Was Juan Goytisolo really an anti-orientalist?

Cafe Tingis in the medina of Tangier, 1953. Image credit Mirrorpix/The Image Works.

On June 5 last year, the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo was buried in the Spanish cemetery of Larache in northern Morocco, his tomb overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and right next to that of Jean Genet. Spanish and Moroccan officials, and local writers and artists, paid homage to the Spanish author, reading extracts of his work. An outpouring in the Moroccan media paid homage to the novelist who had made known to the world that the “spirit of al-Andalus [Islamic Spain]” was alive in Morocco, and who had mobilized renowned intellectuals in his (successful) campaign to have Jamaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s famous public square, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

For over a half-century, Goytisolo was a fixture in Tangier’s cafés, some of his greatest work inspired by the northern city’s coffeehouses. It was at the storied Café Hafa, on the cliffs overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, where in 1965 he imagined a Moorish (re)conquest of Franco’s Spain, resulting in his classic novel Don Julian (1971). It was in the medina’s cafetinés where he immersed himself in North African music, drank mint tea with crumbled hash and tried to “shed his Spanish skin.” Of the myriad writers and artists who have settled in Morocco over the last century, Goytisolo was clearly the most familiar to Moroccans. In 2003, he was inducted into the Moroccan Writers Union, the only foreigner ever to be granted that status. No expatriate writer tried as assiduously to integrate into Moroccan society, learning the local vernacular, leading conservationist efforts, even adopting Moroccan children. Yet since his death the Moroccan press and social media have been abuzz with debate about his relationship to his adopted homeland.

Goytisolo settled in Tangier after breaking with the Algerian and Cuban revolutions. The Spanish novelist had thrown in his lot with Fidel Castro’s revolution in hopes of seeing a more egalitarian Cuba, and to purge the guilt he felt over his family’s role in Cuban slavery. By the mid-1960s, though, Goytisolo had begun to distance himself from Castro because of the revolutionary government’s suppression of Afro-Cuban religions (the Abakuás and Lukumi, in particular) and persecution of homosexuals. Fidel, Goytisolo would write, had turned the “ex-paradise” of Cuba “into a silent and lugubrious floating concentration camp.” Havana was thus a paradise twice lost. The Spanish novelist would depart Algiers for similar reasons. Both pre-1959 Havana and colonial Algiers were playgrounds for European and American aristocrats, racketeers, artists and writers, with alarming rates of sex tourism and prostitution. And in both Cuba and Algeria, the nationalist movement would denounce sexual exploitation by white settlers, and crack down on prostitutes and homosexuals upon assuming power. Goytisolo would quit Algiers — for Tangier — shortly after Ahmed Ben Bella, the founding president of Algeria, was deposed in a coup by Gen. Houari Boumedienne in 1965, who began backing a conservative Islamist discourse.

The Strait of Gibraltar, seen from Cafe Hafa. Tangier, Morocco, 1985. Image credit Pierre Olivier Deschamps for Agence Vu Redux.

And so Goytisolo settled in Tangier. “Tangier is one of the world’s few remaining pleasure cities: and no questions asked,” quips the narrator of Don Julian. With their endless beaches, flashy casinos and weak, pro-Western governments who rarely enforced the law on non-natives, Tangier and Havana had both long captivated writers, anarchists, mobsters and the Western jet set. “[P]robably next to Tangiers, Habana was the vice capital of the world,” wrote Amiri Baraka in 1955 when he landed in Cuba.

Goytisolo arrived in Tangier with the Cold War well underway, and relations between Cuba and Morocco deteriorating. Radio Havana was beaming Communist propaganda directly to Tangier in an effort to liberate northern Morocco and Spain from Franco. (The US had set up a Voice of America relay station in Tangier in 1949.) As border disputes broke out between Morocco and newly independent Algeria, Cuba would back the revolutionary republic. Amidst the intrigue, Goytisolo seemed to be still searching for the Havana of his boyhood reveries, hoping the North African town would be the paradise he had lost. Places in Tangier evoked the Cuban capital. In his early writing about Tangier, he moves poignantly across the Atlantic, interweaving the two cities, moving from Havana’s malecon to Tangier’s Avenida de Playa, from Verdado to the Hotel de Cuba just off the medina. He would invite prominent Cuban writers, such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy, to Tangier. The blend of Spanish colonial and mudejar architecture (the amalgam of Islamic, Gothic and Romanesque styles that emerged in twelfth century Iberia), the religious and musical syncretism, the constant hum of Spanish radio all reminded him of Havana. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in my teens, Goytisolo spoke often at local bookstores and the Instituto Cervantes in Tangier. Terse, soft-spoken, poker-faced, he would move from topic to topic, book to book, and then tell a joke — and the audience would sit quietly, until he would inform them, “C’etait une blague” then people would laugh. “I have always believed that the role of the intellectual is the critique of ‘your own,’ and the respect of the ‘other,’” he would say, “and that is the opposite of nationalism, which is about promoting ‘us’ and rejecting the ‘other’ — and if that is treason, then so be it, que así sea.” From these appearances we learned fascinating detail about Tangier’s Spanish past. To us, Ali Bey was just another dirt-poor, mud-caked street in the south of town, until Goytisolo explained that it was named after Ali Bey (né Domingo Badia), the famed Spanish Arabist and explorer who had traveled to Mecca, and that a statue of Badia had stood in the neighborhood until the 1930s, until it was knocked down by the Istiqlal party, when it was discovered that he had worked as a spy for France. From “Si Juan,” we also learned that the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí had come to Tangier in 1892 and drew up plans to build a majestic, multi-spiraled religious building named the Catholic Missions of Africa — similar to La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona — but it was never realized because an insurrection in Melilla, the Spanish enclave in northeastern Morocco, disrupted Spanish-Moroccan relations.

Goytisolo was a larger-than-life figure in 1980s and 1990s Tangier. Many expatriate writers had made Tangier their home, but few sat in the cafés with locals. Often, we did not understand what he was talking about (“always view your language in light of other languages”), but we admired him for his vast erudition, humility and taciturn nature. He was so solidly pro-Muslim, so invested in the legacy of Moorish Spain. He saw al-Andalus, particularly in its later years, as a metaphor for the human self – fluid, fragile, kaleidoscopic. Unlike most Westerners studying Arabic, he had taken the time to learn our Hispano-Arabic-Berber vernacular, probably the most looked-down upon of dialects in the Arab world. And he was keenly aware of our precarity. We absorbed Spain daily through television and radio, and dreamed of crossing the Strait, but needed a laissez passé to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta an hour east of Tangier, a visa to enter Tarifa, and two visas — one Spanish and one British — to reach Gibraltar, eight miles across the water.

Juan Goytisolo with Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia, after they awarded Goytisolo the Premio Cervantes literary award, 2015. Image credit Sergio Perez for Reuters.

If one had to distill Goytisolo’s large corpus of work into three words, it would be: mudejarism, periphery and anti-orthodoxy. “I have the periphery under my skin,” he would say to explain his obsession with the international periphery – the “Third World” – which he saw, with its polyglot, heterogeneous societies, as an antidote to the white West. He was also fascinated with Europe and America’s diverse and chaotic “urban periphery” – the ghetto, the barrio, the banlieue. He coined the verb medinear to describe his border crossing, his meandering through the ghettos and banlieues of New York, Barcelona and Paris — the “medinas of the West,” as he called them. Goytisolo was one of the first to write about what we now call “global cities” and “transnationalism,” claiming that the cultural and human flow from the Third World and the subsequent “babelization” of Western cities was “the sign of unmistakable modernity.” In 1982, 25 years before Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015), Goytisolo published his absurdist Landscapes After the Battle (1982), imagining his own neighborhood in Paris taken over by Turks and Arabs.

In his masterpiece Don Julian, Muslim hordes will overrun Spain, everything turns to green and Arabic overwhelms Spanish. The sounds of Arabic will then thunder across the Atlantic to Latin America everywhere that Hispanic caudillismo reigns — “in the pulque-bars of Lagunilla in Mexico City, in the Calle de Corrientes of Buenos Aires, in the Jesús María district of Havana.” An Islamic reconquista, Goytisolo believed, would pull Spain out of its “prehistoric” place and cure its general cultural and demographic anomie. The Moors would sack la España sagrada, but first they would storm the “cavern” of the fair-skinned Isabel the Catholic. The Moors will repeat this act of sexual aggression “on a national scale” across the peninsula. And throughout this massive bacchanal of violence, women are mute. The women of Spain, whose reproductive organs are invariably described as “grottos,” “mires” and “abysses,” are portrayed as silent housewives “shitting” babies here and there. In the early 1970s, Goytisolo’s silencing of women — and recurrent negative references to women as cavernous plants, spiders spinning lethal webs, foul stepmothers with a “mire” or “abyss” between their legs — began to draw criticism. By the 1980s, critics were asking why femininity is almost always portrayed negatively in Goytisolo’s fiction — whether it is through “feminine” Catholic Spain, wild Moroccan prostitutes or overweight American women roaming North Africa.

In 1981, Goytisolo published Saracen Chronicles, a volume of essays on Spanish and Latin American Orientalism, intended as a sequel to Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979), which had not addressed Hispanic Orientalism. Goytisolo had befriended Said while teaching at NYU in the 1970s. The resultant book was a tour de force, exploring literary mudéjarism in Latin America, and tracing the influence of Cervantes on authors from Quevedo in Spain to the Mexican and Cuban writers Carlos Fuentes and José Lezama Lima, and authors of the Latin American literary boom of 1960s. Yet the book was also a preemptive move: Orientalism had become a political issue in American and Spanish academe, with scholars increasingly noting Goytisolo’s rather cliché representations of the Orient as a world of liberating chaos and carnality. The charge of Orientalism against Goytisolo never went away; but it also never stuck. In 2006, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the novelist titled “The Anti-Orientalist.”

Goytisolo’s linking of sexual aggression with liberation suppresses women but also does no service to Muslim men. Critics would see his depictions of Moroccan men as “savaged untamed warriors,” “instinctively cruel Arabs” “horsemen with coarse lips, jugular veins” with “savage Arab virility” – as perpetuating the worse stereotypes at a time of mounting hostility in Spain and Europe to North African migration. His satire was lost on many. While Goytisolo may have been defending the rights of Moroccan migrants in Spain in his El Pais columns, his fiction was giving fodder to more nefarious currents in Spain.

Goytisolo lived in Tangier as the Moroccan regime tightened its grip upon the formerly Spanish provinces of the north and the formerly Spanish Sahara, and as Tangier went from a Latin city to an Arab city. He closely followed the repression in Morocco and Cuba. In March 1971, Goytisolo, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar launched the quarterly magazine Libré in Paris to promote writers banned in Latin America, particularly Cuba; the first issue contained pieces by Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Che Guevara. Yet the Spanish novelist was very circumspect in dealing with Arab authoritarianism. Saracen Chronicles concludes with a survey of countries in Latin America and the Soviet bloc where literature can constitute a crime, and where authors can face death and imprisonment, yet oddly there is no mention of the same phenomenon in the Arabic-speaking world.

On an official visit, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro walks with Algerian Colonel Boumediene in Algiers, 1972. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Goytisolo arrived in Tangier at the beginning of the “years of lead,” a period of attempted coups and horrific state violence against dissidents, as Hassan II imprisoned leftists, burying opponents and their children in the notorious underground prison of Tazmamart. Yet for Goytisolo, right up until his death, Morocco was always represented as a hybrid, diverse, sexually tolerant country, juxtaposed to a parochial, historically stuck Spain. Like his idol Cervantes, he praised the “Orient” for being diverse and polyglot, a reverse image of the modern West where nation-states had extirpated minorities from their midst and imposed a dominant language and identity. Goytisolo, however, lived and traveled in an Arab world undergoing a violent process of war and state formation, with regimes cracking down routinely on minorities and imposing Arabic on non-Arabic speaking populations, all in the name of nationalism. Yet even as the Moroccan state killed off dissidents, oppressed Amazigh movements, criminalized homosexuality, the brutality of state formation rarely figured into his writing, as he continued to quixotically portray the Orient as better. It is not clear if Goytisolo was simply over-generalizing from his privileged status as a regime-approved European writer living in Marrakesh, or if his idea of Spain remained messianically stuck in Queen Isabelle-qua-Franco’s era, just as his description of North Africa remained anchored in the fifteenth-century epoch (hailed by Cervantes), or perhaps the mythical 1950s Tangier (when foreigners enjoyed extra-territoriality).

Ironically, Goytisolo passed away during a period of protests in Morocco which had started in the Rif region and spread down south, and when talk of the “betrayal of the intellectuals” was in the air. As the regime cracked down, arresting bloggers, artists and youth activists en masse, journalists pondered which of the celebrity intellectuals who lived in Morocco would back the hirak movement — and a stocktaking of Goytisolo’s career began. Goytisolo’s detractors pointed out that in his many decades in the kingdom, he rarely called out the Moroccan authorities. His silence throughout 2011, as protests rocked the kingdom, and his failure to support that year’s February 20 movement also struck many as calculated and “deliberate.”

Why did this lover of freedom not raise his voice for the freedom of his adopted homeland? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that like the other celebrity intellectuals who “love” Morocco and reside there — Bernard Henri Levi, Dominique Strauss Kahn and Tariq Ramadan, all shrill proponents of freedom, albeit from disparate ideological positions — Goytisolo had made a bargain with the Moroccan regime. As long as he described the makhzen as “tolerant,” they would view him as “moderate.” The Moroccan regime has a nonpareil capacity to coopt intellectual firebrands, with a combination of intimidation and lavish treatment (riads, tajines, chauffeurs) — and to welcome writers who are admired around the world but are quietly resented in the kingdom. By the early 1990s, Goytisolo had — wittingly or unwittingly — become part of a coalition of actors (domestic and international) that portrayed Morocco as “tolerant,” “forward-looking,” “a feast for the senses,” a model of reform. The writer who built his reputation lashing the mythology of fascist Spain was now burnishing the image of another authoritarian regime. He found freedom in Tangier — and Morocco, more broadly — but was silent about our unfreedom so as not to jeopardize his. It is hard to shake the impression that Goytisolo’s liberty and eminence in effect rested on our disenfranchisement.

For a longer version of this essay, including footnotes, on Juan Goytisolo, see “Juan Goytisolo: Tangier, Havana and the Treasonous Intellectual.”

Further Reading