Saleem Haddad’s unwavering dedication to detail, narrative arc, and consequence make Guapa necessarily poignant, uncomfortable, and meaningful.
Length: 368 pages
Author: Saleem Haddad
Publication date: 2016-03
One of the ugliest and most unjust social evils that still plagues our lives is homophobia. Although America has come a good way in terms of extinguishing these prejudices and misguided perspectives (thought not as far as some European and Scandinavian countries), there is undoubtedly much more progress to be made. Furthermore, as injurious as homophobia continues to be in the US, it’s certainly treated with far more brutality and backlash in other parts of the world.
Thankfully, creative artists often serve as the voices through which critical social commentaries about such inequalities are made. In his debut novel, Guapa, author Saleem Haddad excels at doing just that, as his tale of “Rasa, a gay man [in his late 20s] living in an unnamed Arab country, [who’s] trying to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and religious upheaval” is filled with gritty hardships, elegiac yet endearing aspirations, and relatable portrayals. By internalizing its representations of internal cultural conflict, familial dissonance, and overbearing lifestyle restrictions, readers can’t help but empathize and feel outraged as they follow several lives that should be much easier to live.
In a way, Guapa is a spiritual sibling to the works of Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) because it presents a Middle Eastern tale that’s “equal parts coming-of-age odyssey, love story, and searing systematic and political critique” to a Western audience. The story is set over the course of 24 hours and kicks off when Rasa’s grandmother, Teta, catches him and his lover, Taymour, in bed. From there, Rasa sets out on a journey to comprehend and conquer his feelings of shame, abandonment, and yearning while engulfed in “the ethos of young rebels who drove the Arab Spring into being...” Along the way, he revisits both “the secrets that haunt his family” and his past excursions into homosexuality, culminating in a surprising and substantial final few chapters that leave lasting ramifications.
Expectedly, one of the most striking aspects of the novel is how Rasa continuously expresses his feelings about his lover. Torn between an immeasurable need to be Taymour’s soulmate and an equally endless fear of losing him at any moment, his cognitive dissonance over their relationship (and his sexual orientation) permeates his every thought and action. Consider, for instance, how he reacts at the start of the book, when Teta catches them and Taymour flees:
In the three years we’ve been together, this is the first time I cannot bear to think of him. I need to speak to him, to hear his voice, but his name brings back all the shame. I’m an animal, dirty and disgusting, madly hunting after my desires with no care for what is right and wrong.
To be fair, his affection for Taymour sometimes borders on pathetic obsession, which makes his monologues irritating at times. In particular, there’s a scene in which Rasa, well, stalks him while Taymour is at a restaurant with his family. Rasa watches from afar yet tells us that “they would likely not notice me if I were to stand at the end of their long table like a lonely ghost.” He also checks his cell phone far too frequently to see if Taymour has responded to his myriad of desperate texts (whose contents are usually variations of “You promised we would always find a way to be together. We can still meet in hotels. See, that’s just one idea. There will be others, if only we choose to look at the positives”).
Once the full scope of the situation is revealed (in a weighty twist), however, things fall into place and Rasa’s urgency feels much more warranted. Of course, anyone who’s ever been afraid of losing their partner can relate to Rasa’s panic, too.
In one of the book’s most remarkable passages, Haddad uses Rasa to capture the psychological harm that is inevitable in forcing homosexual men into heterosexual unions:
Nightmares of marriage traumatized me. While I felt affection toward many women, I could never imagine myself with one. Whatever attraction I felt was due to the social acceptance that courting a woman might bring. I resigned myself to the inevitable prison sentence of marriage. I would marry and have children and live every night in fear, curled up in the far corner of my bed, anxious at the thought of touching my wife. I would be unhappy and alone, and any future children would be nothing more than a gift to Teta for her years of hard work.
As for Teta (who, in a way, is the novel’s central antagonist), she’s among the most well-developed and multifaceted characters in Guapa. She’s Rasa’s paternal grandmother, and while her stubborn authority and unflinching bigotry will no doubt infuriate any reader who sides with Rasa, her actions and motivations make sense considering how much she and Rasa depend on each other. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that she’s a very sympathetic character in the grand scheme of things, as the tragedies that connect her to her grandson legitimize her controlling nature.
Among the most affective themes in the novel is Rasa’s quest to understand his mother’s sudden disappearance when he was a child. He frequently comments on the mysteriousness and lasting impact of her absence, conjuring up reflections on how she couldn’t quite find her place within her new family and location:
My mother, who spent more than half her life in America, was still somehow unable to be truly American. She was a half-formed thing, a freak and an outsider, neither American nor Arab, suck somewhere inbetween [sic].
While Rasa’s personal war is certainly the focus of the book, the literal war going on around him provides all-encompassing context. Be it an anchorwoman who reports, “At dawn this morning a group of terrorists, armed with foreign weapons... massacr[ed] at least fifty army personnel stationed on the outskirts of al-Sharqiyeh” or Rasa’s observation that “The government here does not answer to the needs and desires of the people... Here, people must answer to the government”, readers, like Rasa, never shake the feeling that anyone or anything can be destroyed at any moment.
Not only does Haddad explore the cultural connotations of what it means to be “Muslim” and “Arab” in Rasa’s homeland, but he also takes Rasa into America for a couple semesters of college. It’s there that he really begins to question who he is and how he appears to others. Unsurprisingly, 9/11 occurs while Rasa is in America, and the way he’s suddenly viewed as a potential threat speaks volumes about what it was (and still is) like for people like him to be unfairly associated with terrorism. After commenting on “rumors of Arabs and Muslims being taken away for questioning and then deported”, he explains how he dealt with it all:
I sat in front of the television in the common room and watched pundits scream at one another as they discussed my home in ways I had never heard of... I was terrified to set foot outside lest someone ask me one of their questions... I was the by-product of an oppressive culture, an ambassador of a people at war with civilization... I wanted to scrub my skin off, my name off, my accent off, anything to deflect the suspicious looks.
Above all else, it’s Rasa’s combined self-hatred for homosexuality and nationality that makes him such a wonderfully tragic but relatable protagonist. His doubts and wishes are ones that all readers can identify with (whether directly or indirectly). He represents how bad it can get when one is denied his or her freedoms of expression and lifestyle. Beyond that, while other, previously unmentioned situations and ancillary characters also come into play (most notably, Maj, “a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa”), Haddad’s unwavering dedication to detail, narrative arc, and consequence make Guapa necessarily poignant, uncomfortable, and meaningful. Like all good art, it moves beyond itself to shine a light on the world it bears.