By Eman El Shaikh
Shame, Revolution, and Identity: a Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa
The story and the novel both begin with shame. Rasa, a twenty-something queer man living in an unnamed Arab country, awakens to the vague but uncomfortable awareness of a shameful encounter the night before, when his grandmother caught him and his lover, Taymour, in the middle of a furtive passionate encounter. Rasa, the narrator and protagonist, begins his narration wondering about shame, or eib, an idea which reverberates powerfully throughout the novel.
But eib is not quite so simply collapsed into notions of shame, and as the novel unfolds—its frenetic and potent energy taking place within the span of a single day—Rasa interrogates the idea of eib and its tyranny over his life. “Taymour’s name is embargoed under a cloak of eib,” Rasa thinks. “The closest word for eib in English is perhaps “shame.” But eib is so much more than that.”
Eib confines and nurtures Rasa, at once concealing him and revealing him, and throughout the novel, many distinct but overlapping tyrannies converge in Rasa’s life, begging overthrow. As the events progress, Rasa circles elliptically around questions of revolution, identity, shame, and narrative.
Saleem Haddad’s debut novel is a text which brilliantly complicates the many oppositions we have inherited, unsettling them and interrogating their salience: public versus private, east versus west, gay versus straight, revolution versus apathy. The various threads are split apart and reconstituted adeptly and seamlessly, converging into a rich and moving story of a young man confronting the numerous iterations of his own power and powerlessness.
Guapa the bar, like the novel, is a nexus of optimism and frustration, a place of trauma and healing, confinement and freedom, climax and anticlimax. It in this bar where Rasa first meets Taymour, where he watches his friends dance in drag in the basement, where he plans revolutions with his friends, and where they collectively lament its abortion. It is in this and through this that Haddad vividly inscribes a microcosm of our modern life and all of the promiscuous possibilities and oppositions that populate it.
We enter into Rasa’s whirling, precipitous subjectivity, which hurriedly flits between urgent political disasters and unfurling love affairs and long leisurely excursions into the reservoirs of his memory. Yet this narration is neither cloyingly well-arranged nor laboriously jumbled, and so Rasa’s reality comes alive effortlessly, revealing all of the traumas and joys which inhabit Rasa’s world. We fall floridly into the sweet and fragile intimacies between Taymour and Rasa and endure Rasa’s harrowing encounter with the police. The tenor of the narrative is at turns buoyed by the exuberance of an incipient revolution and dampened by its anticlimax.
Yet through the disorienting present, the turbulence of past events is also palpable. Through these jarring moments, Rasa relives his estrangements: from his secretive, domineering grandmother, who presides over his small, diminished family with tight lips and tight fists; from his late father, who had cautioned him against fighting for change; from his absent mother, who chopped an endless supply of onions at the kitchen table to subsume her tears and ultimately left him behind. Haddad weaves these instances together with skillful and sincere prose.
It is the specter of the failed revolution that haunts the story, and Rasa vacillates between resignation and anger. It is unclear whether the failed revolution belongs to Syria, Egypt, Tunisia or to another country—or perhaps to no country at all—and it is this lack of specificity that imbues the revolution—and the novel—with a plausible deniability. Is the revolution real or imagined? Was it on the right or wrong side of history? Without the tapestry of history as a backdrop, one does not know if the revolution warrants condemnation or mourning, which both frees the revolution from scrutiny and demands it be subjected to it.
The novel is permeated with urgent political questions, though they are not met with incontrovertible answers. Haddad smoothly floats these considerations in the air but provides no explicit resolution for them. Nevertheless, the reader is nudged along to certain conclusions which eventually collapse in on themselves, leaving the reader in a sustained state of precarity.
If the personal is political, in Guapa, the political often recedes into the personal, with tense and calamitous political situations often punctuated—and superseded—by Rasa’s personal turmoil: his obsession with his withdrawn lover, his worry about his grandmother’s perception of him, his latent anxieties about his absent parents. Rasa wonders if his private life is realer than his public one, since his public self elides so much about himself and the true nature of things. And yet he wonders if shame and lost love are ancillary bourgeois concerns, imagined prisons as opposed to non-metaphorical ones. Tied up in this are questions of narrative, and Rasa does not grapple with narrative inertly. Rather, he is strategic in the very way he translates (and mistranslates) between languages and worlds, misinterpreting and omitting as a way of relating a politics.
As these tensions animate Rasa’s world, he questions the various identities through which he experiences the world, the oppressive force they exert upon them, and how to adjudicate between then. Rasa feels his homosexuality marks him in his home country, trying out different idioms to encompass his queer identity, experimenting with the words gay, shaath, louti, and khawal. And though his queer identification is at the forefront of most of his life, he becomes primarily an Arab when he goes to America. It is there that he begins to understand that the social contract of eib, the decorum and collective sensitivity that it entails, could sometimes become a refuge from the lonely individualism and the sharp, discrete personal spaces of the western world.
It would be a mistake to see all of Rasa’s struggles separately—nor can they be extricated from one another. Indeed they all flow together and sublimate into one another in the way human tensions often do.
Haddad’s debut novel is more than a captivating coming of age novel. It is a story which could easily lapse into stereotypes and cliché, but Haddad does not lose his brisk, bright, and perceptive voice. Guapa submerges the reader in the complexities and tangles of a liminal queer Arab subjectivity and all of its undulating contingencies. It does so while being not just politically attuned but politically revelatory. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Haddad’s novel is its unique allegory; it is unique in that it is an allegory that demands the reader observe the world around them but is not didactic about what they should see.