Guapa, a freewheeling and incendiary first novel by Saleem Haddad, is set in an Arab country familiar to many from the newspapers, even though its author won’t let us place it on a map. The son of a Lebanese-Palestinian father and an Iraqi-German mother, Haddad is himself a composite. His story takes place six months after Arab Spring-like protests have besieged the country’s capital. Posters of an unnamed president’s face loom over crumbling neighbourhoods suffering from blackouts, water shortages and the high price of petrol. There is an Isis-like massacre and an Islamic Brotherhood-like leader who may or may not have been involved. Nameless country-less refugees are being trucked to camps on the city’s outskirts.
The narrator, Rasa, is an unmarried, frustrated, over-educated and under-employed Arab man-boy. By day he works as an interpreter for Western journalists. At night he drinks, dances and argues about his country’s dead-end politics at the bar from which the novel takes its title. When he first began interpreting, not long after returning home from four years at an American university, Rasa imagined he might act as a bridge of understanding, inducing the Arab world and the American world to see each other in their true light. And who wouldn’t welcome such a heart to heart, courtesy of a ‘reliable Oriental guide’ who understands how Americans think and sometimes moonlights for the New York Times as the voice of the Arab street?
When street protests elicit a brutal government crackdown and his former schoolmates disappear into jails or suffer unknown fates, Rasa realises that the words of the officials he is asked to translate are flagrant lies. Rather than be complicit, he decides he will misinterpret. ‘There is an art to misinterpreting,’ he reflects.
It needs to be done subtly so that it doesn’t cause chaos, but just enough to leave a lingering sense of confusion. Nowadays, when everything is uncertain, it is easier than ever to misinterpret. Lies are everywhere. They hang from our lips, lies built on more lies until we don’t know what the truth is anymore. That is the moment when misinterpreting can do good. But words have power. America taught me that.
‘Misinterpret’ here reads like Haddad’s code for 'fictionalise'. Otherwise, this smells like a set-up. Hasn’t the war in Iraq and its limitless dark fallout put paid to the sentiment of do-goodism and conventional notions of ‘truth’ and the ‘power of words’, particularly America-inspired ones? Rasa’s reflections come in a scene, early on, when he is trying to navigate several lines of thought while on the job. There are the questions of the New York Times correspondent sent to cover the government crackdown, and the agenda behind those questions; and there are the answers given by Sheikh Ahmed, a charismatic and steely Islamic leader whose son was taken and, it is believed, killed by the state. And running like a riptide beneath the smooth surface of the interview are Rasa’s own frantic, distracted and desperate thoughts.
First among the fears haunting him is the reasonable trepidation he feels in the company of the armed and bearded men who have just taken over the slums of al-Sharqiyeh. According to a news broadcast that morning, there had been a massacre of army soldiers during the night; footage showed headless bodies lined up in the road with masked men standing over them shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. Though he now lives in a fifth-floor flat in the old city with his grandmother, Rasa is the son of a government doctor and a painter. He spent his wonder years in the English-speaking, gated confines of the city’s western suburbs, a world away from al-Sharqiyeh, where Sheik Ahmed lives with his family and the interview is taking place.
Next among his worries, Rasa has learned that in the early hours of the morning, just before the takeover of al-Sharqiyeh, the police made arrests at a cinema in the old city known to cater to cruising homosexuals. He realises that may be why Maj, his oldest and closest friend, did not take his call or answer his urgent text that morning. For Rasa is in the middle of his own crisis. Just thinking about what happened late the previous night makes him squirm with shame and fear: shame that his grandmother, Teta, discovered him in bed with his lover, Taymour, and fear that he has now lost Taymour for ever.
Rasa’s grandmother has ruled his life since his father died when he was 12; she is a shrewd, crafty and intimate stand-in for the despot who rules the country. Like the president, ‘she had a tight-fisted control over memory, liberally erasing the past to control the present.’ Rasa can’t stop picturing what Teta might have seen through the keyhole of his bedroom door, recoiling at the thought whenever he revisits it, which is often. He badly needs to speak to Taymour, to reassure himself that they can find a way to continue. But Taymour has gone quiet: he isn’t responding to texts either. Not, in his case, because he might have been arrested, but because it is his wedding day – a nice, telenovela touch. As with so many details in this novel, Haddad plots just the right moment to deliver it.
The narrative, divided into three parts, unfolds over the course of a day. In the first part, text messages, conversations with taxi drivers, radio programmes, snatches of half-heard conversations and newscasts are cross-cut with Rasa’s nervous, scathing ruminations on the political present and enigmatic memories from his past. The device suggests the loose, real-life immediacy of improvisation, even as it remains tethered to the passing hours. As the story unfolds, family secrets, the clash between generations and within and across cultures play out in a city whose unravelling mockingly resembles Rasa’s own but never overshadows it.
Haddad’s dialogue appears pitch-perfect, by which I mean it is fluent in an English that can pass for demotic Arabic or idiomatic American. He has a magpie eye for the bright details that can transform an indeterminate city into a seemingly identifiable one: ‘The familiar signs of McDonald’s and Starbucks make way for tattered billboards that crowd over each other, fighting for attention, some advertising Fair and Lovely skin-lightening cream and baladi yoghurt, others demanding that citizens support the reform process.’ He employs a wide range of comic registers, from the broad humour of an extended fart joke to the darkest satire, particularly evident in the scenes set at Guapa: ‘Drink up, they’re watching us tonight and they like us drunk,’ Nora, the bar's lesbian manager, advises. ‘It’s better for the stability of the country.’ Maj rules the bar’s stage dressed as Princess Jasmine, slowly stripping himself of a full niqab while lip-syncing to ‘Genie in a Bottle’. He describes this as ‘War-on-terror neo-Orientalist gender-fucking’.
While Taymour and his well-connected family are government supporters, Rasa and Maj were among the first on the streets when the protests began. They held the hands of trade unionists and stood alongside rural labourers who spoke Arabic dialects they couldn’t follow. ‘After an eternity of fear and suspicion and disappointment, it suddenly seemed so obvious, as if the opportunity had been staring us in the face our whole lives and all we had to do was reach out and grab it.’ But then the fundos took over and the president’s sharpshooters arrived and the uprising became ‘a martyrdom operation to help a new generation of dictators come to power’. Maj continued to attend the demonstrations, collecting evidence of police brutality, but Rasa, disillusioned, stopped.
When his father was dying, Rasa spent a lot of time in a schoolfriend’s villa, in thrall to pirated videos of Hollywood films and anodyne American sitcoms, and even in al-Sharqiyeh he remains susceptible to the prospect of warm and happy endings. Though he sweats under Sheikh Ahmed’s appraising gaze (‘Would he smell injustice in the brand-new soles of my Converse shoes?’) he is also mesmerised by him. He is tempted to interrupt the interview, to engage him honestly and directly – but then Ahmed informs him it is time to pray. At first Rasa imagines grabbing him for a dance, then – in an unhinged but wholly characteristic impulse – tearing off his dishdasha to take him in his mouth. Instead, he joins him meekly on the prayer carpet.
At such moments, Haddad’s determination to follow Rasa’s more impetuous thoughts wherever they take him left me slightly panicked. The word ‘transgressive’ is bandied about a lot, particularly when it comes to LGBT fiction. But it isn't often applied to a novel with a ‘foreign’ and heavily politicised setting. Which of the following seems more rash? Having Rasa sit in the jail’s waiting-room entertaining enraged thoughts about assassinating the president? Or describing young Rasa’s erotic focus on the backsides of the men surrounding him during Friday prayers? Lit crit schools us to distinguish between an author and his oversharing narrator, but such distinctions are nearly always lost on the mullahs, presidents and immigration officials of an increasingly literal-minded world. And what of the many moving descriptions of the ways two men in love touch each other or, more simply, talk to each other? How would this novel be received among the Arab literati, more conversant with carnal themes than tender ones, unless voiced by Oum Kalthoum?
While Rasa can’t find the words to reach his own countryman, Haddad captures the awkwardness and implicit comedy of any attempt to square an orthodox Muslim world enchanted by the imminent prospect of martyrdom with an American-inspired world full of pie-eyed notions of personal liberation and true love. Rasa is dumbstruck too at the spectacle of the capital’s high society, blindly obsessed with tawdry, over-the-top weddings at five-star hotels built with Gulf money. The suffocating confines of Teta’s two-bedroom flat, hemmed in by gossiping neighbours and photographs of his dead father, provide him with a small space in which to declare his truth to himself. But it is only at Guapa that the skinny young men of al-Sharqiyeh in cheap flashy clothes commune easily with refugees and urban sophisticates, hitting on the flush employees of Western consulates or upper-class youths from the more affluent suburbs.
At one point, Rasa is confronted with his intelligence dossier and interrogated as a suspected terrorist in the city jail where Maj is being held. Here it is the police who have the power to misinterpret:
‘But you speak good English, you travel around with foreigners all the time.’
‘I’m an interpreter.’
‘What are you interpreting for them? What are you saying?’
‘I can assure you, everything that comes out of my mouth are the words of others.’ I smile as I say this, though I don’t know why.
The officer pushes the folder away and looks me in the eye.
‘Do you believe in God?’ He asks. His cold eyes bore into me, demanding a frank answer …
‘I’ll believe in what you want me to believe in.’
The novel’s short middle section is an extended fugue, separating the hectic events of Rasa’s day from the dreaded wedding that evening. Here there are more expansive flashbacks to his childhood, with Maj as a vamping eight-year-old, courting beatings from schoolyard bullies, and Rasa’s recollections of life before his mother left and his father died. But America takes centre-stage. It was in America that his father, studying for his medical degree, fell in love. Returning to the city her own family had fled, his mother exchanged freedom for love and a misplaced faith in her homeland only to be slowly and methodically broken by Teta. Rasa makes the reverse journey, fed by a similar wide-eyed faith. In America he hoped to explore what it meant to be gay surrounded by a close-knit posse, just like in Friends. But his arrival coincides with 9/11: his college years are marked by the ratcheting up of the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq.
There is none of the edgy and smart electricity of Haddad’s anonymous city here: on the American campus he is satire’s equivalent of a fox in the henhouse. The ideological sink of undergraduate identity politics is nearly as suffocating as the traditional social codes Rasa’s mother contested. Under the deadly narrow gaze of post-9/11 America, his ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ identity trumps a closeted gay one, sending his soul-searching in entirely new directions. For his Midwestern classmates he is either called on to explain his murderous beliefs or regarded as a man of danger and mystery. ‘You’re from the Middle East? Super-jealous,’ one says, lamenting her lacklustre Ohio childhood, deprived of corrupt strongmen and political mayhem. Yet for the American with the Ikhwan beard he carries a secret torch for, Rasa has been colonised. He retreats to the library, reads Edward Said and Partha Chatterjee, Gramsci and Marx, assembling from a scaffold of ideas a postcolonial self, stylishly accessorised with a checked kaffiyeh.
Throughout Guapa, Haddad is more intent on giving Rasa a vivid, interrogative and comically self-dramatising inner life than mulling too long over the darker developments in (name your Arab nation here) since the Arab Spring took place six years ago. By keeping the details of bloody recent history offstage, he can write what is at least partly a darkly moving novel of manners, set not in a self-contained and generically Arab world but in a recognisably global one. It’s always a balancing act, this matter of interpreting one nation to another. In Rasa, Haddad has created a character who is intent on discovering the meaning of shame in a shameless world, a man whose need for love is also a need for political meaning. ‘The identity of a nation, what was that if not Western imagination exported to the colonial world?’ he asks. ‘If so, what is left for us to imagine? If the students I encountered imagined a fantasy world where we hate with all our hearts and have dedicated our lives to terror, what is the alternative to such an illusion?’
Guapa is one alternative, though having been written in English, it was surely conceived more for the West’s edification than the Arab world’s. Still, it is a work that continually reminds us that living in ‘uncertain times’ requires cunning. We all live there now. Lies are all around us.