Princess Jasmine strips

Deborah Baker

  • Guapa by Saleem Haddad
    Europa Editions, 304 pp, £10.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 1 60945 413 5

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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