Anatomy of a Queer Arab Novel

Saleem Haddad’s debut novel Guapa tells the story of a young gay man coming of age in the Middle East, against the backdrop of political upheaval. In this exclusive piece for Lacuna Saleem discusses the process of writing Guapa and the complexities of queer lives in the ever-changing Arab world.

I have always wanted to write a queer story set in the Arab world. My own struggles with shame and secrecy—and the pressures I felt around how to ‘be a man’ and follow the ‘right’ path set out for me by my family and society—were not reflected in the pages of the countless books I read growing up.

How did the idea to write Guapa come about?

My own observations of queer circles in the Arab world have shown them to be diverse and full of untold stories. Some individuals engage in same-sex acts but do not identify as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’; others live quiet, unassuming lives in same-sex courtships; and then there are the queer activists running underground abortion clinics, setting up safe spaces for women and youth, and chanting at the frontlines of protests for political change. There is a wealth of experiences, characters and stories to draw from. Yet for a long time, stuck between a Western discourse that sought to politicize the Arab world’s ‘sexual backwardness’ for political ends, and an Arab world that seemed, in response, to be turning inwards and closing itself off, I struggled to find the right lens through which to explore these issues in a fictional format. Eventually I let the idea go.

The idea for Guapa finally came to me in September 2011. I was spending a week with a friend at his parent’s beach house in Morocco. The regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya had fallen, and I was watching the ten-year commemoration of the 9/11 attacks on TV. I started to reflect on the last ten years, not just in my own personal transformation, but also in the transformation of global politics—from 9/11, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally the Arab revolutions. Suddenly, the parallels between the political and the personal came together in the form of Rasa and Taymour, the two lovers around which the central storyline in Guapa is based. The story, which begins the morning after Rasa’s grandmother catches him in bed with Taymour, follows the two lovers over the course of one day, revealing the fate of their relationship to be intertwined with the political future of their unnamed country, which stands at a crossroads between revolution and civil war.

Writing a queer Arab novel is just as much about examining what it means to be politically queer as it does to be sexually queer

Once the two main characters formed in my mind, it was not long before the first sentence in the novel came to me: “The morning begins with shame”. After that, I wrote the first draft hurriedly, often in the early morning before work. My work for an international NGO responding to the events of the 2011 revolutions meant that the bulk of the book was written in hotel rooms in Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, Cairo, Tripoli and Sana’a. During the day I worked on the issues that emerged from the 2011 uprisings: the wars, the police brutality, the transitional justice processes and the mushrooming refugee crises. Writing the novel became my way to reflect and process the changing world around me. And it soon became clear that to write a queer Arab novel is just as much about examining what it means to be politically queer as it does to be sexually queer.

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So how do you see the connection between the 2011 uprisings and the way the plot develops in Guapa?

In many ways, the 2011 uprisings parallel a personal coming out journey: a slow simmering of frustration and fear, until the point where the potential implications of coming out seem more bearable than the anxiety of remaining silent, toeing the line and accepting the status quo. As much as possible, I wanted to echo this in the text: to have Rasa, the main character, struggle with this tension both politically and personally. In addition to the questions of political and personal rebellion, a third uprising began to reveal itself as I wrote: an uprising against family secrets. For Rasa, repressed family trauma also erupts within him, even as he himself tries to contain this uprising, and memories of his father and mother begin to crystallize throughout the day, revealing a story that Rasa himself had repressed throughout his childhood.

Why was it so important to write a queer Arab novel at this point in time?

There is an incredible diversity in the lives of queer people in the Arab world, and these stories rarely find their way into English and Arabic media and culture. Gay Arabs in Western media are often portrayed as helpless victims of a conservative society, which often feeds into broader de-humanizing narratives that highlight the ‘backwardness’ of Arab and Muslim countries. Meanwhile, in modern Arabic media, homosexuality is often depicted as a deviance, a sickness and a sign of civilizational and moral decay. So I wanted to bring to light some of these experiences.

Growing up as a queer Arab, I often had to make do with what was available to me, and ‘curate’ my own identity by picking and choosing different aspects from both Western and Arabic culture in order to create a positive sense of self. In fact, I utilized a similar approach in writing this novel: echoing and paying homage to my favourite English and Arabic writers, musicians, television shows and films. In this way, I would reclaim a positive ‘queer’ space in Arab culture and a positive ‘Arab’ space in Western culture, and write myself into dominant narratives.

So much of this novel is also about hope, and what it means to be young and hungry for change. In 2016, the outlook in the Arab world could not seem darker. And yet, when it feels like optimism is an exercise in foolishness and pessimism a luxury we cannot afford, we sometimes have no choice but to keep on striving for something better. And in the final scene of the novel, the elements of family, politics and sexuality reveal that even in the darkest times, there is always hope.

Read an excerpt of Guapa:

I sit in Teta’s chair and light another cigarette. Teta positions her chair at the perfect angle on the balcony, which gives you a view of both the television and the streets. In her pink-and-white cotton nightgown, her hair blow-dried into a golden bob, she spends the first few hours of her morning on this balcony, with one eye on the news and the other on the neighborhood’s happenings. She drinks a cup of Turkish coffee and smokes two cigarettes as she watches the news programs on the crackling television set, the same stories told differently on state TV, the foreign-funded stations, those of the different opposition groups—which grow in number as the groups themselves divide and split—and she heckles each in turn. Meanwhile she greets neighbors as they wake up. She watches their comings and goings, eavesdrops on conversations. I swear, she collects gossip like the best investigative journalist you can think of. She then pieces these together into stories, and recounts them to the neighborhood women during their mid-morning subhiyeh of coffee and cigarettes.

Imagine if my story makes her subhiyeh this morning.

You know that stubborn woman still refuses to congratulate them for the marriage? I saw her sulking on the balcony the other day.

You would think they would have resolved their fight by now. They’re not solving the Palestinian issue for God’s sake.

We explained to her the wedding invitations were limited. Nabil asked his mother to keep the numbers low . . .

He did marry a beautiful girl. Slightly dark, but . . .

They are swimming in money . . .

He’ll probably run off with the maid like his father did.

When is Rasa going to bring you a nice girl?

You would never believe this story, but I caught someone in his room last night.

No! Who was she? Is she from the neighborhood?

He was with a man!

Ouf! Does the man come from a good family at least?

No, I know Teta will guard this secret far better than Taymour and I had.

Doris comes with an ibrik of Turkish coffee.

“Have you seen Teta this morning?” I ask as she pours me a cup.

“Still in room,” she says and walks away, her neon green slippers shuffling on the carpet. I take a sip. The coffee is hot and strong and helps me lose some of my empty feeling. I settle into Teta’s chair and turn on the television for the 8 a.m. news. A young woman in a pink veil is recounting today’s top stories. If Teta were here, she’d be muttering, Look at her! She wears a hijab but still covers half her face with red lipstick. She looks like a cat that has just eaten her own kittens.

The woman on TV looks somberly at me as she announces the headline story.

“At dawn this morning a group of terrorists, armed with foreign weapons, occupied vast swathes of land in the eastern side of the city, al-Sharqiyeh.” As she speaks footage is shown of masked men with heavy machine guns running through the empty streets of the slums. “Footage released by the terrorists show them massacring at least fifty army personnel stationed on the outskirts of al-Sharqiyeh.” As she says this more grainy footage is shown of a line of headless bodies on a dirt road. One of the masked men points his gun in the air and lets out a series of shots as the others shout “Allahu Akbar.”

The president appears on the television now. He is sitting behind his desk and is dressed in military uniform.

“Let me make myself very clear,” he says in his military voice, which is slower and more shout-y than his other voices. “This attack is further indication that there are terrorist elements in the country that are benefiting from destabilizing the situation. We will do everything in our power to crush these terrorists for the security of our nation and its great people.”

My head is spinning with the president’s voice, the image of the headless bodies in the dirt, the thought of Teta spying on Taymour and me in bed. I look out from the balcony toward al-Sharqiyeh. A flock of birds hovers over the city, oblivious to the mess us humans are making, to the heavy ball of shame and fear in the pit of my stomach. An eerie quietness cuts through the usual sound of traffic and street vendors. Is this ominous stillness new, or have I only just noticed it?

I switch over to CNN. I can’t stand to look at the president’s face, and I want to see how the foreign media is covering the events. The television anchor, an older woman with dyed blond hair, has a look of concern in her eyes. “The troubled nation has been experiencing upheaval since protests erupted earlier this year, and the latest development seems to confirm growing fears around the radicalization of the opposition to the president’s rule.”

Only a few months ago I was on that television screen. My beaming face, along with thousands of others, all crammed together, waving flags and singing victorious songs. The camera panned across our nameless faces and we cheered back. We each had a name, a history, a life. But we were willing to forsake all of that if it meant appearing strong, united, steadfast. For that moment we wanted to be nameless because we were one united mass against the bullshit we had thought was inevitable. No more hypocrisy, no more fear, no more staying put and shutting up and selling our souls to political devils for the sake of “stability.” After an eternity of fear and suspicion and disappointment, it suddenly seemed so obvious, as if the opportunity had been staring us in the face our whole lives and all we had to do was reach out and grab it. At one point I was interviewed by CNN, and with a smile on my face I addressed all my friends who had left and vowed never to come back: “You can come back now! We need you to help us rebuild!” We were so hopeful then, so ridiculously naïve.

I turn off the television and pick up my phone. The dark screen of my mobile glares back at me. Still no word from Taymour. I want to call him, just to hear his voice, even though I don’t know the right words to say. Instead I call Maj. His phone is turned off so I send him a message: My grandmother caught me and Taymour last night. It’s all a mess.

Just last night we had been at Guapa: Basma, Taymour, Maj, and me. We drank beer and argued. The subject was, as always, American imperialism and the sad state of our revolution. Taymour had been so insistent that now, more than ever, the president was the only alternative, it was either that or the Islamists.

“Look here,” he was explaining to Maj, “think of it this way. We’re all starving. The president has knafeh cooking in the oven, and you are standing over his shoulder criticizing his ingredients and methods of cooking, and insisting on taking it out before it’s done because it’s not to your liking. But there are some people in the kitchen who want to destroy the knafeh, and as soon as you open that oven they’ll reach in and throw it all away. What will we do then?”

Find out more about Guapa here.

Banner photo by Chris Goldberg

Saleem Haddad

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 U.K. He has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and other international organisations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt. In addition to writing, he currently advises international organisations on humanitarian and development issues in the Middle East and North Africa. He divides his time between the Middle East and London. His first novel, Guapa, was published in March 2016 by Other Press.

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