The novel Guapa by Saleem Haddad is set in the aftermath of the 2011 revolutions. Reading it during the fall of Aleppo, on the sixth anniversary of the Arab Spring, is a moving experience.
So begins Haddad’s revolutionary novel Guapa, a tour de force that encompasses themes of friendship, queer sexuality, state violence, revolutionary hope and revolutionary despair. I read it as the siege of Aleppo reached its horrifying and bloody nadir. To read a novel that explores the lost hope of the Arab Spring in such an unashamedly personal and political way is quite an extraordinary experience.
The novel tells the story of Rasa, a young gay man living in an unnamed Middle Eastern city in the aftermath of 2011’s Arab Spring revolutions. The location is never fully disclosed - sometimes the reader is tempted to think it’s Cairo, sometimes our mind drifts to Damascus. He spends his days working as a translator and interpreter for Western journalists determined to tell the story of the Arab Spring. At night, he and his friends inhabit the queer world of the Guapa nightclub with his secret lover Taymour - a man engaged to be married. The novel opens with Rasa waking up having been discovered in bed with Taymour by his grandmother. Since this crisis, Rasa hasn’t heard from Taymour. Soon after, he learns his best friend the drag artist Majid has been arrested by the authorities. These battles between queer lives, shame (or eib) and the state drive forward the novel’s narrative.
The novel is set over the course of a day - with flashbacks to Rasa’s childhood and one extended flashback section to his time studying in the USA before, during and after 9/11. The conceit of placing all the action within one single day helps to encapsulate the personal chaos and the political intensity of both Rasa’s and the country’s moment.
One of Haddad’s great achievements is his ability to synthesise the personal revolutionary moment, heartbreak and longing, with the wider political revolutions, heartbreak and longing that is happening on the streets around him. In this, the reader is confronted with the politicisation of queer bodies and lives - particularly in repressive states or in states that are seeing a hardening of repressive attitudes following a hope for liberation.
Haddad explores the betrayal of the post-Arab Spring moment for many of the young people who gathered on the streets. The descriptions of the early protests are joyous and imbued with the promise of a new hope:
Only a few months ago I was on the television screen. My beaming face, along with thousands of others, all crammed together, waving flags and singing victorious songs. The camera panned across our nameless faces and we cheered back […] For that moment we wanted to be nameless because we were one united mass against the bullshit we had thought was inevitable. No more hypocrisy, no more fear, no more staying put and shutting up.
In an example of how Guapa blends the macro political landscape and the micro internal landscape, this is followed by a return to Rasa’s own personal battle with his longing for his lover, the man who he fears he now has lost thanks to the state’s repressive attitudes towards sexuality:
I turn off the television and pick up my phone. The dark screen of my mobile glares back at me. Still no word from Taymour. I want to call him, just to hear his voice.
Both the Arab Spring and Rasa’s love for Taymour are celebrations of hope, love and a belief in a better, freer future. The loss of both love and the revolution are symbolic of a backlash against the progressive values Rasa and his friends fought for.
And so the protests go from:
I was willing to die for this. We were all willing to die for this. Because this was more important than one single life, more important than ten or fifteen lives. And when the president appeared on television that evening, scolding us like misbehaving children, I was sure of only one thing: that to stay at home would be to return to the fear and denial that had ruled us for a generation.
When I arrived [at the protest] I realised I didn’t recognise anyone anymore. The beards had grown out, the women were segregated, and the chants had changed. I scanned the faces in the crowd and they looked back at me in a different way. The walls had returned. The trust had gone and I felt my own familiar walls rise once again. Looking around, I began to think: If we did manage to bring down the president, and if we tore down every damn picture and statue from the city, what would we replace him with? The protests had felt like the most authentic thing I had done with my life. Now they felt like a martyrdom operation to help a new generation of dictators come to power.
Guapa shows how day-to-day life went on after the cameras left Tahrir Square or Pearl Roundabout, and that those involved in the protests are now negotiating a new life under a regime that does not reflect the hopes and freedoms they had imagined. It deals with the individual lives behind the headlines - complex, complicated relationships and friendships that existed within the political upheaval and outside of it too.
We see Rasa as trapped between multiple identities that are imposed upon him from outside, as well as his own identity as a queer Arab man. Rasa’s relationship with his mother is a central theme - a relationship that is full of lost hope and betrayal. What’s more, Rasa is preoccupied with the question as to whether his sexuality and its discovery is a betrayal of his grandmother and her code of eib or shame. During his time living in the USA, Rasa is caught between the conflict between his sexuality, his desire to express that, and the pressures on him from students of Arab heritage to respect or conform to cultural expectations - while at the same time he is under suspicion from white students as a Middle Eastern Muslim.
One of the most upsetting episodes in the novel is perhaps the epitome of how Haddad brings together the personal and the political. Searching for his friend Majid, Rasa ends up in the police station where he is brutally beaten. Both Rasa and Majid believed that the protests would bring greater freedoms and acceptability of LGBTQ rights. In the thud of a police officer’s fist against Rasa’s cheek, it is brought home to us that queer bodies, as well as marginalised bodies and communities, are often among the first to be violently repressed during a backlash.
Saleem Haddad’s debut is a pacey, character-driven novel where revolution, sexuality, friendship, family, history and geo-politics collide. It offers a fresh perspective on the Arab Spring and its aftermath, and tells the marginalised story of queer sexuality in the Middle East - a story that has too often been about exoticising the other.