The Rumpus Interview with Saleem Haddad
This was the first time my mail had been stolen. Someone must have seen the package outside my apartment: they tore the envelope open, took the contents, and tucked the evidence under my doormat. Inside the envelope? Guapa, Saleem Haddad’s debut novel. As frustrated as I was with the thief, two thoughts comforted me: someone really wanted to read Guapa, and—if this someone did read the book—they would be the better for it.
I read the novel several weeks after the shooting in Orlando. The story of Rasa, a young gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, felt especially poignant; he frequents an underground gay bar named Guapa, and this is where he and his friends feel most safe. Over twenty-four hours this world starts to crumble: Rasa’s grandmother catches him with his lover, Taymour, and Rasa’s closest friend Maj, an activist and drag queen, is arrested. Rasa roves the city, hoping to reconcile with his lover, trying to find his best friend. Through flashbacks we come to understand the forces shaping Rasa’s place in the world: the shame of his culture and its religion; the hope of radical politics; and the bleak economic reality of life in the postcolonial Middle East.
Saleem Haddad is a writer and aid worker. He was born in Kuwait City to an Iraqi-German mother and a Palestinian-Lebanese father, and has lived in Jordan, Cyprus, Canada, and the UK. He has worked with Doctors Without Borders and other international organizations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt; he currently advises international organizations on humanitarian and development issues in the Middle East and North Africa. He divides his time between the Middle East and London.
We corresponded over email and talked about Orlando, the importance of queer spaces, and how Guapa forces us to think differently about “Arab literature” and “queer literature,” while echoing and paying homage to these canons.
The Rumpus: You named Guapa after an underground gay bar that appears in the book. Only a portion of the action takes place at the bar, but the space is clearly central to Rasa’s experience. What makes the bar so important?
Saleem Haddad: The bar felt very central to Rasa’s identity, even if there are only a few scenes that actually take place there. It’s perhaps the only space where he feels he can be himself, where his political, social, and sexual identities can somehow exist without contradiction. While writing it I didn’t think too much about why Guapa was so important, but looking back at my own life growing up in the Middle East, bars like “Guapa” always felt like politically important spaces for me. They were places where I could get out of the house, meet friends, and discuss politics with relative comfort. Some of these bars could be classified as “gay” or “queer,” but most weren’t. Or rather, they were “queer” in ways that went beyond sexual identity: they were safe spaces not just for sexual “deviants,” but political and social “deviants” as well.
Rumpus: That experience comes through in the novel—Guapa is a place for drag queens, radicals, punks: “deviants” of all stripes. Do you think a queer space like this serves a different (or broader) function in the Middle East than in the US?
Haddad: Perhaps, but I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily the case everywhere. There are certainly gay bars and clubs in some cities in the Middle East that look very much like the clubs you’d see in metropolitan cities in Europe and North America. But more often, the bars and coffee shops that I see in the Middle East tend to have a broad definition of queer, especially those that are spaces for activists, in countries where queerness is more broad than simply those who are LGBT.
Rumpus: Reading Guapa after the attack in Orlando, I couldn’t help but see the bar in the book differently: it feels even more precious. These safe spaces, wherever they are, are never really safe. We know this, on some level. But have the events in Orlando changed how you view your own book?
Haddad: My own visceral reaction to Orlando—a mix of sadness and anger—showed me how important queer spaces are in my life, which was something I had taken for granted before. And the importance of Guapa to Rasa definitely changed in the aftermath of what happened. I have had readers write to me saying that reading the novel in the aftermath of Orlando really hit home for them how much they value bars and clubs like Guapa, and how vulnerable our safe spaces remain everywhere in the world. We still have a lot of work to do.
Rumpus: Some of the work is political, some is personal—you do a great job of showing how large-scale and small-scale intertwine. Rasa tells himself, at one point, that “shame and lost love” are “bourgeois worries,” and that “metaphorical prisons” can’t match the real thing. I think the rest of the novel undercuts him on this: love and shame are important. But do you ever find yourself agreeing with Rasa?
Haddad: The personal is always political, and only the privileged have the luxury of ignoring this. By extension, love is a political act. This is obvious when it comes to ‘queer’ love, but even heterosexual love is political, and I wanted to expose that in the novel.
I sometimes question what value there is to write about shame and love in the shadow of much larger conflicts: from the war in Syria to the refugee crisis and the spread of fascism around the world. But shame, fear and love all drive these bigger questions to a certain degree. Revolutions and wars are often thought of as something that is far removed from the personal, when in fact they are driven by very personal acts of agency operating within broader structures. I wanted to explore what happens when one individual personal struggle hits up against communal structures of violence and change.
Rumpus: In some ways, the novel feels like a Bildungsroman—with a big chunk of the coming-of-age happening in one day. Were there coming-of-age stories that served as models? What inspired the twenty-four-hour frame?
Haddad: I had never written fiction before, so I relied on so many different pieces of work while I was writing, drawing on queer literature from James Baldwin, Colm Tóibín, André Aciman, Abdellah Taia, Christopher Isherwood, and Gore Vidal, as well as Arab writers such as Nihad Sirees, Hassan Blasim, Waguih Ghali, and Youssef Rakha, and others that I admire in general: Junot Díaz, Donna Tartt, Dostoevsky, Lydia Davis, and Louis Ferdinand-Céline. I felt like I learned different things from each of these writers, studying their styles, sentence structures and plot devices. I wanted to disrupt these binaries: the idea that there could ever be such a thing as ‘queer literature’ or ‘Arab literature’ or ‘immigrant literature’, and write something that echoes, blends and pays homage to great works in all these canons.
The twenty-four-hour frame was not what I initially intended. Funnily, I had in mind to write a saga spanning ten years in the lives of Rasa and Taymour—from 9/11 to the beginnings of the Arab revolutions. But as I wrote I realized I was working on a much smaller canvas—it felt necessary both to maintain the intensity of the plot, while also exploring in great detail the minute-by-minute emotions of the characters. My struggle then became how to provide the necessary context to the characters, which I was able to do through flashbacks.
Rumpus: What drew you to fiction? Were you tempted to write in different forms? Rasa reads Marx and Edward Said, but he often seems skeptical of the value of theory.
Haddad: I’ve always been an avid reader. I think it was partly a desire to escape my own life, and partly because, since my family moved around a lot, books became my only reliable friends in places where I didn’t fit in. During and after university I read mostly theory and nonfiction, and did not pick up a single novel in the years I was doing aid work, where I was often exposed to very real life-or-death matters in places like Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. It wasn’t until 2010—when I was burnt out from death and war and needed a break—that I started reading and writing fiction. The 2011 revolutions played a part in this as well, perhaps. There was so much confusion and half-truths, and combined with a manic desire to make my voice heard, I returned to fiction as a way to get to the truth by stepping away from politics and opening all the doors possible, something which activism and aid work don’t have the luxury to do. And through that I realized that I wanted to write a story that would explore the emotional resonance of these big political events that shaped my life: from 9/11 to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the 2011 Arab revolutions, but to do so from a very personal perspective of the life of a single character.
Rumpus: How has your aid and humanitarian work informed your writing?
Haddad: It’s informed both the style and substance of my writing. In terms of style, I recall my old boss at Doctors Without Borders once telling me that I needed to write as simply and clearly as possible, because the audience of my reports would likely be a doctor whose second language is English, who is working in a hospital in the middle of a war zone. That piece of advice, to write in a way that is simple, clear, and relevant, has stuck with me, and I think that comes through in Guapa, which tackles large questions of politics, identity, and belonging in very simple language. Beyond style, the themes I’m exploring were heavily influenced by the work I was doing in places like Yemen, Egypt and Libya between 2011 and 2014. I was working on the political and transition processes in those countries, so I met with youth activists, revolutionaries, warlords, Islamists, and regime officials. Many conversations I participated in and overheard between these diverse groups of people found their way into Guapa.
Rumpus: Rasa works as an interpreter: he translates between English and Arabic for foreign journalists. In writing for a Western audience, is your job similar? For Rasa, the translator’s power is his ability to misinterpret; is this power something you felt as you wrote?
Haddad: Not in my writing—my writing always feels like a struggle to articulate a certain truth by exploring all other options thoroughly. Misinterpreting is a more political act, perhaps left to activism and politics. But I was aware of my audience. Not in the first draft though. The first draft I wrote only for myself—to make sense of the political and personal questions and dilemmas I was dealing with in my own life at the time. The first draft was very raw and emotional, but it was in the re-drafts that I became more aware of the different audiences I was speaking to. What’s interesting is that, being on a book tour in the Middle East and North America and Europe, different audiences have read the book in very different ways. This was something I tried to do: to have themes speak to people’s unique experiences and world views. Again, my background as an aid worker was helpful with this, as the job exposes you to so many different and often competing world views.
But I don’t see my role as an interpreter. Rather I feel that I am driven—both as a writer and as a human—by the question of how we can all live together in this world when we are all coming from very different perspectives, lives and experiences. To clarify, this difference is much more complex than the simple dichotomy of East versus West, and in my writing I try to complicate and break down these simply dichotomies that political narratives try to build. But I suppose part of what drives the narrative in Guapa—and what drives my own engagement with the world—is the question of how we can all live together in a way that is both free and truthful.
Rumpus: What’s next? Are you working on any new projects?
Haddad: This summer I’m touring for the book—in Europe and the Middle East. But I’m working on another project, and I’m at the very early stages. I’ve been thinking a lot about Iraq and the country’s tragic history, and about climate change, and about how we grieve—for our countries, for our environment, and for our own bodies. How do we come to terms with all this destruction, and with our own mortality? And what role does art play in all of this? So these are the questions on my mind as I write. I’ve learned I can’t control what ends up on the page—especially at the very early stages—but I usually have some key questions occupying my mind which drive my writing.
Author photograph © Sami Haddad.