This review was first published, slightly edited, at the Guardian.
“There is everything that ever happened, and then there is this morning.”
Rasa’s grandmother – Teta – has discovered him in bed with his boyfriend Taymour. It’s a potential disaster for Taymour, who tries to “play by the rules, one foot in and one foot out”, and for Rasa it precipitates a crisis of eib, or shame, the fear of what people will say and the necessity of lying it imposes.
Since boyhood he has obsessed with finding a word to define him: louti – sodomite, or khawal – effeminate, or gay, first heard on TV when George Michael came out, or even shaath – “queer, deviant, abject”.
But Teta’s spying and screaming is only one of Rasa’s problems.
His friend Maj has been arrested. Rasa isn’t sure if it’s because of his human rights work or on account of his sexuality. In a hidden nightclub called Guapa – the “pocket of hope” which gives Saleem Haddad’s wonderful debut its title – Maj often belly dances in full niqab and a print of Marilyn Monroe’s face. He calls this “war-on-terror neo-Orientalist gender-fucking”. “We are all performing,” Maj declares, referring back to eib, and to the demands of survival in a prying dictatorship.
The president’s gaze, no less than Teta’s, “unpacks your existence bit by bit until you are naked and helpless, your most secret thoughts out in the open for all to see.”
Rasa lives in a unnamed, composite Arab city clogged with traffic, policemen, cynical cab drivers, and new and old waves of refugees. People clutch cigarettes and Turkish coffee in their well-chewed fingers. The air smells of jasmine. The walls are adorned with posters of the president in various costumes.
The city is divided between west and east. The west is “split from the rest of the country” and “sucked into the global economy”. In the eastern slums the municipality rips up roads then neglects to rebuild them. Here there are power cuts, piles of rubbish, and festering resentment.
It’s a post-Arab Spring city. Rasa remembers how the protests started: he and his friends standing alongside “the chain-smoking trade unionists, the women syndicates, the bearded Islamists”. The president responded first with American tear gas and local thugs, then gunfire and tanks. The slogans consequently became more religious. Soon ‘revolution’ was recast as ‘crisis’. Now people are stuck between authoritarianism and terrorism, militarism and neo-liberalism.
Rasa works for a media venture founded optimistically as the “first in a canon of new local media free from the constraints of the president’s propaganda”, but which quickly became a translation company serving foreign journalists.
Today he accompanies an American correspondent to interview Ahmed, an opposition leader who assumes “everyone wants an Islamic state” and plans an ideal city not zoned by class but arranged around mosques.
The police have killed Ahmed’s son. In eery echo of the Syrian dictatorship’s slogan ‘Al-Assad or We Burn the Country’, Ahmed’s wife declares: “We will make the entire country burn so that his death is not in vain.”
As he translates, even Rasa feels the pull of the Islamist worldview. It would provide him with family, “authenticity”, and clear positions. “I am like them,” he thinks, “misunderstood, vilified by the regime and the media.”
As the single day’s action hurtles to its explosive conclusion, it is punctuated by remembrance and reflection.
There is family memory, which Teta controls as strictly as the president controls national history. Their flat is a shrine to Rasa’s dead father and an abrogation of his vanished mother. (The degeneration of Rasa’s parents’ marriage is painfully, brilliantly drawn.)
And there are memories of Rasa’s time in America. He arrived as the Twin Towers fell. Here he was ‘queer’ for being Arab and Muslim, “the by-product of an oppressive culture, an ambassador of a people at war with civilisation.” Reading Amin Malouf taught him that “an individual identified most strongly with the aspect of their identity that was under attack.”
Participating in American anti-war protests and “the smoky haze of alcohol and debate”, he met Arabs who behaved very differently to those he knew at home – women who didn’t straighten their hair, men who grew their beards unkempt. He suffered unrequited love, gained friends who over-used the word ‘problematic’, and was forced again to re-examine his identity. An Arab-American man accused him of being too Westernised. A French woman told him he was too Arab. Rasa’s struggle for self-definition, mirroring the complex battles for self-determination being fought out in Arab societies, is the thematic backbone of the novel.
So much insightful commentary is packed in to “Guapa”, from the effects on the heart of bilingualism to the symbolic appropriation of the kuffiyeh, but none of it disrupts the narrative flow.
This immensely readable novel is fluent, passionate and emotionally honest. Equally astute in its analysis of Arab and American mores, its characters nuanced and dynamic, it gives fresh life to the maxim ‘the personal is political’.