(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - The First Love Affair of Rachid O., as Depicted in His Autofictional Work 'The Astonished Child'
From "Not Your Uncle: Text, Sex and the Globalized Moroccan Author" by Richard Serrano, in World Writing: Poetics, Ethics, Globalization, edited by Mary Gallagher (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
Sexual mores and practices are particularly susceptible to the pressures of globalization, since the exported American aesthetic is so much about selling sex, or about selling via sex, while the Western touristic impulse is so much about buying sex or at least about buying into the eroticization of other places. Yet, somehow homosexual practices and mores are also especially resistant to the sorts of standardization demanded by globalization. In this essay, I explore the construction of meaning and dissolution of significance surrounding what most Euro-Americans would consider homosexuality in the works of two Moroccan writers, Driss Chraïbi, who first published in the early 1950s, and Rachid O, who first published in the mid-1990s.
A little more than forty years after Driss-narrator’s fictional departure for Paris and exactly forty years after the publication of Chraïbi’s novel, the gay – and this time the adjective seems appropriate beyond dispute – Moroccan writer Rachid O appeared on the literary scene with the publication of L’Enfant ébloui (The Astonished Child) with Gallimard in 1995. This book of interrelated narratives was followed by the similarly structured Plusieurs vies (Several Lives) in 1996, the novel Chocolate chaud (Hot Chocolate) in 1998, and the novel Ce qui reste (That Which Remains) in 2002.
In Rachid O’s first two books we get the sense that Rachid may be working his way through the receptive stage of the same process of sexual maturation that Driss experienced, but by the time we reach the two works identified as novels, it is clear that he is not going to evolve beyond receptive homosexuality. The narrator’s feelings about this state of affairs are not wholly unambiguous, although he never seems to suffer from a complex about his sexual orientation. Nor do we have any evidence that his family is particularly concerned that he give up men and marry a woman.
In a development sure to make an American, especially an American teacher, squirm, Rachid’s first love affair is with his Arabic teacher, who first beds the boy when the latter is thirteen. This would seem to be both acceptable and unacceptable in Morocco. The teacher’s family is aware but pretends not to know, while the other students in the class encourage Rachid to become the teacher’s lover in order to facilitate their own sexual conquest of the boy:
Ils voulaient juste coucher avec moi comme ca se passe au Maroc quand il y a un plutôt joli garçon dans une classe, on lui répète qu’il est mignon jusqu’à ce qu’il craque et accepte de se faire enculer, et là ils pensaient que ce serait encore plus facile puisque j'étais déjà le petit ami du professeur.
[They just wanted to sleep with me as happens in Morocco when there is a pretty boy in the class. They keep telling him that he’s cute until he gives in and lets them sodomize him, and they thought that it would be easier in this case, since I would already be the teacher’s boyfriend.] (L’Enfant ébloui, 66)
Nowhere in this account is there any sign that Rachid’s classmates disapprove; instead, they are eager for the affair to begin. Rachid also insists on the normality of his experience, suggesting that this is what typically happens in Morocco. The erotic dimension of the teacher-student relationship has been a component of Mediterranean culture since at least the height of classical Athenian culture, but it would be a mistake for us to consider it merely a shard of the past that has survived in present-day Morocco, since the ensuing 2,500 years and the great distance separating the Aegean from the Atlas have remade the context of these practices many times over. Rachid O’s stories demonstrate how complicated the reality of teacher-student love in contemporary Morocco has become. Stereotypically such a relationship would end once the junior partner reaches manhood. In other words, the junior partner’s termination of the relationship would mark the latter’s entry into adulthood.
However, Rachid and his teacher do not end their relationship because Rachid turns to women as he matures (à la Driss). During a moment when Rachid expresses tenderness by kissing his teacher all over his back, the latter upbraids him:
Tu ne devrais plus faire ça. Un garçon doit s’intéresser aux filles pour devenir un homme. On ne devrait plus se voir.
[You shouldn’t do that anymore. A boy should take interest in girls in order to become a man. We shouldn’t see each other anymore.] (L’Enfant ébloui, 69)
Although this does not mark the end of their affair, the teacher shows a keen interest in Rachid’s maturation. For example, the first time Rachid ejaculates during their love-making, the teacher takes him out to dinner to celebrate (L’Enfant ébloui, 73). And as it transpires, their relationship comes to an end when the teacher, and not Rachid, falls in love with a woman. Rachid, who earlier had been proud that he was the only boy the teacher had been with or whom the teacher had even looked at, falls short of recognizing just who has evolved: ‘Maisj’ai vu que maintenant c’était finie sa période pédé, c’était un hétéro, il ne pouvait plus m’aimer moi personnellement, le seul et dernier garçon qu’il ait connu’ [But I now saw that his pederastic period was over, he was a hetero, he could no longer love me personally, the only and last boy he’d known] (L’Enfant ébloui, 79). There is a contradiction at the centre of Rachid’s understanding of his teacher. He describes the teacher as heterosexual, but in the same sentence also recognizes that the pederastic chapter of the latter’s life was coming to an end. This was the sort of evolution the teacher expected of Rachid, having seen evidence of maturation into heterosexuality in Rachid’s first ejaculation, but instead it is Rachid who witnesses the teacher’s maturation into exclusive heterosexuality.
Rachid’s understanding of this shift is further confused by the terminology he employs. ‘Pédé’ can refer specifically to a pederast as well as to homosexuals more generally, and since Rachid places ‘pédé’ in opposition to ‘hétéro,’ it is obvious that here he means ‘pédé’ as ‘gay.’ In another story, ‘Rue de la gare,’ when Rachid is among a group of Swiss gay men, he uses the term’s ambiguity to provocative effect:
Vincent détestait les pédérastes et trouvait que le mot ‘pédé’ que moi je prononçais était vulgaire et ne s’appliquait qu’aux pédérastes et qu’il se sentait plus gay que pédé, tous étaient d’accord là-dessus.
[Vincent hated pederasts and thought the word ‘pédé’ that I pronounced was vulgar and applied only to pederasts and that he considered himself more gay than ‘pédé,’ everyone was in agreement on that.] (Plusieurs vies,75)
As far as we can tell (and we do not have much access into his interior world), the teacher does not and would not consider himself gay. As Rachid notes, he looks at women and is heterosexual, but he has a pederastic interlude when he wants an underage boy, or at least wants this one. The boundaries between different kinds of sexual behaviour are thus blurred and elastic, while the vocabulary used to describe them is inadequate and contradictory, due in part to importing French terminology to describe Moroccan experience. That ‘pédé’ means one thing in Morocco and another thing among Europeans, and that Rachid-narrator knows this and can provoke gay Europeans by pretending not to know this perhaps means that Jacqueline Kaye is naïve when she believes that Moroccans unconsciously mimic their double alienation when using French. Or perhaps it means instead that Rachid O lives in a world in which a Moroccan can be more adept at manipulating situational French than a group of Swiss also speaking French as a second language. Unlike in the Morocco of Le Passé simple, there is no authoritarian French teacher threatening Rachid with a big fat zero if he uses a French word in a way not intended by most French speakers. Since Rachid visits Zurich, unlike Driss, who moves to Paris, authoritative use of the French language is decentred. Driss the narrator’s father wants him to learn French to become French enough to outsmart the French, whereas Rachid the narrator learns French to master the word ‘pédé’ to the point where he can make his Swiss hosts feel stupid.
Nonetheless, ‘pédé’ is not a word we can imagine Rachid saying to his teacher. Whatever its ambiguities and contingencies, it can only be applied to him fleetingly, even wistfully. Rachid must romanticize (and thereby mystifiy) his teacher’s attachment to him, insisting repeatedly that he was the only boy the teacher ever ‘knew.’ We do not know enough about the teacher’s life before he met Rachid to determine if he participated in the earliest stages of traditional Arabo-Mediterranean sexual maturation. Was he once a receptive pre-adolescent boy? We also do not know if it is true that he was never involved with another boy. We must take Rachid’s word for it. The teacher engages in the sort of behaviour that Rachid’s Swiss gay friends would label as ‘pédé’ and therefore disdain and distance themselves from. There would seem to them to be something irreducibly Other about the teacher’s sexual behaviour and maturation, his passing attraction to a pre-pubescent boy putting him into a category in which they do not want to find themselves.
Nor can Rachid put himself into the same category as his teacher. On the rare occasion when Rachid, in his later books, shows an interest in pretty boys his own age or younger, we are always assured that nothing happens between them. As we progress through the stories and novels, we also discover that Rachid grows too old to attract the sort of man who wants a boy. It would seem, then, that he is caught between two different economies of same-sex relations. It would be a mistake to argue that in Rachid’s world there is a European system and an Arabo-Mediterranean system, since they overlap and inform one another, but Rachid’s involvements with older European men, which sometimes take on all the trappings of full-blown domesticity, either affect the choices he makes or, at the very least, allow him to make choices about sexual partners and understand these choices in a way that does not make him feel guilty or defective. Thus, his teacher’s turn to exclusive heterosexuality does not cause him to reflect on his own inability to do so. Rather, he accepts himself for who he is, that is, at the very centre of globalized Oprah Winfrey pop psychology discourses of personal happiness (which might make us wonder if Oprah has read Gide’s L’Immoraliste or Corydon at least). Morocco, speaking through the teacher, wants him to take up his proper role as a husband and, eventually, father, while the globalized world wants him to self-affirm and adapt his language to the situation rather than adapt his behaviour to the norms of one system or another.