Guapa by Saleem Haddad

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There are hints of an intelligent book in Saleem Haddad’s début. Guapa focuses on the effects of the political on the personal during times of war and the potentially negative influence of religion on the day-to-day. In this novel, Haddad manifests the public and private façades we must keep up, the ones we must break down, the ones we rely on too much. His narrator states, “We all tell lies to protect our solitude. We deny truth and present a false image of ourselves to blend into society. It’s the same everywhere, but here the stakes are much higher.” The stakes are higher because fundamentalist Islam threatens individual expression in his country.

At its best, Guapa gives an important voice to those we know are there: the liberal and moderate Muslims in war-torn nations and the homosexual Muslim communities who are terrorized—criminalized—and forced to live in the closet and on society’s margins. The novel shows how these people are fighting against fundamentalism by proving their humanity, even when fundamentalism seems to be winning. Guapa also suggests that homosexuals are struggling with their own identity, sometimes resisting truthful classifications about themselves and who they love.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel shows that even in the political, even in the middle of war, people still have simple human needs—like the need for love. Unfortunately this is where Guapa falls from its potential. The narrator is twenty- or thirtysomething Rasa, a stand-in for the author, who “was born the day after Valentine’s Day” in 1983. Other than giving the novel a definite sense of time, this detail blandly hints that Rasa is captivated by love and lust due to his birth’s proximity to the love saint’s holiday. He spends the entire novel using and looking at his phone, waiting for his lover Taymour to text him back. Through this obsession, Rasa becomes tedious and annoying rather quickly, making him a difficult narrator to accompany.

Rasa’s fears stem from his clandestine relationship with Taymour. They’ve been dating for several months under the radar, with Rasa bringing his lover back to his grandmother’s home to have sex. However, the night before the events of the novel, Rasa is caught in the act by the servants and his devout grandmother—they hear passionate noises and, like a Gothic nightmare, see Rasa’s actions through a keyhole. This night also happens to be the one before Taymour’s wedding—to a woman. Stress, self-hatred, and anger come to light in Rasa’s self-centered whining, even though more important things seem to be happening around him.

Rasa lives in a Muslim country amid civil war. The president is a dictator. His image is plastered on television and on buildings around the capital city. The rebels raging against him started out as liberals, but now those in charge are more interested in setting up a democracy with Islam as the guiding force. How will this change anything?, the liberals seem to think. When Rasa accompanies an English-language journalist who is interviewing the rebels, he documents the following conversation:

“We live in a Muslim country,” Ahmed [the rebel] responds.

“But a Muslim country is not the same as an Islamic state,” Laura [the journalist] says.

“Everyone wants an Islamic state,” Um Abdallah [Ahmed’s wife] chimes in. I hesitate as I translate this, but neither Ahmed nor Um Abdallah seem to notice.

Saleem Haddad

Saleem Haddad

Rasa’s hesitation comes from his liberalism and an understanding of world politics honed in an American university. He took courses on Said’s Orientalism and Gramsci’s prison notebooks and became involved in rallies. While abroad, he realized the isolation of being Muslim and being gay—and the dangers surrounding that isolation—in a society that discriminates against these groups: “I did not have a Martin Luther King to help me field off the stereotypes and lies about my race and religion that were being formulated before my eyes.” This despair for a leader to follow might explain why Rasa has no guidance, why he falls into situations and friendships, rather than helping to plan them and want them. “Thank you for being the voice of your people,” someone says to him at a protest. But Rasa really isn’t there for his political leanings; he’s there because he’s interested in a guy who said he’d be there, a guy who is actually politically active.

At its worst, Guapa is a novel that lacks subtlety. It lacks a certain poetry to the situations and characters it presents. “Had all the American television infected me with gay?” Rasa asks. At times it’s lazily written: the term “Filipina” suggests a female, hence “Filipina woman” is redundant. Guapa falls into clichés—with gay men presented as “effeminate”—and refuses to find a language that doesn’t buy into heteronormativity. Its narrator asks, “Is there anything more pitiful than an Arab who attaches his emotions to his homosexuality?” To which the novel seems to answer: No.

Guapa is the wrong title for this book, since the novel does not focus on Guapa—the nightclub where gay men, as well as their male and female allies, hang out.Eib would have been a more appropriate title.

The closest word for eib in English is perhaps ‘shame.’ But eib is so much more than that. The implication of eib is kalam il-nas, what will people say, and so the word carries a bit of conscientiousness, a politeness brought about by a perceived sense of communal obligation.

Such a sense of shame is evoked throughout this entire novel; it lives in the blood of most of its characters. Shame makes them stand on the sidelines. Shame makes them dehumanize others. Shame makes them complicit in horrific acts. Saleem Haddad’s début is filled with fear-drenched, aggravated, and aggravating people who don’t push against wrongdoings, who just pity themselves. The only major character with some sort of courage is Rasa’s friend Maj, who performs at Guapa in drag as “Arabic pop princesses” and is jailed for being Other. He actively fights against the status quo. But he’s swallowed up by less interesting characters and their drama.

Guapa might be classified as a young adult novel. Its characters are turning thirty but they act like they’re thirteen. Perhaps that is one of the unintentional points here—that until self-acceptance occurs and sexually based discrimination ends, humankind will continue to be in a state of arrested development.

Salvatore Ruggiero's writing has appeared in Bookslut, The Critical Flame, The Quarterly Conversation, Word Riot, and elsewhere. More from this author →