25 November 2016
Guapa by Saleem Haddad
A debut novel that tells the story of Rasa, a young gay man coming of age in the Middle East
Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa's grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.
Guapa is a moving debut about a young man caught between his public and private personae and the turmoil in his country. Haddad's writing is strongest when Rasa looks back over his own life, examining his relationship with his grandmother, the growing realization that he is gay, and how he places himself within the larger Arab and Muslim cultures. The forward drive of the plot sort of conks out about halfway through the book but that's a minor complaint. One of the most interesting things I noticed was that nearly every character, major or minor, tells Rasa WHO he is at some point in the book, making it a novel about "labels" as well as Rasa's awakening.
Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.