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Issue 200

Coming Out to George Michael’s ‘Freedom’

‘George Michael has always told the truth. But I don’t believe that truth. Freedom is invisible. It’s just a line in an ad’

BY Abdellah Taïa in Fan Letter , Music | 07 JAN 19

George Michael, 1982. Courtesy: Mirrorpix; photograph: Arthur Sidey

Do we exist? I am not the centre of the world.

In a lucid, desperate attempt, I raise my eyes. I look up – way, way up – at the moon. And it seems bright, unshakeable. Dizzying but so true. So present. This sphere at a remove from me, from us, from all of us, on the other side of the mirror. There’s something else, up there, beyond the clouds and the heavens, beyond our history, beyond our smallness and our disastrous ambitions. There’s no beauty anymore. We keep being told and reminded of this. There’s no variety, no diversity anymore. These days, the world seems determined to return to darkness, determined to exclude, to kill more than ever. Determined to polarize, determined to hate. Determined to return to a criminal purity. To a tragic, wholly invented past, the result of a wrongheaded, stifling, impossible, suicidal nostalgia. When I was just a young gay teenager in Morocco in the 1990s, I felt like I was alone. All alone. On another planet, without any sun. Worse than that: people told me I didn’t exist. Homosexuals don’t exist, Abdellah. Nothing more to it. Get that in your head and your heart. Your family loves you and then it’s over, just like that, they don’t love you anymore, not one bit. They abandon you. They reject you. But, mommy, mommy, I’m only 15 years old. Fifteen years old, daddy, daddy. No, Abdellah, you’re 16 years old. At 16: the men’s words burst out and blaze in your face. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could prepare you for this shock, for the exile you’re driven towards. What will you do then? Where will you find your energy, your love? Where will you even find a small lie to soothe yourself? Where? They close their fingers around his neck. My neck. And they squeeze. They squeeze. So, it’s harder to breathe. So, the heart stops beating. So, the blood stops flowing. Fundamentally, to live is to willingly, intentionally, wear other people’s masks. And then to commit a crime. The original crime. Everything recurs. Everything ends.

When exactly was I alive? I’m there and I am not there. Where am I really? In what reality does my real life happen?

I exist, and I shouldn’t exist. Gay. You can’t be gay. Now go, go away, right away. Now start a fire, a little fire, in this heartless world, in this cruel Morocco that devours its children, and run away. Run where? Jump off a bridge? To go back to the very origins, to water? I see the moon. It’s so beautiful. Gleaming. Is it in colour? Or just in black and white? I reach out to grab it, touch it, make love to it. For years and years, I had this dream: I was walking alone across the moon and I was not afraid. I’m not afraid anymore. I should tell people that. I’m not afraid anymore. I should fall in love with a man older than me and, after letting him do whatever he wants with my body, I’ll turn toward him, I’ll look him in the eye, in those eyes which are my eyes, and I’ll tell him what I dreamed: no, I’m not an outsider. I won’t be that outsider on whom they heap all their frustrations, their ill will, their untold stories. No, sir, I’m not going to be that. I may be small, but I know. I’m going to lie, too, I’m going to murder, too. I’m listening to this song: George Michael’s ‘Freedom’ (1990). English isn’t my language, but I feel like I understand these words. They tell the truth. George Michael has always told the truth. But I don’t believe that truth. Freedom is invisible. It’s just a line in an ad. Freedom really exists over there, in the powerful, arrogant West, which colonized us shamelessly, and even now wants to teach us how to live, so it can control us more and more. No answer. George Michael goes on singing. He lies. He lies so well. And this is what I love about him. A singer who prances around and barely hides his sadness, who never manages to find the right way. Up to the end, George Michael never found the answer. He said, one day, that happiness wasn’t a human quality. Or a gay reality. When the famous singer started talking like that, toward the end, I wanted to kiss him, reassure him, tell him that I, the perpetual Moroccan teenager, understood him. Everything comes too late. It’s 1992. My big brother is sitting next to me. He and I are both listening to George Michael’s ‘Freedom’. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I’ll never know. I think he’s just as bottled-up and afraid as I am. He doesn’t say so. He’ll never be able to say so. Even he, the heterosexual Moroccan man, is already broken. The world seems to be made for men like him. My handsome big brother with his moustache. But he doesn’t say anything. He establishes silence, relishes it, draws it out between us to the point of exhaustion, the point of collapse. And so, I doubt. I slip into fundamental, eternal doubt. George Michael, who is lying to us, is the only concrete truth right then. His words are coming out of our small television. He’s singing. He’s lying. And this, this courage, this art of true lies, is why I love him. I love him absolutely.

My big brother grew up with The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Fela Kuti. Immense, overpowering artistic influences. But my own model is George Michael. He’s of my time. He’s the trace of our generation, everywhere lost and proclaiming its distress. Truth is nowhere to be found.

The world progresses. Does it? Doesn’t it? The rights of gay people are recognized, little by little. When I came to France, in 1998, to study French literature at the Sorbonne, more than 40 percent still thought that homosexuality was an illness. Is that progress? What about now?

When George Michael died, I cried all day. And, since then, I haven’t listened to him again. There’s no point. His songs are engraved in my memory. They’re always playing in my mind. Romantic songs, sad songs, dancing songs, songs thoroughly rooted in decline, bitterness, lucidity, in the world, our world, which judges, goes on judging, isolates, goes on isolating, which seems determined to make us less than human. Subhuman.

Do I exist somewhere? Do we exist?

Sometimes, that’s the only way I can bear the unbear­able, the return of cruel ghosts and stinging words: eating anyway, walking anyway, hoping anyway, looking up anyway, waiting anyway for love. The miracle. Up there is the moon. They haven’t managed to dirty it yet, to reduce it to a crude commodity, a sterile, individual thing. The moon is our last hope. Our wonderful poem. I shut my eyes: I’m in this teenage dream: I’m not an outsider, I’m not forced to define and redefine myself in front of them. I’m far away from all the demarcations and certainties that men go on imposing upon others. I sing alone, I sing despite everything. And I sing, of course, in Arabic. 

Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Abdellah Taïa was born in Rabat, Morocco, and lives in Paris, France. He is a novelist and filmmaker.