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A Profound Novel Tackles Queer Identity in the Arab World

Saleem Haddad is a man of many identities.  He was born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-German mother and Palestinian-Lebanese father.  He has lived in Jordan, Cyprus, Canada, and now London.  In addition to being a writer, Saleem has worked extensively with Doctors Without Borders as well as various international organizations devoted to humanitarian issues in the Middle East.  

 

The tension between these identities plays central into his debut novel, Guapa.  The book, which takes place over a tense 24 hours, tells the story of Rasa, a young gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, who is coming to terms with his sexuality.  Rasa is working as a translator for western journalists.  During nights he must be careful to conceal his relationship with his lover, Taymour, for fear of his Grandmother’s scorn and rejection.  One morning the two are discovered by his grandmother, and not long after, Rasa receives news that his best friend Maj, a political activist and drag queen, has been arrested.  Rasa sets out on a journey to find him, which plunges him into a subculture of activists and intellectuals devoted to political emancipation.

Image courtesy of Other Press 

Identity is a big theme in the book.  Both Haddid and his character, Rasa, live at the intersection of seemingly contradictory identities.  Haddad has said himself that the book was born in part out of a frustration with mis-and-under representation of Arabs in popular media. On this subject, Haddad has said:  “As someone who is both queer and Arab, I never saw myself represented accurately in dominant narratives, both English and Arabic. Arabs are represented terribly in Western narratives, and queer people are similarly demonized in Arab narratives. So I have rarely, if ever, seen positive and realistic representations of who I am.”

The book could not be more timely given the current political turmoil in the Middle East, where queer Muslims face such persecution, and the recent massacre in Orlando.   Haddad’s message is an important one.  He reminds us that in a world where extremists speak so loudly, we cannot let the voices of persecuted minorities be squashed, no matter where they come from.  In his own words: “Echoing key works in queer literature, Western literature and Arabic literature is a way to celebrate our shared humanity.”  Haddad is a great unifier and role model- one that we hope to be hearing from again soon after Guapa.  

Featured image courtesy of Kirkus Reviews