“SALVATION ARMY”— Growing Up Gay and Muslim

salvation army

“Salvation Army” (“L’armée du salut”)

Growing Up Gay and Muslim

Amos Lassen

I already reviewed “Salvation Army” after seeing on the festival circuit but now it is opening in New York City on January 23, 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center so I decided to go back and have another look. Since it is opening here, we can expect a DVD release soon as well.

In the past we have had many films dealing with gay coming-of-age stories. “Salvation Army” is the directorial debut of acclaimed Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, and it is based on his own autobiographical novel and is a quiet film that shows us the nastiness of growing up with desire that must be hidden.

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The film opens with young Abdellah (Saïd Mrini) sneaking into his older brother Slimane’s (Amine Ennaji) bedroom, staring at his clothes lying on the bed, and slowly cuddling up to them, as if he were being held in the arms of a missing lover. Most of us have had similar experiences—reducing desire to fantasy and we can identify with what we see on the screen. I read and reviewed the book long before I saw the film and I was struck by it. In the book Abdellah is often held tight by the older brother’s hands, like a shield against Morocco of the outside of the home. Both the book and the film are haunting and we see that literature is the genesis for both the film and for Abdellah’s own trajectory of survival and escape. The story is told simply in brief fragments. We are very aware of the war inside Abdellah who is so repressed that he is mute as he enters the threshold of desire which is latent and not accomplished. He has to make peace with worshipping his brother from a distance— through looking at and for him. It’s an intransitive kind of looking bound to never find any satisfaction. For physical pleasure and consummation, Abdellah is forced to search elsewhere. In the beginning it is in the hands of older strangers who penetrate him violently at construction sites and the sounds that are heard are the men telling him to spread his legs and open up. Later there is a college professor from Switzerland, who becomes Abdellah’s way out of Morocco, but certainly not out of his existential misery.

I have seen many, many movies about coming-of-age but this is the first that shows how a young gay boy experiences alienation and he does so with concision, softness, and poetic accuracy. Abdellah may, when he feels courageous, be able to kneel by his father’s side and lay his head, or kiss his hand, or playfully hug his shirtless brother, but he never voices about what he feels. There is not much dialogue and what there is comes across as banal; characters never utter more than just one line at a time. The drama of the film is in its silence and one boy’s despair and desolation as he realizes that he has absolutely no resources to understand, or express. “This is a film about the deafening silence of queerness. Or, rather, the deafening silence exacted onto queerness if a queer boy is to survive at all”.

Abdellah is a teen who lives with his poor family in Casablanca in an overcrowded small house. During the day he helps his sisters doing household chores and his mother who seems perpetually angry with him. This could be because Abdellah is a boy and she thinks of him like she thinks of her husband who she despises. Her husband has been physically abusive to her but she also knows that Abdellah is different than other boys. Even at this young age, Abdellah accepts his homosexuality and has sexual encounters with older men. He is aware of the danger of doing this and he dreams of getting away to somewhere where he can be himself. As I said earlier, he idolizes his older brother Slimane and once when he, Slimane and his brother Mustapha went for a weekend to the sea, Abdellah cruised a older European man and offered himself up to him. Slimane was busy with a waitress that he met.

Then we move ahead ten years and Abdellah is now grown up and is living in a beautiful apartment in Casablanca owned by a Swiss Professor who obviously adores him.  However, we see that he is sullen and that he does not feel for the professor what the professor feels for him. He does however use him to gain a Visa and a grant to go study at the Professor’s University in Geneva, and once this happens, he immediately dumps his benefactor even though it leaves him homeless and penniless in an alien country.

In the final scene of the film we see Abdellah finding refuge in the Salvation Army Hostel where he meets up with a fellow Moroccan who starts singing a song.  It’s one of Abdellah’s favorites from when he and his sisters were crowded around their small TV set watching Egyptian movies about freedom and love, and was one of this his few happy childhood memories.  Now he at last has his freedom.

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 Writer and director, Abdellah Taia, was the first Moroccan writer to ever come out publicly, and this is based on one of Taia’s own autobiographically based novel. In this, his debut movie, Taia claims that it is the first film ever to have a gay Arab protagonist, and although it has a finely tuned Moroccan sensitivity to it, it is totally relatable. He gives us an Abdellah who struggles with his identity and truth gives him validation. Somehow Taia managed to film this secretly in Morocco and the world really needs to see how hard it is to be oneself in many parts of today’s world. I believe that American gays will find this to be quite shocking.

From the very start, the tone of this film is frank: while on an errand, 15-year-old Abdellah is pulled aside by an older man into a construction site, where they have sex. The teen’s father doesn’t overlook the male attention directed toward his son. In one instance, he tells Abdellah to spend time with an overly friendly fruit vendor. His father waits while they do their business, and later, the boy brings home the fruit he received in exchange for his body.

Abdellah’s not a passive victim; he seeks out men, sometimes making the first move, often looking for no more than a sign of affection. The film is already daring in the way it shows us teen homosexuality but it goes even further by showing Abdellah’s adoration of his older well-built brother. Abdellah steals his brother’s shorts for a sniff and I do not recall seeing something so bold in a film from the Arab world.

Then we move forward to the professor and then to the Salvation Army hostel. The fact that the hostel belongs to the Salvation Army is significant now but I have a feeling that when the movie was made, we did not know what we now about the Salvation Army and its policy on homosexuality. They do not want our money and they do not want us in their shelters. The Salvation Army has publicly stated this and we, as a community, have ceased giving them money. (The irony to this is that I worked for the Salvation Army in Little Rock, Arkansas after Hurricane Katrina and they were wonderful to me and they knew that I was gay. At that time their policy was not public. I believe it was just five years ago that it was exposed. In case you did not know, the Salvation Army is a religion and it is all about salvation).

We meet the older Abdellah at the Salvation Army (now played by Karim Ait M’hand) a refuge from homelessness in Geneva. It’s the one place where ne can find a place to sleep and eat. This is a very powerful film and it hurt to watch it but it is also a very important film about homosexuality in the Arab/Muslim world where we have been taught that is a crime that results in being stoned to death.