It’s important for any oppressed minority group to have a physical location where people can come together to socialize, organize and form a sense of identity together. In Saleem Haddad’s striking debut novel that place is a bar called Guapa with its bustling mixed clientele on one level and a more radically charged groups who watch cabaret performances on a lower level. It's interesting how the descriptions of this place feel very recognizable to read about as if it were any gay-friendly bar in Berlin or New York City, but the bar's patrons and the issues they raise when speaking to narrator Rasa are specific to the location. This is within an unnamed Middle Eastern city undergoing extreme political turmoil. The novel follows a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man who lives with his grandmother and has been working to found a new media company after a period studying in America. As the city teeters on revolt against the authoritarian military regime, closeted Rasa's personal life undergoes its own upheaval having been discovered in bed with his boyfriend/habibi Taymour by his grandmother. This highly engaging story describes with great passion and intelligence how Rasa feels isolated within a society which is divided by Eastern/Western values and straight/gay culture.
Rasa realizes that he's gay during his adolescence and after his first sexual encounter he experiences a divided sense of self which comes from being homosexual in a repressive heterosexual culture: “I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.” After his father dies from terminal cancer and his mother disappears he's left alone with his loving but conservative grandmother. He goes to university in America where he thinks he'll find the freedom to be himself and hangs a poster of George Michael above his bed. But interestingly he experiences a more intense level of aloneness here - especially because he's in America when the planes crash into the twin towers and he's made more aware of his “otherness”. He describes this with great feeling “I was no longer someone with thoughts and dreams and secrets. I was the by-product of an oppressive culture, an ambassador of a people at war with civilization.” While he struggles to connect with people socially and romantically in America, he does discover authors such as Amin Maalouf, Karl Marx, Partha Chatterjee and Edward Said. Their books introduce him to systems of thought which help give him perspective and better understand the world around him.
When Rasa moves back to his grandmother's apartment in the Middle East he's determined to help facilitate change within society alongside his friend Maj who stages subversive drag acts. But they encounter many unique problems which make any progress extremely challenging. Maj in particular is frequently beaten and arrested because he's an effeminate man who is vociferous about his political opinions. When Rasa falls for Taymour he wishes to create a secret shared space where they can love in the way they naturally desire. It's moving when he describes how his feelings for Taymour are bound up with feelings for his homeland: “I loved Taymour because he was from here, because everything in him reminded me of everything here, because to love him was to love this city and its history. And yet I couldn’t love him because he was from here and so held ideas of how to be and how to love, which would never fit in with the love that we shared.” The contradictions and divisions in the society around them follow them into the privacy of the bedroom. This is what makes it a tragic love story.
“Guapa” is ultimately an inspiring novel written in a vigorous and convincing voice. Rasa forcefully asserts his individuality outside of any stereotypes or expectations of how any society wants him to conform. It was an immense joy and pleasure to read this book.