Review: Guapa by Saleem Haddad

Author: Saleem Haddad

Published: 3/8/2016

Rating: 3 STARS

Adult Fiction | 368 pages | Published by Other Press

 Mini Review: An ambitious work of LGBT fiction that aims to explore what it means to be a gay man in a Muslim country, but falls short of reaching its full potential.

Disclosure: I received a free eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Guapa is the kind of book I am always open to reading and also the kind of book I root for to succeed. When I hear about a new novel that illuminates the experiences of nonwhite, non-western LGBT people, I want to spread the word. So when I got a chance to read a copy of Guapa before release, I was thrilled!

Guapa by Saleem HaddadThe narrative follows Rasa, a young gay man who lives in an unnamed Arab country steeped in political turmoil. He returns from America with a college education that doesn’t appear to offer many benefits in his home country, and in the end joins a couple of friends in starting a small, floundering translation company. His mother ran away from an unhappy marriage long ago and his father has been dead for over a decade. This leaves his grandmother, Teta, as his only family and for years she was the moral compass through which Rasa saw the world. Unfortunately, Rasa soon discovered that living under Teta’s hyper-traditional regime was stifling.

Thankfully, Rasa had Guapa, the titular bar that he and some of his friends liked to frequent; it proved to be a sanctuary where men who love men and women who love women can be themselves in a world that doesn’t allow them to do either. 

As the story begins, we meet Rasa soon after Teta finally uncovers his secret when she finds him in bed with another man. But it wasn’t just any man: it was Taymour, the love of his life and only source of happiness in his bleak existence. This discovery summons forth a strong sense of “eib,” or shame, hammered into him by his grandmother — the shame of doing something forbidden and the fear and anxiety that comes with wondering what other people will think. This idea of shame is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Ultimately, Rasa must either reject this notion or live a life devoted to avoiding his true self. 

Although I enjoyed the novel overall, I never reached the point of genuinely caring for and understanding Rasa and the small cast of characters. I believe my feelings of detachment came from the vague and unnamed setting and political events that comprised the world of this novel.

The author has gone on to say in interviews that he purposefully set the story in unnamed Arab country because he didn’t want his novel to be seen as an anthropological study of one specific country and that the unknown nature of the setting would allow the story to take on a metaphorical nature. I understand and respect his idea. I also understand that as a person from a mixed racial background (his background is Palestinian, Muslim, Iraqi, Lebanese, German, and Christian), he knows what it’s like to not wholly belong to one place or country and Guapa appropriately reflects that feeling. However, as a reader I wanted to understand Rasa and his world on a deeper level. The unnamed Arab country experiencing vaguely described political turmoil never felt real to me and so I felt permanently detached from Rara’s story. I felt like a spectator to a narrative that never felt quite authentic, which was personally what I was looking for and didn’t allow me to enjoy the story fully.

There is much to like about Guapa as well. Chiefly, I enjoyed the sharp, eloquent, and fast-paced writing. The subject matter was also simultaneously refreshing and familiar– reading about the life and struggles of a young gay Arab man is not something I get to do every day, yet Rasa’s story is one that LGBT people can relate to. This novel also serves to further expand the idea of what it means to be gay, to be a gay man, and to be a gay man in a Muslim country, which is important work. For that, I am thankful to Saleem Haddad. 

5 thoughts on “Review: Guapa by Saleem Haddad

  1. I haven’t read Guapa, but in The Illegal, the author creates a country for the setting of his book. I didn’t like it at all, and I find that when authors are purposely ambiguous about their settings, I have a major issue connecting to the novel as a whole.

    1. So I’m not the only one!? I really do want my fiction to be rooted in reality. I want to read about real places and real people if I’m truly going to empathize and understand the characters.
      The whole time I was reading, I felt it was a failing in my part not being able to appreciate the “metaphorical” nature of the book, settings, and characters.

      Are you referring to The Illegal by Lawrence Hill? I almost bought it a few days ago, but instead got The Book of Negros/Someone Knows My Name. I’ll talk about it more in my Book Haul post later today!

  2. May be we should think of how much more criticism he would have gotten if he had given a name for his setting. The Arab community as a whole and not one specific country is what he is trying to highlight here, so it does make sense (maybe I should read the book first) to not be rooted to one country.

    1. Yes, it did make sense to me but I was still personally looking for a story that was more concrete than was presented. It’s a personal choice, obviously, and other people didn’t seem to mind.

      I guess it’s a failing on my part because I don’t have much exposure or familiarity with Arab culture so I was looking for a story that would more specifically teach me about that community. I also understand that any such story would simply be a microcosm because Arab culture is not homogeneuous.

      He definitely would have gotten more criticism if he had spoken about a specific country, which is the main reason why he chose to leave the setting unnamed. But I don’t think any country should be immune to criticism when it comes to the marginalization of LGBT people. But that’s just me.

      1. The idea of LGBT in Arab communities will take a lot longer to be accepted than in the west. I agree that orientation goes beyond where you come from, but local culture is something that is hard to break through. Something his grandmother represents.

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