[Saturday Reads] What It’s Like to be Gay in the Middle East in Saleem Haddad’s “Guapa”

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.


Guapa

Written by: Saleem Haddad
Published by: Europa Editions, 2016
ISBN: 1609454138 (ISBN13: 9781609454135). Bought my own copy. Book Photos taken by me. 

I learned about this book through Litsy – an app that I have been going crazy about – when I shared that we are doing a Middle Eastern reading theme, and it came highly recommended. Naturally, I bought it from Book Depository before we left Singapore, primarily because it still fits quite nicely into our current reading theme (plus it is a Europa Editions novel which we love), with the hopes that I will be able to review it.

Basically, this book is an exploration of something which is considered taboo in the Muslim community: what it’s like to be gay, especially in the Middle East. It was never really mentioned throughout the novel what the specific setting of the book is – just little snippets here and there of discontent with the current administration, the hypervigilance when it comes to extremists who wish to take over the country, revolutionary acts led mostly by the youth, a few of them educated in the United States such as the main protagonist in the story, Rasa, who works as an interpreter for foreign journalists.

I started reading the novel while we were in Tavarnuzze Toscana, Italy, where my family and I stayed for a few days before returning back to Munich. It has kept me company while we ate out, had espresso and orzo (barley). Generally, I found myself drawn more to the political aspect of the narrative, more than the secret love affair that Rasa had with his paramour, Taymour, who was about to get married.

There is a particular quote somewhere in the beginning which resonated deeply with me, especially as we now live in post-truth realities, where history can be rewritten and facts are twisted until they are too mangled to be recognizable:

Words that looked so simple on paper concealed more than they revealed, which for words is a cardinal sin. It is like turning on a lamp to see what’s in a room only for the light to be so blinding it makes it impossible to open your eyes. What purpose does the lamp serve then? If a lamp only makes it harder to see then it is of no use, and if your words only serve to conceal the truth, then you might as well not say a word at all. – p. 45

I enjoyed reading about the small acts of resistance, what it’s like for Rasa to be an Arab when he was in the United States after 9/11 – how his being an Arab became more salient as opposed to his being gay, the latter perceived as relatively more acceptable to the American community than the former.

If I were to decide on a favourite character in the story, it would have to be Maj, with his flamboyant ways, his ownership of who he is, the devil-may-care sense of pride that is part of the fabric of his being. I found the secret romance between Taymour and Rasa to be overwrought, bordering on the theatrical, with its repetitiveness. The constant theme throughout Rasa’s ruminations is this (I used an app here to pair image with words):

I think, after awhile, I simply grew tired of reading the same fear presented in various word permutations. I felt that the gravity of the political situation presented as the backdrop of the story is incongruent with the seeming-adolescent, somewhat-cloying love affair. Regardless, there are a lot of issues raised here that I never thought I would see in print, especially written by an author born in Kuwait to a Lebanese-Palestinian father and an Iraqi German mother (as found in the back of the book). This in-between state of transitioning between cultures is quite sensitively portrayed in the story. If this book is not in your radar yet, it is definitely worth checking out.

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