Publishing on March 8, Guapa, a debut novel from Saleem Haddad, dives into the life of Rasa, a twenty-something-year-old gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he negotiates family, societal expectations, queerness, love, police brutality, authoritarianism, decorum, revolution, imperialist narratives, and Islamist extremism—all in the space of twenty-four hours. Throughout Rasa’s journey, the reader is thrown back into the losses, definitions, redefinitions, and rebellions that orbit his life.
In this interview, we speak to Saleem Haddad about the novel’s setting and the political threads woven throughout the novel, including those touching upon questions of language, identity, and narrative.
Eman Elshaikh: Can you talk about your reasons for deciding to set Guapa in an unnamed Arab country?
Saleem Haddad: Admitting to myself that the book had to be set in such a country was very difficult. I worried about criticism that I was generalizing the Arab world into one homogenous mass. But the book wouldn’t write itself any other way. I think being from a mixed background (Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, German, Muslim and Christian) and having lived in lots of countries around the region has made it difficult for me to feel like I truly ‘belong’ within one specific country. And I think occupying the space in-between all these different countries and cultures has allowed me to grasp common histories, practices and shared experiences that I could draw on to give the story an appeal that isn’t confined to one specific place. Not naming the country also allows the story to take on a metaphorical nature: I really didn’t want to write a book that would be sold as an anthropological or political ‘study’ of one country. Instead I wanted to draw on common themes young Arabs across the region could relate to, regardless of their background. And I enjoyed the process of disorienting the reader: one minute you think you’re in Beirut, the next in Cairo, then in Amman. The city’s inability to be categorized or labeled echoes Rasa’s own difficulties with categorizing and labeling himself.
Your characters grapple with media and narrative, and the different ways words can be politically charged. In the book, several characters try and challenge conventional narratives by forming their own media organization (which proves to be ineffective), while also criticizing Western journalists for treating Arabs as a “decontextualized story” (while still working with them). Do you think this struggle to exert alternate media narratives is important—powerful even?
As someone who is both queer and Arab, I never saw myself represented accurately in dominant narratives, both English and Arabic. Arabs are represented terribly in Western narratives, and queer people are similarly demonized in Arab narratives. So I have rarely, if ever, seen positive and realistic representations of who I am. At the same time, these narratives undoubtedly shape how you see yourself, both positively and negatively, so there is an odd relationship we have to these narratives: we may feel invisible and demonized, and yet it is human nature to want to try and fit ourselves into them. Growing up, I would often pick and choose positive representations from both English and Arabic media and culture and try to piece my identity together in that way—to build a positive picture of who I am.
Both the process of writing the novel and the final product represent this ambivalent relationship I have with the power of dominant narratives. The final product, the novel, is my attempt to write myself into history, to write a queer Arab story that feels authentic and representative. But the process of it was also a way for me to speak to both English and Arabic literature. I filled the book with references to various Arabic and English novels, echoing and alluding to seminal works that shaped my own identity. So in my novel you’ll find echoes to writers that I admired, works that I grew up reading and trying to fit myself into: Colm Toibin’s ‘Story of the Night’, James Baldwin’s ‘Giovanni’s Room’, Andre Aciman’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’, Gore Vidal’s ‘City and the Pillar’, and Waguih Ghali’s ‘Beer in the Snooker Club’, as well as the works of Abdella Taia, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Ernest Hemingway, Nihad Sirees, Shakespeare, Beckett, Philip Roth, Lydia Davis, Elias Khoury, Donna Tartt, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Teju Cole, and Junot Diaz, among others. Themes, ideas, and styles from these writers are echoed throughout the novel. Echoing key works in queer literature, Western literature and Arabic literature is a way to celebrate our shared humanity. It’s a way to tip my hat to them, but it’s also a way of finding a space for myself—in all my ‘queerness’ and ‘Arabness’—within their stories and narratives. So my aim was to take these narratives and both ‘queer’ them and ‘Arabize’ them, and in the process use these narratives to paint a picture of a young queer Arab.
The protagonist and his friends describe pan-Arabism as a long-abandoned Nasserist dream. Yet so much of the novel seems to evoke a sense of Arab solidarity. The book is replete with signifiers that are quintessentially Arab and unspecific to any one Arab nation. Do you have any thoughts about this tension? Do you share your characters’ attitude toward pan-Arabism?
As I grow older I become less enamored with the idea of pan-Arabism, and there are two reasons for this. The first is that the concept of what is an ‘Arab’ is not easy to define, and the process of doing so becomes both an exclusive and a political, rather than an emancipatory, project. Are Arabs identified by their mother tongue, or by some other ethnic or religious marker? No matter which way you cut it, this will exclude certain people in the region. The second problem I have is that Arabs are not the only inhabitants of Arab countries: what about the Kurds, the Berbers, the Turkmen, and the Amazigh? So I am for unity, solidarity and cooperation in the region, but I am for an inclusive unity and solidarity that extends to all the region’s inhabitants.
Rasa describes his father’s interactions with him as driven by his determination to remind Rasa that life is too difficult to waste time challenging things that cannot change. It is a pragmatism that borders on fundamentalism. Have you observed this attitude in many communities in the Middle East? Is this what is often mistaken as apathy?
Absolutely. As romantic as it seems to employ resistance as a default mode of operating in the world, for most people life becomes a situation of making the best with what you have. Living in the Middle East exposes you to many types of vulnerabilities, and if you don’t have a passport you have very few escape options. So it’s no surprise that many simply employ pragmatism as a survival mechanism: put your head down and carry on.
The namesake of your novel, Guapa, seems to represent a nexus of optimism and frustration. It is a point of convergence where locals can explore themselves and their communities freely. At the same time, what happens in Guapa does not seem to have much effect on the outside world. Do you agree with this characterization? Do you think such points of convergence can be politically powerful? Why did you choose Guapa as a center of gravity for this novel? Was it inspired by real places?
Living in the Middle East in my early twenties, so much of my life was centered around bars and coffee shops. It was a place where you could meet friends, drink, talk for hours, and simply be away from your parents. Because, as you know, most Arabs live with their parents until quite a late age, these places became our own ‘space’ for us to be ourselves, away from the prying eyes of family. I see coffee shops and bars like this throughout the region, whether in Yemen or Lebanon or Egypt. And these are absolutely politically powerful places. They play an essential role in bringing young people together to exchange ideas, debate, and just be themselves, which for some is a political act in itself.
In the book, Ahmed, an Islamist dissident who Rasa interprets for, chooses to speak only in Arabic because he believes it is treacherous to speak English in an Arab country. Another character, Sufyan, one of Rasa’s love interests, accuses Rasa of being whitewashed, because Rasa speaks in English with fellow Arabs while living in America. Why did you decide to write your first novel in English? Was it something you debated? How did you navigate Arabic and English and all the liminal spaces between, in writing this novel?
Funnily enough, the idea of English being a treacherous language was inspired by an interview I read with Abdella Taia, a gay Moroccan writer whose writing inspired elements of Guapa. Taia mentioned the politics of speaking French in Morocco in the context of his mother being upset that he chose to write in French rather than Arabic, so your question is very appropriate. I wanted to reference this in my novel, which is written in English, as a nod to that, and to an acknowledgement of my own insecurities around writing this story in English.
But to put it simply without getting into a longer discussion about the politics of language, I decided to write in English because that’s the language I felt this story should be written in. I sometimes find myself writing in one language before realizing that the story isn’t working because it’s meant to be written in Arabic rather than English. But overall, I feel more comfortable writing in English, even though I speak in a mixture of the two. I played on that in the novel: in the first draft, I liberally used Arabic words as they came to me. In re-writes, I was more aware of my audience, making sure that a non-Arabic speaker would understand the meaning behind some Arabic words from the context in which they were said. Maintaining that fluidity between the two languages was important, because it’s how many Arabs speak, mixing in French, English and Arabic.
In your book, uselessness is often expressed through the phrase “castrating donkeys”—can you provide a genealogy of that term?
That phrase and the story behind it, which I put in the novel, was told to me by a Jordanian taxi driver one morning, over ten years ago now. He used the phrase ‘khas hameer’ (‘castrating donkey’), but I’m not sure of the exact genealogy. He said it was a story that originated in his village, though I wasn’t sure if he was referring to a Jordanian or Palestinian village—and doesn’t everyone always say things originate in their village?! For some reason, the metaphor stuck with me, and I found it an apt way to describe some of the frustrations people in the region feel when they try to challenge the politics being played at their expense.
At one point in the book, you discuss economics as being political, and seem to challenge the idea that the poor cannot afford to be part of the political sphere. Your book also discusses the notion of ‘respect’ as a hollow concept in liberal society, suggesting that merely tolerating someone’s views is meaningless when that person lacks the economic and social power to live freely and autonomously. I found so many other powerful ideas delicately woven into your writing. Did you draw on any of your development and human rights-related work in the Middle East in developing these parts of the novel?
I wrote this novel between 2011 and 2014, while working for an NGO that was focusing on peace building efforts during the Arab revolutions. Many of the issues I worked on: police abuse and police reform, transitional justice, youth protests, women’s rights, refugee issues, all informed the novel to various degrees. This also included my own interactions with some Westerners who came to ‘study’ the revolutions, which inspired the interactions between Rasa and Laura, the American journalist in the novel. I wasn’t intentionally trying to weave in any theories—writing the novel was a way for me to process all the things happening around me. Apart from my own experience, I was also incredibly inspired by the writings and stories of activists, journalists and storytellers in the region, from Mariam Alkhawaja, to Lina Sinjab, Omar Robert Hamilton, Youssef Rakha, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, and Atiaf Alwazir, among others. In addition to following their work for the passion, intelligence and hope it brought to me, I was also studying the language they used to express their thoughts on the revolutions in their countries. So that helped me craft the language and dialogue that takes place in parts of the novel that focus on the street protests and revolutionary movements. I also drew on works by Arab existentialists from the 1950s and 60s, because I wanted to draw this parallel with our own Arab history.
Your characters struggle with their sexual identities and place in Arab society. All the same, they are reluctant to embrace the idea that true freedom lies in “imperial dreams” of the West. How do you think LGBTQ movements in the Middle East can articulate themselves more powerfully and meaningfully outside imperialistic idioms?
There are two things at play here and it’s important to distinguish between them. First is a question of terminology. While I respect the work of Joseph Massad, his theories on ‘The Gay International’ and his criticism of enforcing Western binaries of Gay-Straight to define sexuality in the Arab world, I often feel that people take his criticisms as the end of the discussion. Instead, it should be the beginning. I’m not a fan of these binaries myself: same-sex relations and the ‘gay’ identity are two very different things. For instance, the taxi driver Rasa hooks up with would never in a million years identify as ‘gay’. At the same time, whether we like it or not, we can’t deny that western LGBTQI discourse and culture has shaped other queer movements around the world, including the Middle East. So do I suddenly tell a young Arab person, “I’m sorry, you cannot identify as ‘gay’ because that’s a western construct and it means you’ve adopted the language of the oppressors?” I’m sorry but that’s bullshit. As if this person doesn’t have enough to deal with already. Let him identify himself however he wants, and if someone wants to pursue same-sex relations and not identify as ‘gay’, all power to them. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of labels. In the Middle East, there’s still a lot of dispute around terminology, and respectful terminology around homosexuality is still in the very early stages, unfortunately. In modern Arabic, we haven’t had a positive word for those who pursued same-sex lifestyles. Only recently, queer movements in the region have been successfully pushing the word ‘mithli’, which literally translates to ‘homo’, and some media outlets have begun to use this word. There’s also a push by some to use the word kweerieh, which is derived from ‘queer,’ although that has not been as successful.
The second question is around queer activism, especially when it comes down to solidarity between LGBTQI movements in the West and Arab world. Now, here is where it gets tricky. I’m all for solidarity, but I also firmly believe that solidarity needs to be intersectional, recognizing that for queer people in the Arab world, the battle they are fighting is not as simple as the battle against homophobia. There are many other battles in there, including patriarchy, militarism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. Additionally, how we fight our struggle must be dictated by us, on our own terms, and is likely to look different from how the struggle was fought in the West. So solidarity is a lot about active listening, and recognizing the loaded history between the West and the Arab world. Even now, I’m uncomfortable with how close the mainstream LGBTQ movement in the West has aligned itself with both capitalism and the military. For example, as an Arab man, how can I celebrate legislative changes in the United States that allow gay men and women to serve in the military, when this same institution is responsible for things like the Abu Ghraib prison torture, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continued drone strikes? But there’s hope. There are queer Arab movements, both in the Arab world and in the Western world, who are working to make a space for themselves within the mainstream LGBTQI movement—Qaws, a queer Palestinian movement, is one that comes to mind in its efforts to challenge the Israeli government’s pinkwashing of the occupation, while building positive bridges of solidarity between movements in the West and the East.
Your discussion various moral ideas in the novel is fascinating. I was particularly drawn to your description of eib (shameful) and haram (forbidden) as a strange amalgamation of shame, decorum, and a sort of social contract. You juxtapose these terms against the Western human rights narrative, and have your protagonists ricocheting between them, accepting and rejecting them at different times. Why do you think these moral ideas are at odds with one another?
I’m very interested in the concept of shame, eib, because it has played such a large part in my own socialization. Like Rasa, I was brought up under the cloak of eib. So I wanted to explore that. But for me, the concept of eib, or shame more broadly, is not an inherently negative thing. Shame is a way to bind communities together, a way for people to respect each other. It also plays a part in building trust within communities. But shame, like I’ve shown in the novel, can be oppressive. So I’m interested in how people can subvert the concept of shame, and negotiate a space for themselves within their communities and families, by challenging the idea of what is and isn’t shameful. For example, Basma, Rasa’s friend in the novel, is an expert at moulding the concept of shame to suit her own interests. This happens quite often in the region. There’s the famous case a few years ago, which inspired a storyline in the novel, where there was a raid on a cinema in Lebanon and a bunch of gay men were arrested and subjected to humiliating anal exams. What was interesting for me was that elements of the Lebanese media, instead of shaming the men for this ‘perversion’, turned their attention to the police instead, arguing that how the police responded was ‘shameful’. One journalist even said, “We live in a republic of shame”, which also made its way into the novel.
On the other hand, I recall being in awe, and also quite scared, by how much citizens in the West abided by laws. There was relatively little wasta (nepotism), no eib in how laws were enforced. I found it both relaxing, because I felt protected by something that was concrete, but also constraining and alienating. Having said that, as we can see from movements like Black Lives Matter, the law and human rights are not uniformly applied. Impunity in the West is nowhere near as pervasive as in the Arab world, but it’s there.
Ahmed, the Islamist in al-Sharqiya, is clear-minded, charismatic, and sure of himself. Rasa observes that Ahmed is more “authentic” and that his positions are clearer than his own. Rasa also rejects this clarity, however, and wishes they could both choose ambivalence. What do you make of this tension? Is one preferable to the other?
To me, Rasa’s perceptions of Ahmed are very much linked to Ahmed’s masculinity. I’ve come across many men, not just in the region but also around the world who—having been socialized in such a patriarchal culture—speak with an assuredness and are able to ‘set the status quo’, so to speak. Whereas Rasa, who does not fit socially acceptable ideas of ‘masculinity’, does not have the same assuredness, and his desire for ambivalence is a response to that. Ambivalence becomes a tool of resisting these patriarchal figures who dictate how things ‘should be’. I would personally question Rasa’s idea of why he feels Ahmed represents ‘authenticity’—how is Rasa any less authentic, any less a product of his culture, than Ahmed?
Rasa realizes he is Arab only when he is thrown against the backdrop of American whiteness. Did you experience any of your identities in this way?
Absolutely, Amin Maalouf says we identify with the aspect of our identity that feels most under threat. So in the Middle East I tend to feel more in touch with my queerness, while in the West my Arabness becomes my primary identity. But I don’t think I’m alone in this: I think most of us lie at the intersection of a number of different identities. I actually gave a talk about this last year, which you can watch here (or below).
Rasa talks about how he does not want to risk his life, in order to exchange one mask for another, one dictator for another. Your novel is filled with references to this struggle, but there are also glimmers of optimism. Are you similarly hopeful?
Writing this novel between 2011 and 2014, I was filled with moments of great hope and also bitter disappointment. The ending of the novel changed so much over the course of writing it, as my own mood fluctuated. Looking around the Arab world now, it’s very hard to be positive. Most countries are either in the midst of a civil war, or are gripped by authoritarianism that uses the threat of war to keep populations in line. But after a while, when it feels like things are collapsing around us, and the outlook could not be more pessimistic, you enter into a stage of post-pessimism, which is basically “things are absolutely hopeless, so we might as well keep on striving for something better.” And as long as there is still one person out there working to improve things, we have to have hope that it will get better.