Love between men in the Middle East: a brilliant new novel paints a subtle picture

Colin Wilson reviews Guapa by Saleem Haddad

Guapa is the story of Rasa, a young man in an unnamed Arab country. In the first pages he awakens to recall the disastrous night before, when his grandmother caught him in bed with another man in the apartment he shares with her. How men who love other men make lives for themselves in Middle Eastern countries is inseparable in the novel, however, from wider social and political questions. Rasa has been involved in huge protests against the dictatorial president as part of his country’s Arab Spring. For a short, optimistic period real freedom seemed possible. But the decline of those protests has left behind it a choice between the regime and an Islamist opposition, both repressive in their different ways.

Rasa works as a translator, for example accompanying a young American journalist as she goes to interview an Islamist leader. He’s grown up as the son of well-to-do people who travel internationally and speak both English and Arabic, and he has studied for four years in America. So he constantly has to negotiate competing social and cultural codes about how to behave. How does he fend off questions from friends who ask when he’s going to get married? How does he respond to American students who tell me that he’s too Arabic, or not Arabic enough? Is American culture cool, imperialist, shameful, or all three at once? Is he gay, a louti, a khawal?

Guapa book coverMuch of the time, people in the novel avoid making an honest attempt to answer these questions. Characters resolve the contradictions instead by deliberate deception. Rasa monitors himself carefully for signs of effeminacy – too high-pitched a voice, too expansive a gesture. The apparently respectable marriages of his friends turn out to involve carefully concealed betrayals. The novel is framed by the marriage of Taymour, with whom Rasa has been having a relationship for several years – Taymour puts on a “flawless performance”, has, as Rasa puts it, “one foot in and one foot out”. At a political level, the regime labels all its opponents terrorists, and the president has a range of images to suit the occasion, including businessman, army general and devout Muslim.

What Rasa is struggling for, both personally and politically, is some kind of honesty and acknowledgement that all these issues are interdependent. His dream, as he puts it, is that “we will all be connected somehow”. Much of the time, he is in despair at how things have developed since the time when he and his friends “shared tips on how to lessen the pain of the tear gas” and it seemed that anything would be possible. “I was willing to die for this,” he remembers. “We were all willing to die for this.” Back then Guapa, the bar where men who love men are tolerated in the basement, hosted activist meetings. Now the only choice he sees is between despair and revolution.

Guapa, then, addresses an enormously wide range of issues. It’s a gay coming-out story. It’s a narrative of the defeat of the Arab Spring. It’s a subtle account of the cultural effects of imperialism at a day-to-day level. Almost all the time, it weaves these strands together beautifully. There are a few passages where the text doesn’t quite integrate comment on all these topics into the narrative of the novel – tells rather than shows, if you like – but not many.

Not least important, it explores the complexities of being a man who lives in the Middle East and who loves other men. One of Rasa’s American student friends responds when he comes out to her with the question “Would they kill you over there?” That’s the same picture that’s often painted in the LGBT press. As Rasa responds, and as Guapa shows, things are different from that crude stereotype. I learned a lot about Arab society from this novel, but it’s not a sociology text. Rasa’s teenage fumbling towards an understanding of his sexuality is beautifully depicted, and you can’t put the book down as you wonder what he’ll say or do when he gets to Taymour’s wedding very drunk – will he go through with telling everyone that he was in bed with the groom last night? All in all, a splendid book.