative conceptualizations and reflecting them back to Moroccan society and to the world. For spectators in Morocco and around the globe, these directors and producers increase our knowledge of queer masculinities within the Arabic-speaking world, of the marginalized LGBTQ communities in the Arabic-speaking world, and of others that are subject to heteronormative patriarchal domination and exclusion. Their films illustrate how institutions interpellate these groups through language and semiotic systems, but, more subversively, they illustrate how we, as spectators, readers, and even students, are involved in the production of knowledge.11 We must interrogate our position vis-à-vis these images and ask ourselves what sort of activity looking at these images is. What does looking have to do with sexuality and how does this viewing inform our own subjectivity?

Ayouch's statement “If we do not speak about ourselves as we really are, some other people will come and do it instead of us” echoes similar comments made by Taïa. Their cinema is a willfully political act of protest to pull back the scab of religious piety and congratulatory morality to expose the unsavory social wounds of sexual tourism, predatory sexuality, misogyny, toxic masculinity and the physical and psychic violence that normative social institutions can inflict and reinforce. From the effete Abdellah in Salvation Army to Ahmed and Oussmana, the transvestite prostitute, in Much Loved, these characters’ stories challenge the semiotic systems of knowledge that not only produce them but also drive them underground rather than allow them to participate authentically and circulate freely in society. These films offer a developing visibility for queer men in Arab-speaking societies that creates the possibility of coalition politics relying on affinities rather than ideologies. Consequently, representations that challenge prevalent notions of masculinity within the Islamicate can be a catalyst for the mobilization of queer and other oppositional modalities. These emerging queer communities can create coalitional and dissident global praxis that can threaten homogenizing socioreligious identities both within the Arab-speaking world and further abroad.

Conclusion

From Casablanca to Marrakesh to France, directors such as Taïa and Ayouch have produced films that reveal previously elided, diverse sexual codes and practices that form Middle Eastern underground sexual economies. Joseph Massad theorizes in Desiring Arabs that the shroud of silence/shame around Arab same-sex sexuality forecloses the possibility of a progressive discourse of identity politics in the Arabic-speaking world; yet, these films have challenged the “will not to know” (2007: 361). While Massad argues that the Western “Gay International,” a conglomeration of various LGBTQ organizations and governmental agencies, seeks to “liberate Muslim ‘gays and lesbians’ from the oppression under which they allegedly live by turning participants of discrete sexual acts into subjects that identify as gay or lesbian” (2007: 362), Taïa and Ayouch represent what queer life is like “on the ground” in Morocco. Taïa, in Salvation Army, has consciously chosen to start this discussion in hopes of encouraging other Arab voices to join him—starting with the fathers and mothers of LGBTQ children. The protagonist, Abdellah, much like the author, becomes part of a queer diaspora that migrates, crosses national boundaries, and, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze, “becomes” or draws lines of fluctuation for one's self (Conley 2005).

These films have opened up a dialogue and critique as to how we might understand queer sexualities in which gay identity is not conceived of as a universal human category or in which queer sexualities generally remain invisible. As transnational, diasporic, and shifting understandings of “queer” develop, the global movie industry, Internet movie sites such as Netflix, YouTube, and other outlets dramatically create a sense of what is local through a virtual cultural hybridity. As a result, “sex is now commercialized in new ways as politics, economy, migration, languages, bodies, pleasures, and power,” all of which come together in “real and virtual spaces,” including films (Yep 2003: 43). Thus, these films are part of an increasing corpus of Moroccan cultural production that reframes the marginalized or invisible subject who has remained illegible or obscured, unable to speak for himself, and which refuses the moralized, criminalized, racialized, and colonized masculinities in the Middle East (Amar 2011).

After Taïa's mother found out he was not only gay but openly gay, Taïa said that she cried for two weeks—not because his mother was upset because he was gay, but because he would not marry (Whitaker 2009). His comment underlies the performative dimensions of Arab masculinity that have nothing to do with desire and authenticity but everything to do with social expectations. What results from these films are more nuanced, complex, and richer understandings of global sexualities that are inclusive, diverse, and multicultural. By situating the spectator as a queer person in the Arab world, the films make the audience able to uncover alternative queer phenomenological experiences as well as circulate in queer communities from the shadowy alleys and construction sites of Casablanca to the orgiastic parties of rich Saudis in Marrakesh. Salvation Army and Much Loved are not merely reflecting Islamicate cultures; they are also quite literally constructing them. These films represent the ongoing evolution in Arab men's relations with their bodies and desires. Islamicate films such as these are eroding overdetermined hegemonic stereotypes of Arab masculinities. The portrayal of hiding and shame born from internalized homophobia in both films as well as migration/escape to more accepting locales can lead the spectator to more careful considerations of less visible queer communities of all types and remind us of the global commonalities of oppression, shame, vulnerability, and violence that too often constitute queer global experiences.

Notes

1

My use of “queer” is inclusive of gay, bi, lesbian, and trans identities while also recognizing the term's political and revolutionary spirit that questions heteropatriarchal categories and binaries. For the purposes of my discussion, queer includes polymorphous “otherness” that calls “attention to that which is marginal with respect to dominant norms” (Chambers 2009: 18).

2

This was also Ayouch's experience: he had no trouble shooting the film in Morocco. The problems came once it was time for distribution within the country (Pritchard 2015).

3

“I proposed it twice to them but they didn't give me any money, so I decided to finance it by myself with two other producers who also put in some of their own money. At the end of the production, we also received funds from CNC in France, bringing our overall budget to 650,000 Euros” (Pritchard 2015).

4

“While it received a lot of critical acclaim in France, the Islamist Moroccan Minister of Communication banned its distribution in the kingdom, after a few graphic rushes from the film that never made it to postproduction were leaked onto the web … for this reason one could argue that Maghrebi cinema has been going against the understood rule in Maghrebi culture that proscribes any representation of sexuality” (Martin 2016: 470).

5

Much Loved played at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia. It was also a featured film at the Toronto Film Festival, and it won multiple prizes including top prize at the Angoulême Film Festival in France.

6

The study (Dialmy 2004) included samples of “ordinary” men and civil employees from Agadir, Khénifra, Oujda, Rabat, Tanger, and Tétouan. The geographic scope included, but was not limited to, the Oriental-Rif (considered the “center of masculinity in its primitive brutality”), the Middle Atlas (where a primitive sexual liberty for women is both permitted and tolerated), and Rabat (the administrative and intellectual capital of Morocco).

7

Many French films such as À toute vitesse (At Full Speed; Gaël Morel, 1996), Drôle de Félix (Adventures of Felix, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, 2000), and Le Fil (The String, Mehdi Ben Attia, 2009) have used these elements; they are not to be found, however, among Taïa's filmic techniques.

8

“A consequence of the recognition of male beauty is that a grown man's appreciation of a handsome adolescent's charms is a natural tendency … this natural appreciation of beauty possibly leads to desire” (LaGrange 2000: 172).

9

“Une autre chose m'attriste, me fait pleurer à chaque fois: c'est l'absence des parents. On n'entend pas les pères et les mères marocains défendre leurs enfants homosexuels. Ils ne disent rien, ne font rien. Ils renient leur propre chair. Se figent et nous figent avec eux dans un silence meurtrier” (“Another thing makes me sad, makes me cry every time: it is the absence of parents. We never heard Moroccan fathers and mothers defend their gay children. They say nothing, do nothing. They deny their own flesh. Freeze themselves and freeze us with them in a deadly silence”) (Ibnouzahir 2016). All translations are my own, unless stated otherwise.

10

Interestingly, the Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitai (1989) writes in one of his short stories of an extremely good-looking young Egyptian man that is strategically stationed at a luxury hotel's restaurant to draw business. A wealthy Saudi client tries to seduce the beautiful young man by, among other things, reciting him poetry.

11

To further illustrate this point, a conference at the University of El-Jadida in May 2012 organized around Taïa's works drew criticism from conservative elements within Morocco that argued that “the miscegenation of homosexuality with the pursuit of knowledge on a college campus would contaminate the minds of students” (Mantrach 2012). See also Provencher (2017).

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Contributor Notes

Lowry Martin is an Associate Professor of French at the University of Texas at El Paso. He received his Phd from the University of California–Berkeley in French with a Designated Emphasis in Women's Studies, Gender, and Sexuality. His primary fields of study are French literature during France's Third Republic, Francophone cinema, and the intersections of law, literature, and sexuality. He has written on Dumas, Colette, and Proust as well as Francophone and Israeli cinema.His book, Sapphic Mosaics: Fantasy, Desire, and the Cultural Production of Paris-Lesbos 1880–1939 is currently under review, and he is working on a second monograph entitled Imagining the Promised Land: Transnational Imaginaries and French Cultural Production.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Al-Ghitai, Gamal. 1989. Risalat al basa'ir fi al-masa'ir [XXX]. Cairo: Madbuli.

  • Amar, Paul. 2011. “Middle East Masculinity Studies: Discourses of ‘Men in Crisis,’ Industries of Gender Revolution.Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 7 (3): 3670. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jmiddeastwomstud.7.3.36.

    • Crossref
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  • Amer, Sahar. 2014. “A Right to Exist: Australia's First Queer Arab Film Festival Launches.The Conversation, 19 August. http://theconversation.com/a-right-to-exist-australias-first-queer-arab-film-festival-launches-30524.

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  • Bersani, Leo. 1995. Homos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Butler, Judith. 1997. “Merely Cultural.Social Text 5253: 265277. doi:10.2307/466744.

  • Conley, Verena. 2005. “Minoritarian.” In The Deleuze Dictionary, ed. Adrian Parr, 164165. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Chambers, Samuel A. 2009. The Queer Politics of Television. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Dehghan, Saeed Kamali. 2014. “Abdellah Taïa: ‘In Arab Countries, Homosexuality Is a Crime. This Has Got to Change.’The Guardian, 3 October. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/03/abdellah-taia-salvation-army-interview-armee-du-salut-homosexuality-morocco.

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  • Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Georgis, Dina. 2015. “Muffled Scream: Queer Affects in Taïa's Salvation Army.Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research 1 (2). https://www.gwi-boell.de/en/2016/01/29/muffled-scream-queer-affects-abdellah-taias-salvation-army.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In A Queer Time & Place. New York: New York University Press.

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  • Ibnouzahir, Zineb. 2016. “Abdellah Taïa: ‘Même quand ils subissent le pire, les homosexuels n'ont pas le droit à la pitié’” [Abdellah Taïa: Even when they experience the worst treatment, homosexuals do not have the right to compassion]. Le Maroc des femmes [Women's Morocco], 31 March. https://lemarocdesfemmes.com/2016/03/31/abdellah-taia-meme-quand-ils-subissent-le-pire-les-homosexuels-marocains-nont-pas-droit-a-la-pitie/.

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