ALI ADENWALA explores the intersections of queer and Arab identities in Saleem Haddad’s Guapa.

The Western vision of the queer Arab is undeniably bleak. Most often, it is a sensationalised slideshow of relentless suffering: bodies thrown from rooftops, mass arrests, and public hangings. Yet in Saleem Haddad’s debut novel Guapa, the most violently crucifying moments are not of stonings or communal exile, but rather the stabs of shame after a lover’s touch, and the terror of an eye staring out of a keyhole.

The plot documents a single day in the life of Rasa, a gay Arab man living in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country. Working as an interpreter for Western journalists, he acts as a bridge between East and West; revealing both a minefield of cultural misinterpretation and a futility of communication even language cannot diffuse. Rasa’s fixation with language borders on mania. It is not simply an occupation but a personal crusade, as he searches tirelessly for a definable identity – ‘gay’, ‘louti’, ‘sodomite’, ‘khawal’ – none seem to fit.

From navigating everyday life as a gay man in an Arab society to the flashbacks which pepper the narrative, the inescapable spectre of alienation hangs over Rasa. Haddad retells his protagonist’s experiences of post-9/11 America, of life as an idealistic revolutionary, and finally, of being a parentless young man on the verge of losing his lover, Taymour.

‘Nostalgia’ – image courtesy of Lucas Simoes.

Despite the importance of Rasa’s story, however, the LGBT struggle is contextualised within a broader socio-political narrative of national suffering, as a failed revolution unleashes a new wave of regime repression and extremist terror attacks. Rasa’s best friend Maj, resident drag-queen of the city’s underground gay club (the titular ‘Guapa’), remarks that the regime ‘preys on the downtrodden and oppressed, on the poor, on women and refugees and illegal immigrants’. He reminds Rasa that they are the lucky ones because they ‘speak fluent English’ and live in the rich part of the city  making them ‘too costly to kill’ despite their vilified sexual identity. Haddad conveys the multidimensional and often ambiguous role of privilege, and the intense subjectivity of experience in a region which is often painted with a single brush.

Intertextuality plays a large role in Haddad’s novel. Scattered throughout Guapa are allusions to seminal works of LGBT fiction, such as Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. Accordingly, themes addressed in the novel are seen against, and in relation to, this counter-canon. More interesting still is how Guapa grapples with postcolonial theory  weaving together ideological strands from Joseph Massad, Amin Maalouf, and Michel Foucault into a diverse debate about cultural identity. This itself is a concept which haunts the narrative, as Rasa contemplates the implications of his own history.

Is the notion of a ‘queer Arab’ simply a product of ‘the Western imagination exported onto the colonial world’? Is ‘queerness’ a rigidly Western structure imposed on the East? Is the pre-colonial experience of sexuality – fluid, chaotic, and free from classification  – more desirable? As Haddad notes, in the Middle East ‘the notion of publicly coming out rings hollow in a culture where who you share your bed with is a private matter’; where homosexuality operates in a different cultural context – as an act, not an orientation  and where many have sex with people of the same gender without ever needing to label themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’. Yet is this notion of historic liberality a utopian delusion fed by a desire to romanticize the past? Haddad never arrives at a conclusive answer, but he raises many important questions.

In The Myth of Queer Arab Life, Haddad asks:

Who owns queer Arab bodies? Is it the authoritarian regimes who trample on queer bodies for moral legitimacy, the jihadists who burnish their religious credentials by tossing these bodies off the highest towers, the western human rights groups who enforce their own narratives to ‘save’ these bodies, the anti-imperialist academics who argue that these bodies are naively adopting colonialist discourses, the neoconservatives who shake dead queer bodies in front of their constituents to justify wars and occupations?

Guapa is Saleem Haddad’s attempt to take back his body, and the bodies of millions  to regain control, and re-contexualise the body into a corpus of nuance, truth, and complexity. The novel represents a much-needed testimony of Arab self-representation and self-definition.  Haddad deconstructs the illusion of a monolithic cultural experience, while defying the prevailing view of the Arab minority  helpless, silent, and waiting.

Guapa is published by Europa Editions (October 2016); find more information here.