7 January 2014

Abdellah Taïa: Le Rouge du Tarbouche (2004)

Abdellah Taïa's Le Rouge du tarbouche (literally 'The Red of the Fez') is a collection of short, largely autobiographical stories set in Barbès in north Paris and in the author's native Morocco. Many of them are strangely haunting, having an almost surreal quality.

'Massaouda et le serpent' is about Taïa's aunt Massaouda, for whom it was torture to get up and sit down, but was a comical spectacle for the family as she was playing and exaggerating her ills. He ironises: 'Almost paralysed and still very active', and calls her 'deliciously talkative'. At the end of the month, when everyone is broke and the fridge is bare, she lifts up her djellaba and tells her nephew to bring Saïd the fishmonger '[S]o he can fuck me. [...] I'll open my legs for him for five dirhams! Anyway, it won't be the first time.' She was a great laugh, and it was especially funny as she didn't realise that Saïd was gay. She prepared Taïa and his brother – who were both young at the time – for the future, for life. She never married and was tri-colored: the blue of her tatoos, red hair, and yellow clothes. Some said she was mad, some that she was from another world.

In 'De Jenih à Genet' the author speaks of his mother's cousin Malika in Larache, but especially of her son Ali, with whom he seemed to be in love – certainly fascinated by. It's Ali who takes him to the grave of 'Saint Jehih' and whose exoticism increases when he speaks a strange language: French. But 'Saint Jehih' is in reality Jean Genet, called 'Saint Genet' in Sartre's book about him: Mohamed Al-Katrani lived in Larache and died in a car crash, and Genet insisted on being buried near him. Ali is moved to tears and hugs Taïa, and this is the last time they will meet.

'Le Maître' – partly concerning studying Maupassant's Bel-Ami and his character Georges Duroy – establishes Taïa's enchantment with the world of books as it does with his fascination for mustaches: George's 'confirmed his virility and revealed his beauty', and we remember the man with the mustache in 'Invitations' with whom Taïa shared his complimentary cinema ticket to see Angel Heart, a man who invites him to tea in a café after as a kind of return for the favor, and has something to say but daren't say it, perhaps Taïa is too young. The short story is also about Taïa's teacher, M. Kilito, who also has a mustache, who writes an autobiographical third person narrated book titled La Querelle des images, in which the protagonist is called Abdallah, and thus Kilito unwittingly becomes Taïa's authorial mentor.

'Voyeur à la rue de Clignacourt' describes the early days of Taïa in Paris, in an appartment in the 18th arrondissement, seriously interested in cinema, and the story starts with a mention of Hitchcock's Rear Window, moving to the narrator as a voyeur, watching out of the window the people who live in the building he's in, taking photos of them, imagining names for them, imagining their lives. He concludes that we can't live entirely alone, that we need people in some way, that even if we are in exile we need the Other, as he has exiled himself from his family but found another special 'family' with which he communicates in silence through his window.

Specific references to homosexuality appear in 'Une nuit avec Amr', in which Amr describes his Egyptian family's reaction to his 'femininity' hounding him and eventually confessing to them that he likes men: he leaves his family to their prejudices.

The title of the book comes from a short story of the same title when Taïa is meeting Alain near the Barbès-Rochechouart métro, and in order to be recognised by him he's wearing a fez. An old man – a Moroccan Arab – asks him if his fez is a from Fès or Marrakech. Taïa tells him it was bought in Rabat, whereupon the man tells him it's just a cheap industrial red made in Casablanca. When the narrator shrugs him off, he vows he'll never grow old, as old people like the rude man only destroy others' dreams. When Taïa briefly returns home after two years he discovers the eternal cliché – that you can't go home again: he must return to Paris in hopes of fulfilling his dreams.

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