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Dossier : Face au VIH/sida

Acts of Exposure: Reckoning with Representations of HIV and Sexual Identity in Morocco

Des actes d’exposition : confronter et contester les représentations du VIH et de l’identité sexuelle au Maroc
Anne M. Montgomery et Abderrahim El Habachi
p. 131-164


Cet article présente un échange hybride coécrit par une chercheuse américaine spécialiste du Maroc, Anne Montgomery, et un écrivain militant marocain, Abderrahim El Habachi. C’est une œuvre pluri-textuelle qui a été produite au moyen d’une méthode expérimentale collaborative. Au centre, se trouve une œuvre originale littéraire non-fictionnelle, The Story of Naoufel. Ce texte explore les difficultés surmontées par un jeune Marocain gay en quête de soutien et de soins après l’annonce de sa séropositivité. Il sert de tremplin à des conversations réflexives entre Anne et Abderrahim concernant les valences multiples de la discrimination, la honte, la fierté, et l’activisme. Cette œuvre de bricolage méthodologique souhaite remettre en question les notions actuelles de l’expertise, de la production du savoir, et des catégories et dichotomies trop simplistes qui organisent souvent les représentations de la séropositivité et l’identité sexuelle au Maroc.

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Notes de l'auteur

The authors would like to thank the editors of this special edition and the anonymous reviewer for their insightful comments and suggestions on this work. Anne would also like to acknowledge Ahmed Khanani, Brendan Hart, Sarah Lazur, and Zachary Watterson for their invaluable advice, feedback, and assistance. Anne’s research was supported by the American Association of University Women, the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1127748, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, Fulbright IIE, and the National Institutes of Health pre-doctoral training program in Gender, Sexuality, and Health.

Texte intégral

1The following article is a hybrid, co-authored exchange between an American academic and scholar of Morocco, Anne Montgomery, and a Moroccan writer and activist, Abderrahim El Habachi. Both authors are deeply interested in the social and political dynamics surrounding HIV and sexuality in Morocco. Both authors grapple with their own privileges and positions as they produce knowledge about these topics, albeit from different vantage points and across different mediums. This article consists of an original work of creative non-fiction authored by Abderrahim, entitled The Story of Naoufel, which is embedded in a conversation about the complexities, problematics, and dilemmas of representing HIV and sexual identity in Morocco’s postcolonial context.

2Anne’s experiences doing ethnographic fieldwork on HIV in Morocco (2009 – 2013) led her to search for alternative ways to write about HIV and sexuality that departed from a traditional academic article centered around her own expertise. Anthropological fieldwork often mimics other forms of postcolonial extraction. This multi-textual, co-authored, and dialogic work offers an experimental method that seeks to be more ethical, more illuminating, and more centered on debates relevant to Morocco. The approach goes beyond rebranding ‘informants’ as ‘interlocutors’ and puts interlocution at its heart.

3Abderrahim was interested in intervening in and enriching the existing field of representations of HIV and sexuality in Morocco by offering a vantage point that has often been absent from public discussions. Drawing on his own story and those of his friends and acquaintances, Abderrahim wrote Naoufel, a portrait of challenges faced by a gay, HIV positive Moroccan who struggles to find care and a sense of belonging. The piece serves as a springboard for dialogue between Anne and Abderrahim on the multiple valences of shame, pride, and positivity, while also offering meta-reflections on the complex and deeply situated processes of representation, knowledge creation, and social change.

The authors and their motivations

4Anne Montgomery is an academic and health studies researcher whose work blends anthropology and sociology. From 2009 to 2013, Anne conducted 26 months of ethnographic research in Morocco exploring HIV prevention with men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers, both epidemiological categories that map onto outlawed sexual activities. Public health discussions of HIV/AIDS in the Middle East and North Africa region are saturated with orientalist allusions to “exposing” and “unveiling” private, hidden realities (Montgomery, 2017). Drawing on science studies and postcolonial critiques, Anne’s project tracked HIV-prevention practices as technologies of visibility that targeted particular bodies for surveillance, management, and control. Anne also examined how individuals and institutions negotiated the risks of visibility around HIV and outlawed sexual activity – including violence, arrest or imprisonment, social exclusion, and political backlash.

  • 1 . See Salime’s (2015) insightful analysis of the representational regimes structuring international (...)

5Yet, as a scholar, Anne was also “entangled in the very processes of visibility [she] sought to study” (Montgomery, 2015, p. 26). The products of her research would themselves offer a particular lens through which to view the lives and experiences of those she worked with in Morocco. Representations of the epidemiological designation MSM must contend with the “hyper-visibility of gay Muslims” (Erel et al., 2011, p. 62), who have become a “justification for imperialism” as the “ideological token victim who must be liberated from a ‘barbaric, backward’ society, by means that include political and military violence” (Haritaworn et al., 2008, p. 78). When individuals or groups are hypervisibilized, they remain “invisible as social beings: they are not recognizable as complex, legitimate, participatory subjects or citizens” (Amar, 2012, p. 305). Their desires, suffering, and protests are filtered through global ideological landscapes, powerful geopolitical agendas, and ready-made orientalist tropes1. Depictions of the difficult lives and circumstances of groups like sex workers, people living with HIV, or MSM might justify disruptive or violent interventions counter to their health, livelihoods, and aspirations (Abu-Lughod, 2013; Vance, 2012).

  • 2 . It is important to note that the critiques described here are not meant to indite ethnographers a (...)

6When Anne was approached about contributing to this special edition on HIV, she felt both honored and conflicted. Unease about her position as a socio-economically privileged, white, American researcher writing about the politics of sexuality in Morocco had been gathering force. Anne felt a growing recognition that, in the words of Nik Heynan, her scholarship “would always be, and should always be, called out as potentially exploitative” (Chowdry et al., 2016, p. 1805). Anne knew that she was implicated in the violence of knowledge production, but in ways that were mundane, accepted, and even encouraged in the academy2.

7Scholars have long documented the manner in which academic conventions privilege certain forms of knowledge over others, reproduce colonial exploitation, and discourage accountability to people that are studied (Nagar, 2014, p. 215). Telling stories about ‘others’ can be an act of power, appropriation, and erasure. When producing texts out of life stories, they are twisted, turned and contorted into academic theory, form, and style. The perspective of the researcher is privileged, presented as a disembodied yet authoritative voice of expertise. Scholars are incentivized to, in the words of Hunt, “build our own identities via the voyeuristic display of the suffering others” (Hunt et al., 2020, p. 7). Guessous (2020) has described dynamics of “uneven distribution of labor and recognition” such that “local Moroccan thinkers and intellectuals enable the production of knowledge about places like Morocco” (p. 319), yet without the same resources or infrastructure to support their own intellectual and artistic endeavors.

8Nagar asks, in an academic environment where “so much of what we have been taught to ‘succeed’ focuses on consuming the other in order to advance oneself,” how might we “unlearn that ‘violent hunger’ that nihilates the other, and relearn our hungers as continuous striving for ethical relationships between the self and other?” (Hunt et al., 2020, p. 23) Responding to her own question, Nagar exhorts scholars towards acts of “hungry translation” (2019, p. 29). As summarized by Misri, “hungry translation” is “retelling another’s story alongside one’s own in a gesture of co-authorship, fully aware that it is impossible to do it full justice; that ethical solidarity will always hunger for more” (Hunt et al., 2020, p. 17). It is with this intent that Anne reached out to her interlocutor and friend, Abderrahim El Habachi, with an invitation to co-author an article on the complexities of representing HIV and sexuality.

9Abderrahim El Habachi, henceforth referred to as Rahim, is deeply implicated in representations of HIV positivity and sexuality in Morocco. He tested positive for HIV in 2013 while living in his hometown of Agadir. In 2014, Rahim became one of the first Moroccans to ‘come out’ as HIV-positive on national television. He has worked for the Moroccan HIV/AIDS organization Association de lutte contre le sida (ALCS) and served on Morocco’s Country Coordinating Mechanism – a national HIV/AIDS governing body for the Global Fund – as a representative of people living with HIV. Rahim co-founded the collective Akaliyat, which advocates against criminalization and discrimination against sexual and religious minorities. Rahim was recently granted asylum in Cardiff, Wales, where he serves as a publisher and contributor for Gay Maroc TV, the first online YouTube channel by and for gay Moroccans. Rahim is on the organizing committees for Pride Cymru and for Glitter Cymru, a group supporting LGBTIQ+ Black, Asian, and ethnic minority (BAME) communities in South Wales. Rahim also currently works with Fast-Track Cities, a global partnership working to eliminate new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths. Rahim is a playwright and actor who brings to the stage issues that affect him, including immigration and sexual orientation.

10Rahim has long grappled with the burdens, dilemmas, and consequences of representing HIV positivity and sexual identity. In Morocco, when he came out as HIV-positive, Rahim felt that he was expected to represent Morocco’s entire HIV-positive population. When he spoke about his own experiences, Rahim worried he was betraying others whose experiences differed. Rahim also thinks about the dangers and political considerations that led him to initially keep quiet about his sexual identity even while ‘coming out’ as HIV positive in 2014.

11At the intersection of multiple identities, communities, and commitments, Rahim struggles to negotiate the traps of hypervisibility. For example, as an asylum-seeker in the U.K., Rahim often felt infantilized. People simply assumed he was poor, uneducated, in need of help. One service provider assigned him a teenage ‘attendant’ to ‘look after him’ – an absurd proposition for an accomplished 27-year-old professional who has surmounted profound obstacles to successfully live and work on two continents. On the other side of the spectrum, because Rahim identifies as “gay” (only one aspect of his sexual identity) and is an LGBTIQ+ activist, some opponents assume an elite upbringing and thus disqualify his perspectives. At the same time, Rahim has been criticized for ‘playing the victim’ when he engages in online advocacy with Gay Maroc, raising awareness about difficult issues at the intersection of sexuality, immigration, and HIV status. Rahim is therefore constantly navigating others’ attempts to take his words and stories out of context; attempts to appropriate or misrepresent his work and achievements; and characterizations that flatten, simplify, or essentialize his identity, advocacy or affiliation.

12It is within this setting that Rahim agreed to an experiment in co-authorship in which he would have shared decision-making over form, content, and editorial process. Rahim is interested in increasing visibility of LGBTIQ+ folks in Morocco, but he is concerned about who does it, and how it unfolds. For example, in the dialogue below, Rahim describes how, in April 2020, a social influencer decided to expose the reality of widespread same-sex practices in Morocco by outing hundreds of people on social media. As a result, some faced violence, social isolation, and at least one person committed suicide.

  • 3 . See, for example, Moroccan-based transnational advocacy campaigns calling for political and legal (...)
  • 4 . Gouyon and Musso (2017) have argued that the realm of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment has intro (...)

13This is not the kind of advocacy that Rahim is seeking. Instead, Rahim believes that Moroccan actors with clout and prestige, such as HIV organizations who hold national and international influence, can and should play a more forceful role in advocating for sexual rights and freedoms, including repealing the articles of the Moroccan penal code that prohibit same-sex sexual acts (article 489) and sex outside of marriage (article 490)3. Public health actors in Morocco have historically separated the issues of sexual health and LGBTIQ+ rights4. By depicting the difficult experiences of Naoufel, a gay, HIV-positive Moroccan, Rahim hopes to encourage actors in the public health and medical fields – those who have seen firsthand the damage wreaked by oppressive laws and politics – to champion legal and political reform.

Methodological approach

14Co-authorship, as defined by Giametta and Akoro, is a relationship within which respondents are treated as “active co-producers of knowledge and not only as data sources, thus opening a space for writing/speaking with them rather than writing/speaking about them” (2019, p. 150). This kind of co-authorship is grounded in dialogue and prioritizes the relationship over the end product, the form and content of which evolve alongside the relationship. The goal of mutual reflexivity, sharing, learning, and accountability – what Nagar calls radical vulnerability – challenges disciplinary expertise, including the requirement of a distanced and detached academic authority.

15The text you see before you is based upon a friendship that has unfolded over the course of eight years: conversations over mint tea during HIV trainings; laughter and storytelling in cafés on Agadir’s coast; chats on Facebook messenger between Philadelphia and Casablanca; and, most recently, chats and zoom calls between Philadelphia and Cardiff. Anne and Rahim began with a mutual interest in analyzing the intersection of HIV and sexual identity in Morocco. As discussions progressed, they found that they also shared an epistemological commitment to feminist and postcolonial critiques of science, rejecting a view of knowledge as detached, neutral, or transcendent. In place of a “a conquering gaze from nowhere” (Haraway 1988, p. 581), the authors insist that the vision which enables knowledge is embodied, partial, situated within a particular vantage point, and constructed through relationships like their own.

16As the author whose life has been, and continues to be, most profoundly impacted by the themes of the article, Rahim guided decisions about form and content. After ‘coming out’ as HIV-positive on national TV in 2014, Rahim was met with a deluge of phone calls, texts, emails, and requests to meet with other Moroccans living with HIV. Rahim began to gather a repository of stories. Six years later, Rahim is now motivated to author a piece of creative non-fiction, The Story of Naoufel, to bring to light the experiences of his friends and community. Anne and Rahim’s discussions about Naoufel became the springboard for the rest of the article.

17Anne’s role was to offer social theory and insights from her fieldwork to Rahim (which he could accept, modify, reject or ignore) with the aim of helping to enrich, supplement, or (re)frame the experiences described in The Story of Naoufel. While compiling and editing the co-authored dialogue, Anne sought to construct the text so that Rahim would have the last word on the hypotheses and social theory that she mobilized, not the other way around – the intention being that Rahim’s writing, experiences, and opinions would not be treated as evidence of a broader claim, but rather as claims unto themselves.

18Anne and Rahim recorded a series of eight zoom discussions about Rahim’s evolving drafts, for a total of approximately 18 hours of recorded discussion. After each virtual meeting, Anne created and systematically coded transcripts using Atlas.ti software (version 9.0.3), focusing on emerging themes that would be integrated into the subsequent discussions. Prior to the fifth discussion, Anne created a draft of the co-authored piece by compiling and editing selections of the transcripts. Anne and Rahim’s fifth and sixth conversations centered around Rahim’s critiques of the draft, which Anne then incorporated. After receiving peer reviews, Anne and Rahim recorded two additional conversations to discuss and finalize revisions.

19The authors had several discussions about whether to work in English, French, or Arabic. The final decision was left to Rahim, who selected English. One consideration was expedience. Although a skilled speaker of darija (Moroccan Arabic), Anne still requires explanation of many words and concepts in Arabic. Rahim, meanwhile, is fluent in all three languages and switches between them with ease. While Anne was both willing and able to work in Arabic, this would have entailed more time and labor for both authors. The constraints of technology provided another motivation: Rahim’s computer keyboard was limited to English. (He largely uses his phone for writing in Arabic.)

  • 5 . To be clear, Rahim’s point here is definitively not a statement about deficiencies of darija that (...)

20Rahim also felt more comfortable writing about HIV and sexual identity in English. Rahim frequently writes about LGBTIQ+ issues on social media. When he writes in English, he receives very little censure. But when he writes commentary in Arabic, Rahim receives many angry and critical messages. As he states, “If I wrote Naoufel in Arabic, I would hold back. I would feel less comfortable expressing myself”. Thus, in many ways, Rahim felt that writing in English would enhance his sense of security and thus offer more license for creative expression5. Finally, Rahim noted that English offers a language of power, credibility, and conveys international expertise. As such, it is well suited to speak to important public health actors in Morocco and beyond.

  • 6 . See, for example, Al Hosni’s (2015) discussion of the relationship between globalization, imperia (...)
  • 7 . As Gouyon has discussed in the ethnography entitled “Ana Loubia”: Ethnographie des homosexualités (...)

21The authors, however, felt that much was lost in the use of English as the primary language. The neocolonial power dynamics and imperialism inherent in constructing English as a language that is recognized as more “practical” or more “authoritative” than darija have been well documented6. Translating Moroccan terms like loubia7 into English stripped them of important meaning and context, making the terms seem as if they were contradictory or nonsensical, when they would have flowed seamlessly in darija. This text is thus limited by the transformations and contortions imposed as darija was, sometimes painfully, translated into English.

22This is but one way the text has been shaped by the authors’ positions, intentions, and particularities of vision. Instead of striving to erase the traces of such sculpting, the authors deliberately sought out textual strategies that would spotlight the tenuous, contingent, and situated process of knowledge production, thus problematizing its very nature even while participating in it. By pairing Rahim’s work of creative non-fiction with a dialogue, the resulting text aims to mimic the effects of metafiction, which is defined by a self-conscious narrative that steps out of the action to remind the audience that it is reading a socially constructed tale. It is a tale that frames itself, offering a statement on the embedded and constructed nature of reality (Younas, 2020). Each section of the dialogue is framed as an “act,” both to mirror the title, Acts of Exposure, and to mark the text itself as an act of representation.

23The combination of elements in this text strives to keep multiple stories in play at once, without insisting on the essential truth of any singular story. A critical element of radical vulnerability, as defined by Nagar, is the imperative to resist attempts at analytical closure, to embrace “truths in motion,” as “ever-contested, tentative, and unfolding cocreation with differentially situated knowledges and experiences” (Chowdry et al., 2016, p. 1810). We, Rahim and Anne, acknowledge that even this written text is not the end product, as it will inevitably be received and hold “differential meanings and impacts for people with different relationships to this project and based on their location” (Chowdry et al., 2016, p. 1803).

24We now invite you, our readers, into the dialogue.

One: Acts of Disclosure

25ANNE: Rahim, do you remember the day we met? It was in May 2013, during a training at Association de lutte contre le sida (ALCS) for a program designed to prepare ‘men who have sex with men’ to be peer educators. We had tea and cookies together during the afternoon break.

26RAHIM: I remember. That was the day I found out I was HIV positive. I was in agony.

27ANNE: I never would have guessed. I was struck by your talent in English, your open and generous personality, and the way your laughter brightened the room. I was convinced we were going to be good friends.

28RAHIM: I felt the same. But honestly, I just got through the training that day. Then I called my two best friends to pick me up and I cried my eyes out. One of my friends went to the hospital with me the next day.

29ANNE: You didn’t tell me until a week later. Do you remember we met at a coffee shop by the ocean? We were with another MSM program trainee whom we had both just met. And then in the middle of our coffee date, you sent me a secret text saying you had just tested positive for HIV.

30RAHIM: [laughing] That was a bomb to throw onto you! For you to keep a poker face, I mean.

  • 8 . Sidaction is a biennial telethon for HIV/AIDS, which is aired during primetime on Morocco’s large (...)

31ANNE: I thought I played it pretty well [laughing]. Then about a year and a half after we met, in December 2014, you became one of the first Moroccans living with HIV to appear on national television, as an invited participant on Sidaction8.

32In the live interview, you looked strong, happy, and proud. You spoke about maintaining a positive outlook on life by drawing on the support of the people around you. Switching from French into Arabic, you said “I shared my HIV status with my friends, my family, the organization, and now… I am telling all of Morocco.” You held out your arm out to enfold the audience in your story – a gesture which was greeted with thunderous applause. “We have to fight against stigma,” you said. And with a big smile, laughing, you asked Moroccans to look at the face of someone living with HIV, “Regardez-moi!”

33Two years later, Sidaction 2016 included a clip that begins with you entering a hospital in Casablanca. You describe the care you are about to receive. Then you beckon to the audience, “Come with me.” As you move between medical appointments, the scene is comfortable, easy, routine. It seems to normalize HIV care, making it less frightening – something which could encourage more Moroccans to get tested and follow-up with treatment. Is it fair to say that this was your intention?

34RAHIM: To understand my intention you have to understand the context. My appearance on Sidaction came out of necessity. The people who had spoken on Sidaction previously had hidden their faces, in the same way the faces of criminals are covered-up on TV. Some people in Morocco still consider HIV to be a punishment from god. They think the disease is a sign for you to repent from sinful behavior.

35When you search for content on HIV in Morocco, you find people talking as if their lives have stopped. We hear about families kicking out their children, or people who commit suicide. There are images of people with HIV crying, saying “oh poor me,” filling the victim role. And I understand why, because we grew up with this mentality and these images: if you are HIV positive, you have to cry and say I’m sorry.

  • 9 . This is a fictitious ending. The real character Asmaa died because her gallbladder burst.

36ANNE: This makes me think of Amr Selama’s film Asmaa. It’s based on a true story about an Egyptian woman in her 40s. She is refused lifesaving gallbladder surgery because she is HIV positive. The film highlights the difficulties of Asmaa’s life: her family troubles, her economic precarity, and the discrimination she faces. The film ends with Asmaa going public about her status on a talk show9 When the film was released in 2011, it was hailed as a landmark. It won awards and had tremendous viewership in Egypt and internationally. UNAIDS called the film an important “[step] in the right direction…on the long road to changing public perceptions of people living with HIV” (2012, p. 44). I wanted to ask your opinion of the movie.

37RAHIM: To be honest with you, Anne, I haven’t watched it. If a movie is 100% about HIV, it’s not for me. If the storyline revolves around HIV, how a person acquired HIV, how HIV defines their life – and if all we see is misery and mistreatment – I refuse to watch. It is dehumanizing. It reduces complex lives to just one thing: HIV. That is not a representation that resonates with my life. My friends who watched the movie all hated it. People living with HIV were painted to be weak and helpless victims. It inspired pity.

38That’s one of the reasons I was committed to appearing on Sidaction in the way I did it. I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t apologize for myself. I didn’t ask for pity. The first HIV-positive person to be on Sidaction, in 2004, was a woman who was blind and her condition had already advanced to AIDS. She had a very sad story to tell. People all over the country were moved to help her and, after Sidaction aired, she received a lot of money in direct donations.

39But I didn’t get a penny! [laughing] Everyone assumed I was rich and elite. I spoke a little bit of French, and a little bit of Modern Standard Arabic. I borrowed a nice suit. I had my glasses on. My hair was done nicely. I was wearing mascara. [laughing] So people thought that I had a middle-class background, that I was well-off. But I am not middle-class. My family struggles to make ends meet. At that point, we were barely able to pay our rent. But appearances are deceiving.

40That said, it was important for me to represent myself this way. Coming out on national TV with positivity and saying my family accepts me, and I accept myself and I am laughing out loud, and I am just 20 years old, and I’m SO positive – it was a wake-up call. In Morocco, we aren’t used to that.

41ANNE: Would it be fair to say that, by performing positivity the way you did, your goal was to create something new, to tell a story about HIV that hadn’t existed before?

42RAHIM: That témoignage gave a lot of people hope. I got inundated by messages from people who said they felt less alone. They saw me and they realized they weren’t the only ones.

43ANNE: When we chatted a few months after you had gone on Sidaction, you told me that the response from friends and family was also overwhelmingly positive; people even stopped you on the street like you were a celebrity, right?

44RAHIM: Well, actually – to tell you the full story – I also received a lot of hate and negativity after coming out as HIV positive. But at that point when we talked, I didn’t want to speak about the negativity. I felt that I needed to talk about the experience from a positive point of view, otherwise everything that I was trying to do would collapse. I was receiving hateful and angry messages. People told me I shouldn’t have disclosed my status, that I was making a scandal of myself. An aunt stopped talking to me. One of my brothers stopped talking to me. People from my neighborhood in Agadir threatened violence. My usual barber shop refused to serve me. But, at the time, I didn’t want to talk about that. Because I think my mission was bigger than these small acts of discrimination.

45But, as I said, after I went on Sidaction, and after publishing some videos about my experience online, a lot of people reached out to share their stories. Many said I had given them hope, but they also said that their encounters with the healthcare system had been more difficult than what I had described. At first, I didn’t listen properly. I thought, “this can’t be true.” But I kept hearing the same themes repeating. It was a wake-up call for me.

46I felt bad, like I had given a false narrative. Everything I said on Sidaction had been accurate and authentic, but I had chosen what I wanted to share and left out some of the difficult pieces. I still feel that it was important to humanize and normalize life with HIV, and to offer hope. But now I have the motivation to tell a different kind of story. People in Morocco whom I’ve never met still get in touch with me, just to talk. Sometimes their stories break my heart.

47The Story of Naoufel is written in the style of creative non-fiction; my primary material is actual lived experiences, including my own and those of my friends and community. The creative part comes from the way I’ve woven these stories together.

48ANNE: I appreciate that you insist on embedding the painful story, Naoufel, in the context of your broader narrative of living with HIV, which is also full of strength, social connection, triumph, and joy. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes the “danger” in hearing only a single story about any particular person or place. She states: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… Many stories matter” (2009, n.p.). You’re insisting that complex perspectives exist side by side and in conversation, instead of a single story being taken, out of context, as emblematic of the experience of living with HIV.

49RAHIM: Yes. The painful stories that are woven together in Naoufel’s narrative are important to understanding why some people are not getting HIV treatment in Morocco. Overall, I myself felt lucky in the way I was treated within the healthcare system. But it’s also true that some of the things I encountered on my path were sufficiently difficult. If they had happened during a different phase of my life, or if I hadn’t had support from my friends or ALCS, I might have left in despair and never come back.

50Link to read “The Story of Naoufel” by Abderrahim El Habachi on this website

Two: An Act of Shame

  • 10 . See, for example, The World Bank, 2005 and UNAIDS, 2009.

51ANNE: From a public health perspective, the Story of Naoufel is critically important. Morocco’s response to HIV has been lauded internationally. UNAIDS, the World Bank, USAID, and the World Health Organization have all called Morocco a model of “best practices” to be emulated throughout the MENA10. Morocco’s response has been singled out, in particular, due to the exemplary work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like ALCS – where you and I met, where you first received your positive HIV test, and where you worked from 2013 to 2015. These NGOs bring services both to the general public, and to key populations considered difficult to reach, such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, and people who use drugs.

  • 11 . See also Gouyon and Musso’s (2017) discussion of HIV organizations as spaces of conviviality, soc (...)

52Carving out space for this kind of care against the backdrop of criminalization is quite an achievement. You’ve said yourself how important the support and community provided by HIV organizations has been in your own trajectory11. I’ve also heard this praise about ALCS, as well as Association sud contre le sida (ASCS), Association de lutte contre les IST/sida (ALIS), and Organisation panafricaine de lutte contre le sida (OPALS). But Naoufel’s story calls on us to consider how and why people might become isolated or estranged from these organizations that are such an integral part of Morocco’s HIV response, and how this isolation might be a detriment to their care.

53RAHIM: Exactly. Unfortunately, discrimination, specifically classism, is widespread in healthcare. The way you look and speak influences the kind of care you receive. If you speak French, and if you know some medical jargon, the doctor is more likely to respect you. So even outside the context of HIV, people need to be prepared to advocate for themselves at the hospital. This is one of many important functions of the HIV organizations – to help people navigate the hospital system. So, for my main character, I wrote from the perspective of someone who lacks the support of the HIV organizations. Because the unfortunate reality is that many of these people end up leaving the hospital and not coming back.

54ANNE: There is a discriminatory incident with a doctor that Naoufel mentions in passing, which he cites as a reason why he cuts ties with the HIV organization.

  • 12 . It is important to note that both authors have a deep respect for many of the medical professiona (...)

55RAHIM: This incident is actually something that happened to me. When I was a teenager, I did HIV screening frequently at several different organizations. When I got my results, which were negative at that point, there was one doctor in particular who would always ask me if I was going to “repent,” like stop having sex with men. When it first happened, I was only 18 but I knew in my gut that the doctor shouldn’t be saying this to me. The testing center was supposed to be a safe space with no judgement. But still, when he asked me, “So are you going to repent?” the only thing that I could think to say back was: “Yeah, I’m thinking about it.” And he said, “good”12.

56He made me feel bad, because I was already struggling with my sexuality. I was struggling to find myself. I didn’t know what or who I was. At some points I thought I was transgender. I thought I wanted to be a woman. Sometimes I thought I was only gay. I was already confused. And trying to reconcile this with religion and culture, and my family, and being Moroccan – I felt like I had four or five different personalities that were all crashing together – so the doctor saying this made me feel so much shame.

57ANNE: Shame is a powerful word to use in this context. Queer theorists have long grappled with the concept and may have some insights to offer. In her analysis of narratives of Lebanese queers published in Bareed Mista3jil, Georgis argues that shame emerges in postcolonial contexts when subjects are entangled in webs of multiple and conflicting communal expectations. Georgis writes that, in contrast to discourses of “Western queer pride,” the authors of Bareed “are less likely to convince us that they have expelled shame and its sources (family, culture, etc.) from their lives as they are to communicate that they are not entirely broken by it. The message… is that queers are thriving and inventing themselves despite difficult conditions” (2013, p. 242). Shame indexes complex subjectivities that exist, against the odds, at the intersection of seemingly incommensurable desires, obligations, and attachments that bridge the local/global, East/West, and modern/traditional divides (Al-Sammam and El-Ariss, 2013, p. 206).

58Do you think it’s fair to say that the shame you felt was, in some ways, a result of trying to keep your attachments across multiple different categories, identities, or communities that had been marked incompatible, or oppositional?

59RAHIM: That’s an interesting idea. I’ve always had multiple lives. I am a member of so many different communities, and I do move through spaces where there are conflicting expectations for how I should behave, what language I can speak, etcetera. Right now, for example, I’m involved in both LGBTIQ+ PRIDE and Anti-PRIDE. [laughing] So, I’m part of the march, I wear my T-shirt and I have my walkie-talkie, and all that. But I also work with anti-PRIDE, and I’m very critical of how PRIDE has become commercialized and it’s not affordable or accessible to many. And in many ways, it imposes a Western vision of ‘coming out’. And sometimes I feel ashamed to be involved in both of these projects, like I’m a hypocrite. But I also feel like I belong in both places. And I think both worlds can coexist!

60But more related to the incident with the doctor: a lot of LGBTIQ+ people I know are also Muslim, and it can be hard to figure out how to be both things simultaneously. And people maintain relationships with beloved family members, for example, even if they feel ashamed to speak about important parts of their life – like breaking up with a boyfriend. So maybe we can say that, in some ways, shame is the price of living in multiple worlds at once, and – for LGBTIQ+ folks in Morocco and the diaspora – refusing to renounce our connections to family, culture, or religion, for example.

61ANNE: That’s interesting. Queer theorists suggest that shame illuminates our attachments and signals our investments and dependencies; in place of a solitary individual cut afloat, it depicts an individual who is painfully bound to a collectivity. Drawing on Eve Sedgewick, Georgis argues that shame has generative potential. It creates the conditions for us “to recognize how we are bound and vulnerable to the other and what we should do about it” (2013, p. 246). Shame might therefore “activate the imagination for constructing new terms of relationality” (2013, p. 245). In other words, shame can be a resource for change that does not ask to deny the collectivity, but to reimagine it. I get the impression that reimagining social relationships and communities is your goal here.

62RAHIM: I do want to re-imagine the possibilities for social relationships, as you say. And that is why I concluded Naoufel’s story the way I did. In the end, Naoufel tries to rebuild his relationships with the help of Souad.

63ANNE: Yes. At the end, Naoufel says he is hoping to rebuild his relationship with his mother, although she had clearly hurt and abandoned him.

64RAHIM: Actually, the story of Naoufel’s mother following him around with bleach and then kicking him out is based on the experience of one of my friends. I cried so hard when he told me this story. This kind of experience will leave scars on the heart. The accusing words may always echo in our ears, and we may always feel the weight of shame. But, despite all this, many of us try to find ways to restore, reconcile, or transform these relationships that are so important to us. We are not giving up.

Three: An Act of Shaming

65ANNE: In discussing shame, I’ve often been thinking about the word ḥeshuma, which is applied to behaviors marked as inappropriate, taboo, disrespectful, or that otherwise violate social expectations (Bourqia, 2020). The Moroccan Arabic verb teḥeshshem, “to be ashamed”, implies a positive process of self-cultivation. teḥeshshem indexes qualities like being polite and respectful, which are often associated with the middle and upper class. Shame is often represented as a civilizing force that can be deployed “to control the terms of interactions in new social spaces” (Newcomb, 2006, p. 305) with the goal of restoring order and preserving cultural integrity.

66But there is another word that also invokes shame, yet simultaneously implies a challenge to social hierarchies. I’m thinking of the noun ḥogra, which comes from the Arabic iḥtiqaar, which means contempt, humiliation, and debasement.

67RAHIM: Yes. This is something used by people on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, when they get treated badly at a hospital, for example: “Kanḥassu b al-ḥogra hinaya ”. Although that phrase would actually translate to “we feel oppressed here,” not just “we feel humiliated here”.

  • 13 . ḥogra was an important term used during the uprisings of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ It referenc (...)

68ANNE: That is part of what’s so interesting about the word ḥogra. While it expresses the feeling of being humiliated, it also implies that the burden of shame belongs to those who have acted out the humiliation – they are marked as oppressors. ḥogra can be used as a rallying cry for reform, for challenging social hierarchies, for revitalizing social and political relationships.13

69So again, I am reminded of the role of shame in social transformation. In his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth – which describes the enduring violence and dehumanization of Western colonialism – Sartre asks that Europeans “[h]ave the courage to read the book, for… it will make you feel ashamed,” which is a “revolutionary sentiment” (1963, p. 14).

70Rahim, the stories you tell through Naoufel also seem as though they are intended to shame the readership, with the hope of change. In this way, it seems as though you’re performing what Love calls “queer alchemy” (2007, p. 20). Here, it is an alchemy that transmutes the shame felt by the composite characters in Naoufel’s story into the shame of those in society who have degraded, humiliated and abandoned him.

71RAHIM: Exactly. The way people living with HIV, and people who have sexual relationships outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, are treated in the public health system is shameful. I want the audience who reads this – if there are doctors or nurses or others who identify with characters in this story – I want them to see that Naoufel’s exclusion is their doing. They are pushing people out the door. And I want that shame to provide motivation for people to change, to do things differently.

72Think about that moment in the story when Naoufel arrives at the hospital and he’s told that people coming for HIV-related care can’t sit in the waiting room, and instead they have to wait outside. This happened to someone I know. Just hearing that, and picturing myself in that position, I’m sure I would never go back. Even though I want to keep my health in check, and I want to live, and I want to be as healthy as possible – if I were treated that way I would not go back.

73This happened to my friend when I was already living in the UK. I couldn’t go with him to the hospital, but I had told him, “Babe, just go. Healthcare is free for people living with HIV, the doctors are amazing, etcetera”. And then he went and found the door shut in his face, and people gathered outside, being treated like they were less than human. Luckily, I have connections at the hospital, and I managed to get ahold of someone. They brought him inside and took good care of him. But I can’t do that for everyone. What about the people who don’t have someone like me to call? I want everyone who goes to the hospital to have the same access to quality care, regardless of who they know.

74ANNE: This is an important point. It shifts the narrative about people who refuse to comply with a medical advice, or don’t follow-up with treatment. It makes me think of Paul Farmer’s critique of the tendency to blame “non-compliance” on the “hearts and minds of the sick,” or on “personal motivations or cultural beliefs” (2000, p. 199). Farmer argues that we must instead systematically examine issues with the health care delivery system itself. You’re saying, in a parallel way, that Moroccans shouldn’t be shaming people with HIV, Moroccans should instead be ashamed of how people living with HIV are treated in the health care system.

75RAHIM: Exactly. There’s also Naoufel’s first interaction with the nurse – another story that happened to me. When I arrived at the hospital, as a 20-year-old, the nurse looked at me and said, “Oh my god. You are still young. You’re the same age as my son”. That broke me to pieces. Can you imagine? To say this to someone who’s trying to bring himself up, trying to find a glimpse of hope. She could have told me it would be okay. But the way she said it, with her voice cracking, and clearly feeling so much pity for me…that destroyed me more than the results.

76ANNE: This is a powerful moment. It reminds me of a particular kind of injustice that Ahmed (2017) describes, coming “not from not having a loss grieved, but from being grieved because it is assumed you are lost” (n.p.). In this case, Ahmed is discussing the example of a father assuming his daughter is destined for an unhappy life because she is queer, when, in fact, the daughter only becomes unhappy because of her father’s judgement.

77This helps me understand, even more, the urgency of your appearance on Sidaction. To understand that the difficulties of living with HIV are socially produced – in other words, the difficulties are not natural or inevitable, but arise from the way people with HIV are treated – one must first believe that life with HIV could be beautiful under other circumstances. By appearing on Sidaction with pride and positivity, you denaturalized the misery of HIV and planted seeds of hope for a different life.

Four: Acts of Discrimination

78ANNE: Rahim, I wonder if shame might play yet another role in explaining why Naoufel is reluctant to go to an HIV organization. Although Naoufel identifies himself as “gay,” he mentions that the organizations are associated with loubiat and “sex workers” in the public imagination. Would you say there are a significant number of people – even those who identify as “gay” – who might be turned off from the HIV organizations because of discriminatory stereotypes?

79RAHIM: There is no single LGBTIQ+ identity or community in Morocco. This is not to say that communities don’t exist, just that there are differences, divisions, and hierarchies within and between them. For example, those whose gender presentation is more effeminate – called loubiat – are considered to be on the bottom of the hierarchy. The stereotype is that loubiat are sexually passive, poor, uneducated, and sex workers. This is not always true, of course. For example, there are self-identified loubiat who are wealthy and are perfectly happy living in Morocco. They travel to Europe from time to time, where they can wear high heels in the streets, and what have you. So, what I have told you about loubia is just a stereotype. But loubiat are discriminated against, particularly by self-identified gays.

80Even for me, when I first went to the organization, I was shocked. People asked me who I was, and they used feminine pronouns: “shkoun enti?” They asked me what my female name was. And I responded in a big, deep voice “I’m Abderrahim. Call me Abderrahim! I don’t want to be called a girl ”. [laughing] I was scared and thinking, “Please don’t do that to me!” But on the outside, I was like, “What? How dare you!” and I basically tried to fight the person who asked me. I was showing my alpha male personality. [laughing]

81I was only 17. As someone who was struggling with my identity, being femme was not something I easily accepted. I was told over and over again: “you should be a man, you should be a man, you should be a man”. And then, all of the sudden, I was in an environment where everyone was girly, femme, and using female pronouns. It was a shock.

82So, this kind of environment – it’s not suitable for everyone. It is a safe place for many people. But not for the character Naoufel. He is treated as a femme but he doesn’t categorize himself as a femme. He doesn’t like to be called a girl or by she/her pronouns. He doesn’t like to categorize himself as a sex worker. In my mind, I imagined Naoufel as a femme character, but a femme character who doesn’t want to be thought of as loubia. Naoufel identifies with the word gay but not loubia, even though he feels more femme. [laughing] When I try to put it into words it seems very complex.

83But I don’t know how we could make an inclusive environment for both the femme community, and for those who are macho and look and pass as straight. It’s a double bind. If I had gotten HIV after my first sexual relationship, I think I would have acted the way Naoufel did. I would have gone to the HIV organization, and said “Oh my god, I don’t belong here!”

84ANNE: It sounds like the category of loubia evokes more shame than the category gay. Why would that be?

85RAHIM: In Morocco, gay is perhaps a cultural category more than anything else. We grew up watching American and European media showing white gays living their best lives: meeting prince charming, getting married, living in a house in the suburbs, doing surrogacy and all that. Being gay in Morocco is associated with being macho, metro-sexual, listening to Beyoncé, going to the gym. And even if this is a very Westernized and elite story, it’s still a powerful trope that affected a lot of people around the world.

  • 14 . Sheikhat are female singer-dancers in Morocco who perform at multiple different venues, for diver (...)

86Loubia, on the other hand, you might say is a more authentically Moroccan way of talking about men who have sex with men. If gays lean towards the West, the loubiat draw on Moroccan culture and lean towards the East. They emulate the sheikhat14, they belly dance, they do henna, they wear kaftans, and they go to night clubs that play music from the Middle East. But, for a lot of men who have sex with men, loubia is a derogatory term. But it is also a term that has been reappropriated. It used to be a code word spoken only between people in the same entourage. Communities of men who have sex with men in different cities had their own language – in Agadir we had our own code words. In Tangier they had their own language, too, and so on. So, if I heard someone say loubia, I would swivel my head around, like “how do they know that word?!” [laughing]

  • 15 . El Kahal’s recent work in the anthology L’amour fait loi describes a colorful cast of loubiat hid (...)

87But before I left Morocco, the word exploded. Social media, snap chat – there are a lot of social influencers from LGBTIQ+ communities who already left Morocco, but they’re still snapping in Moroccan. They’re being so femme, and so glamorous, and they’re talking to millions of people using the language they would use if they were alone with another gay person. So, a lot of people outside the community picked up the terminology, including the word loubia15. And there are lots of people who say loubia is derogatory, and that we should use the word gay instead.

88You may have heard about the scandal with a trans social influencer – Sofia Talouni, who is a Moroccan based in Turkey. She used to do live feeds, and for the people leaving comments she would always ask them if they were loubia. She never used the word “gay.” But one day, Talouni decided she wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Moroccan society by outing hundreds of people. She told women to download meeting apps for gay men (like Grindr and Planet Romeo) and to search for people they knew. It was a mess. We at Gay Maroc heard from Grinder that nearly 150,000 accounts were created in Morocco in only 24 hours. A lot of people were outed. This was during the COVID lockdown. People were kicked out of their homes. At least one person committed suicide.

89During all this, we at Gay Maroc were trying to use the situation to help educate people. However, we were actually attacked by the gay community because we used the word loubia. I have even heard a gay Moroccan YouTuber say that loubiat don’t deserve rights because they are uneducated.

90So, there is a hierarchy. Someone might think they are superior to the average Moroccan because they listen to Beyoncé, and they know Lady Gaga and Glee and RuPaul’s Drag Race, and all that. They feel that they are living the Western life. So, if you are from the countryside, for example, you don’t deserve your rights because you are not elite or awakened. A lot of people are longing for a life of being “out” in pride parades, and waving the rainbow flag, and if you don’t dream about that lifestyle that means you are aren’t educated, and you lose the right to speak and the right to be respected in their eyes.

  • 16 . Gouyon’s (2018) ethnographic research in Casablanca provides a rich description of the operation (...)

91ANNE: You’re pointing to some interesting ways that hierarchies around sexuality and gender identity intersect with issues of class and classism16.

  • 17 . Relatedly, a recent study on HIV in Morocco suggested that people living with HIV (PLHIV) of lowe (...)

92RAHIM: Classism is an important part of the story. Akaliyat produced a report in 2020 showing that the wealthier you are, the more comfortable you are living as a gay person in Morocco – whether it’s interactions with the police, experiencing hate crimes, being comfortable in your work environment, accessing jobs, you name it. You can live better than gay Europeans do in their own countries. On the other side, as you go down the socioeconomic ladder, the more you’re subject to violence and discrimination in every sense of the word17. Meanwhile, those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder deny and discredit the experiences of discrimination reported by those at the bottom.

93ANNE: Some of what you’re saying dovetails with Massad’s (2002) critique of the “Gay International,” which he describes as a group of gay rights organizations who seek to liberate “Arab and Muslim ‘gays and lesbians’ from the oppression under which they allegedly live” (p. 362). Massad argues that, contrary to its liberatory agenda, the Gay International incites condemnation and criminalization and represses or destroys same-sex practices or desires that cannot be assimilated to Western categories. According to Massad, the consequences do not fall on the Gay International or its upper-class supporters, but “rather the poor and nonurban men who practice same-sex contact and who do not identify as homosexual or gay” (p. 385).

94RAHIM: I’m not sure I would agree with all of this. I would have to think more about it. However, I do think there’s value in Massad’s point about Western ideas of ‘gayness’ being considered superior to categories like loubia, which we could call more authentically Moroccan. In fact, this is one reason why I wrote about this in The Story of Naoufel. At one point of my life, I was that kid who was ashamed to be loubia, who only accepted the ‘European’ version of being gay. And, as we have discussed, elite Moroccans tend to do just fine in Morocco – whether they are ‘gay’ or loubia.

  • 18 . Rebucini (2013) describes the existence of two distinct epistemologies defining sexuality in Moro (...)

95But remember that ‘gay’ and loubia are just stereotypes, they don’t actually describe real people. The categories are meaningful because we spend a lot of time debating them; they are a source of tension. But they are just boxes, and we tend to put people in one box and ask them to stay there. But people have a hard time fitting into a single box. For me, I think of myself as both gay and loubia. I cannot pick sides! I’m a gay that wants a suburban lifestyle, and to move in with the perfect boyfriend. But I also don’t want to give up the loubia aspects of myself18.

96ANNE: Affan and Ibrahim have written, “queer Arabs are left in between a rock and a hard place: we’re too Arab to be queer, and too queer to be Arab” (2019, n.p.). You can’t win!

97RAHIM: [laughing] Back to the boxes again: there is no way for us to fit, and we’re criticized no matter which box we choose. But it’s not just about the box, it’s about who built the box.

98ANNE: This is such a good point. Postcolonial scholarship shows how dualistic thinking – including the idea that ‘traditional’ same-sex partnerships are diametrically opposed to ‘modern’, Western gay identities – is part and parcel of the violence of colonialism. Speaking, again, about the narratives in Bareed Mista3jil, Georgis writes, “when we actually examine the everyday lives of people, their subjectivities have complex layers of identification and are unsettled… they are not doomed to two choices: abide by and assimilate to hegemonic modern sensibilities or retreat to a fantasy of static tradition” (p. 237). Georgis concludes, “My reading of the sexualities represented in Bareed is that they are neither modern nor traditional, neither Western nor non-Western; instead, they are in process, negotiating the pressures of conflicting worlds” (2013, p. 238).

99Refusing to live in a single category or box doesn’t make someone a hypocrite. Anzaldúa’s (1987) classic work describes people who live in “borderlands”, between identity categories and in cultures assumed to be incommensurable. She writes, “[I am] the embodiment of…the coming together of opposite qualities within” (p. 41), demonstrating “how duality is transcended” (p. 102). So, by refusing to stay in a single box, as you put it, you are refusing to play by a binary that has been naturalized but is not natural. You are making your home in the borderlands, the spaces in between, in the movement between different categories.

100RAHIM: Exactly. And thank you for saying that. I think writing the Story of Naoufel, and having these conversations, has reminded me of how complex a person can be, and it has helped me come to terms with my different identities. I can resonate with different categories. I can be both. Instead of feeling like a hypocrite I should say, “don’t drag me into your mess!” [laughing]

101But I’m not going to lie, saying out loud that I am loubia was a struggle. I was on Instagram live for Gay Maroc, and I said “Hi, my name is Rahim, and I live in Britain and today we’re going to talk about asylum, and by the way I am loubia”. I said it in a fun way, “I am loubia, zamel, gay, whatever you please”. And then this video was put on YouTube – which I am not opposed to, I just wasn’t expecting it. And now it has over 22K views, so it’s stuck there forever. [laughing]

102ANNE: Would it be fair to say that you felt ashamed to say that you were loubia?

103RAHIM: Well, it’s not shame… it was hard to say it because… okay, yes. I think it was shame that I felt. [laughing] But I was ashamed to say that I was ashamed. It’s a shame that I felt shame. [laughing] But even in the comments section of the YouTube video, you can see that people don’t like that I self-identified as loubia.

  • 19 . It is important to note, as well, the role played by colonial juridical systems in codifying the (...)

104ANNE: You’re offering an important reframing of how shame is represented in public health narratives about HIV in the MENA. In your short story, the shame that impedes Naoufel’s access to HIV services does not originate from “traditional culture”, but from hegemonic discourses of Western gayness that degrade the category of loubia in ways that intersect with ḥogra, or class-based humiliation19. This is an important shift in emphasis. The point is not to deny the power of stigma and taboo, but to note that their origin and function are more complex than orientalist legacies in public health suggest.

Five: An Act of Hope

105ANNE: In the first draft of this story, Naoufel mentions that he wants to leave Morocco after his dehumanizing experience in the hospital. But in the final draft that appears here, you cut out this line. Why did you make that editorial decision? And, relatedly, you yourself are now living in Europe. Can you expand a little more on your decision to keep Naoufel in Morocco for this story?

106RAHIM: When I used to talk with friends in Morocco, everyone wanted to leave the country except me. When we first met, you might remember that I told you how much I wanted to visit New York, but just to visit! I wanted to see Wicked on Broadway, not to live there. [laughing]

107But leaving Morocco was something we always mentioned off-handedly in my friend circles. It’s something people say out of frustration, because its common sense that living in Europe means freedom. Now that I’m living in Europe, I realize it’s not the safe haven for the LGBTIQ+ community that I had imagined it to be. Stereotypes can be deceiving. But this shared image of Europe being the achievement of ‘freedom’ is the reason I had initially written the line for Naoufel in the first draft. But, in fact, I never intended for Naoufel to leave Morocco.

108I also want to emphasize that the desire to leave Morocco for Europe, to pursue a ‘better life’, is not something that is particular to LGBTIQ+ communities but is something discussed widely in Morocco. And I want to challenge this idea that there is only one path to a life worth living. There are times when I am not optimistic about the situation in Morocco, but this is an essay about hope. Even if I am not living in Morocco, I want things to change.

109ANNE: I think this point is so important. Not only are you challenging the idea that there is a single path towards a good life for diverse Moroccan men who have sex with men, you’re also challenging the idea that freedom is achieved by emulating the West. Relatedly, in public health discourse, one finds that ‘hope’ and ‘progress’ are often linked to the successful implementation of international best practices. But in this narrative, there’s no triumph of outside intervention. Instead, kindness, acceptance, and support from Souad provide Naoufel hope for a good life.

110RAHIM: That’s right. I don’t want anyone to read this story and say “Oh, let’s go save those gay, HIV-positive charity cases”. Moroccans are not pitiable victims, and we do not need to be rescued by Americans, Europeans, or others. I am writing from the perspective of a Moroccan, calling on other Moroccans to change the way we understand, treat, and advocate for people with HIV.

111In the first version of the story, the character of Souad was hardly mentioned. But in our discussions about the story, Anne, you mentioned concern that the representations of misery in The Story of Naoufel could feed into white savior narratives that justify Western intervention. And this is why I felt it was important to expand the role of Souad in the story. I want to imagine that there is a place for Naoufel in Morocco.

112ANNE: Novelist and poet Anwar Hamed argues for a kind of writing that “[scans] the present in search of seeds of hope for the future”, to give readers who are “living in a harsh reality” some kind of “motivation and appetite for life” so they don’t “lose hope” (quoted in Brown, 2019, n.p.). In many ways, I see that your work has parallels to this.

113RAHIM: In art, we can create for ourselves a different reality, you know? Even through the reality in Morocco is difficult, through writing, films and with creativity we can create for ourselves alternative realities that give us the hope to go forward and influence change.

Six: An Act of Reflection

  • 20 . In Brooks’ words, “conclusion” can be a “problematic word” in that it implies “closure, when what (...)
  • 21 . See Derrida’s invocation of Lévi-Strauss’ bricoleur, who uses “the instruments he finds at his di (...)

114This piece does not seek a tidy ending20. It is not structured as the steady accumulation of evidence that flows sequentially into an air-tight, unassailable set of arguments. Traditionally, an anthropologist might attempt to apply academic theory to an “informant’s” words as a sculptor would to clay – to slice, mold, and cleanly smooth them into a stable and seamless product. In this text, academic theory comprises but one material in a precarious, unwieldy, evolving and unfinished multi-media creation that stretches toward the sky. Here, Anne offers academic theory as a frame, ingredient, embellishment: theory sometimes adheres to an idea or experience; other times it dangles in an unresolved relationship. Yet there is no claim to a transcendent methodological structure. The approach results from compromise and negotiation between the authors in response to a unique and temporally specific set of circumstances, positions, aspirations, and constraints; the final product is a form of methodological bricolage that ‘gets the job done21 in a way that is faithful to the vision of both authors.

115The tenuous and contingent nature of this textual creation mirrors the hybridity and vicissitude of the topic itself, a lushness that overflows the bounds of the categories and dichotomies that often frame representations of HIV positivity and sexual identity. Rather than seeking purity or authenticity, this piece aims to provide a way to think about HIV and sexuality in Morocco without establishing a privileged reference point or a universal truth. Indeed, through its open and multi-modal approach, the article helps to illuminate the unfinished processes of “becoming” that Biehl and Locke argue are so central to fieldwork, as well as “the indispensable moral and analytical value of the micro, the singular and partial, which requires a different, more fine-grained, and humble logic than that of a generality subsuming all things into aggregates, repetitions, and models” (2017, p. xi).

116This text does offer practical lessons for public health projects in Morocco, including insights about institutional issues and forms of discrimination that might deter HIV-positive individuals from getting care. However, the text’s winding trajectory also pries open space for multiple and sometimes-contradictory valences of the embodied states of shame, pride, and positivity, concepts that often appear as one-dimensional in public health representations of HIV and sexual identity. Shame, for example, does not emerge in this text as a symptom of a pathologic culture, as it is commonly portrayed in the public health literature (Montgomery, 2017). Instead, shame simultaneously bears the mark of neocolonialism, racism, and classism; serves as an index of collective affiliation; and offers a trenchant tool for reimagining social worlds and advocating for social change.

117By giving the reader a dialogic view of such “truths in motion” (Chowdry et al., 2016, p. 1810), it becomes easier to rewire existing conceptual grids. For example, using this lens, Rahim’s calls for greater action on behalf of the political and legal rights of HIV-positive and LGBTIQ+ communities in Morocco cannot be read as a simple embrace of Western liberalism, or a concession to the teleology of modernism. Instead, it becomes easier to see that Rahim’s hopes for Morocco are embedded in the contingent transformations and agitations opened up by the bricoleur who, situated in and emboldened by their own embodied knowledge, refuses to be constrained by the limitations of categorical binaries.

118The textual strategies that iteratively emerged from this piece seek to achieve something akin to Langwick’s (2018) conception of “composting”. In writing The Story of Naoufel, for example, Rahim uses the raw material of embodied experiences and histories, or “parts of the past”, in order to “cultivate an environment” that is rich “with the potential for transformative relations” (p. 432). In such a way, painful experiences, dredges, and scraps of life are transformed “into components of rich healthy soil, the entanglements that ground growth and other life” (p. 431). Similarly, the project we present is not one of mobilizing truth to create a utopia, but of cultivating fertile ground for life-giving relationships (of which co-authorship is only one) that enable bodies and communities to grow more ample, more dense, more lush, more habitable (p. 436).

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1 . See Salime’s (2015) insightful analysis of the representational regimes structuring international response to the protest-suicides of Moroccan women Amina Filali and Fadwa Laroui.

2 . It is important to note that the critiques described here are not meant to indite ethnographers as a whole. As Guessous (2020) has compellingly argued, we must complicate the story of anthropology that assumes a normative Western ethnographer “encounter[ing] difference” and instead open up space for disciplinary and methodological challenges to emerge from other locations and commitments, including from “Maghribi anthropologists of the Maghrib” (p. 320).

3 . See, for example, Moroccan-based transnational advocacy campaigns calling for political and legal changes, including (as translated in English): #Stop490, #Stop489, #queer_revolution_morocco, #love_is_not_a_crime.

4 . Gouyon and Musso (2017) have argued that the realm of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment has introduced a form of therapeutic citizenship for MSM in Morocco while legal rights remain non-existent. See also Montgomery (2017) for a discussion of how staff of HIV organizations draw discursive distinctions and practical boundaries between public health expertise, moral expertise, and political activism.

5 . To be clear, Rahim’s point here is definitively not a statement about deficiencies of darija that make certain emotions or experiences difficult to express, thereby requiring the abandonment of darija for another language. [On this theme, see Cheikh and Miller’s (2009) eloquent discussion.] Indeed, for Rahim, darija provides a rich medium for discussing sexuality. Rahim’s concerns in this piece center on the distinct publics who will receive his writings in English vs. darija.

6 . See, for example, Al Hosni’s (2015) discussion of the relationship between globalization, imperialism, and the influence of the English language. In Morocco, French and Spanish are the languages directly linked to colonization, and French has long been considered the language of the elite, offering prestige and opportunities for professional advancement. Yet the influence of English is increasing and arguments for greater inclusion of English in the educational system often revolve around economic pragmatism. English is presented as a key to economic success, social mobility, and careers in business, science and technology, while simultaniously allowing youth to “bypass the constrictive influence of the colonial legacy of French” (Buckner, 2011, p. 241). Despite the increasing use of darija in the public sphere and a burgeoning movement to codify and reclaim darija, a recent survey of university students in Casablanca (Et-Tahiri, 2019) found that English was considered a “very important” language by 74.5% of students, compared to only 19.9% of students ranking darija as “very important” (cited in Jaafari 2019, p. 128).

7 . As Gouyon has discussed in the ethnography entitled “Ana Loubia”: Ethnographie des homosexualités masculines à Casablanca (2018), loubia literally means “bean,” but it is also slang used to designate men who self-identify as homosexual and also have behaviors and comportment associated with femininity. As Gouyon describes, and as will be discussed later in the article, loubia is both used as a derogatory term and as a term that has been reappropriated.

8 . Sidaction is a biennial telethon for HIV/AIDS, which is aired during primetime on Morocco’s largest television channel, 2M, and watched by millions around the country and the world.

9 . This is a fictitious ending. The real character Asmaa died because her gallbladder burst.

10 . See, for example, The World Bank, 2005 and UNAIDS, 2009.

11 . See also Gouyon and Musso’s (2017) discussion of HIV organizations as spaces of conviviality, socialization, exploration, and identity formation.

12 . It is important to note that both authors have a deep respect for many of the medical professionals who worked in the HIV organizations. However, HIV care is shaped by the same shortages (of healthcare workers, supplies, medication) and inequalities that exist in the Moroccan health care system at large. Due to stigma and discrimination, many of these issues are exacerbated in the HIV/AIDS sector. Thus, HIV organizations often struggle to recruit and retain doctors to conduct testing. HIV organizations have been at the forefront of efforts to address the issue, and they have recently succeeded in opening up space for “community-based testing”, which allows the organizations to be less dependent on the labor of doctors to conduct daily operations.

13 . ḥogra was an important term used during the uprisings of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ It references the effects of “arrogant elitist and discriminatory attitudes that condone abuse of power, exploitation, humiliation, injustice, violence, and sometimes murder against the vulnerable and the powerless of society” (Ilahiane, 2019).

14 . Sheikhat are female singer-dancers in Morocco who perform at multiple different venues, for diverse audiences and to commemorate a multiplicity of occasions. As professionals who make their bodies and voices the object of public gaze, they are often criticized, and their actions marked as shameful. Scholars have recently noted, however, that the moralistic condemnation of sheikhat is derivative, at least in part, from nineteenth and early twentieth century French depictions of what van Nieurkerk calls the “differentness and sensuality of the East” (cited in Ciucci, 2010, p. 74) These orientalist discourses of difference emphasized the sensuality of performances, minimizing the socio-cultural import as well the historical and political power of sheikhat. For example, the nineteenth-century sheikha Kharboucha is renowned for her role in using songs to incite a rebellion against the brutal qaïd Aissa Ben Omar in a quest for land and justice. It is interesting to note that the form of singing she invented, now called Aita, is sung exclusively by women and by men who are dressed as women (Sadiqi, 2009, p. 103).

15 . El Kahal’s recent work in the anthology L’amour fait loi describes a colorful cast of loubiat hidden in plain sight in Marrakech, indicating the pervasiveness of the term. This provocative work provides insight into the linkages between sex work and loubia identity, which according to one of the characters, cannot just be declared but must be earned through experience: “Ne devient pas loubia qui veut! Il en fait de l’expérience pour devenir une” (2020, p. 93).

16 . Gouyon’s (2018) ethnographic research in Casablanca provides a rich description of the operation of class-based hierarchies within homosexual communities such that loubiat are stereotyped as poor and ignorant.

17 . Relatedly, a recent study on HIV in Morocco suggested that people living with HIV (PLHIV) of lower socioeconomic status were potentially more vulnerable to stigma and exclusion than PLHIV of higher socioeconomic status and were therefore less likely to “come out” as HIV positive to their sexual partners (Loukid et al., 2014).

18 . Rebucini (2013) describes the existence of two distinct epistemologies defining sexuality in Morocco: a local system that defines erotic practices in relation to a gender continuum and does not preclude involvement in heterosexual marriage, and a transnational system organized through the identitarian homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy. The reflections in this article suggest the possibility that, in contemporary Morocco, many individuals hybridize or move between these epistemologies. 

19 . It is important to note, as well, the role played by colonial juridical systems in codifying the prohibition of same-sex sexual contact, as well as the role of discourses of Western orientalism and Arab nationalism in establishing conceptions of sexual deviance (Rebucini 2013).

20 . In Brooks’ words, “conclusion” can be a “problematic word” in that it implies “closure, when what most investigations uncover is a lack of closure” (2009, p. 186). See also Olesen and Clarke on “resisting closure” (1999, p. 355).

21 . See Derrida’s invocation of Lévi-Strauss’ bricoleur, who uses “the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and origin are heterogeneous” (1967, p. 231).

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Anne M. Montgomery et Abderrahim El Habachi, « Acts of Exposure: Reckoning with Representations of HIV and Sexual Identity in Morocco », L’Année du Maghreb, 25 | 2021, 131-164.

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Anne M. Montgomery et Abderrahim El Habachi, « Acts of Exposure: Reckoning with Representations of HIV and Sexual Identity in Morocco », L’Année du Maghreb [En ligne], 25 | 2021, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2021, consulté le 30 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne M. Montgomery

Research Associate, Haverford College, Health Studies Program.

Abderrahim El Habachi

Committee Member and Arts Outreach Officer, Glitter Cymru.

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