Imagine an Arab City: Saleem Haddad on "Guapa"

Penny Mann on March 09, 2016

Guapa, the debut novel from Saleem Haddad, catches you off guard. He does a masterful job of immersing you into the story and getting you to identify with a character who could quite Guapasimply be seen as "other." While we can guess where Rasa, the protagonist, is at one point or another, specific names and places are left somewhat vague. When we asked Saleem if this was an intentional omission, he responded (wonderfully) with the following:

Imagine an Arab city. Your mind may wander to images of palm trees under a blazing sun; the smells of spices and incense as women in black abayas bargain with persistent vegetable sellers; the distant sound of the call to prayer emanating from minarets that tower over a cityscape. More recently perhaps, your mind may throw up images of angry mobs, flattened neighborhoods, weeping women clutching at their chests, bearded men with guarded expressions, and children with tear-streaked faces standing in line for food rations.

Those who have never visited the region are left to imagine an Arab city based on exotic Hollywood stereotypes and negative media coverage, which paint a picture of a homogenous Arab world brimming with mystery, fundamentalism, endless wars, and a pervading sense of hopeless submission. Because of this, I was initially nervous about my decision to set Guapa, a novel about a young gay man, in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. I worried about fueling these stereotypes about the Middle East as one homogeneous mass, its countries and peoples undifferentiated from one another. Yet even as I tried to “just pick a city, any city,” it was clear the story could only be set in a city that mirrored Rasa, the novel’s protagonist: queer, unusual, and unable—even unwilling—to fit any prescribed category.

So I wrote a city that draws on many different Arab urban centers I have lived in and visited: I stole graffiti from Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian quarter of Beirut; I took a character from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus; additionally, a tacky roundabout in Amman, an eerie alleyway I once walked down in Najaf, and some blue tarpaulin at a protest square in Sana’a also found their way into the novel. The scene where Rasa hooks up with a taxi driver? I imagined that happening on a street identical to one I saw in Tripoli, Libya. I collected elements from different countries, picking out bits of urban, social, and political geography, so that the reader would one minute feel they were walking down a street in Cairo, the next instant feel they were drinking in a bar in Beirut, and then suddenly be convinced they were in a Damascene prison cell. By combining these different images, characters, and stories, I sought to disorient the reader, make them feel, much like Rasa, at once foreign and at home. The city itself becomes a character: strange yet familiar, while remaining immune to categorization.

Maintaining the mystery of the Arab city allows the story to take on a metaphorical nature, by exploring the intersections of a political revolution and a sexual awakening. The story seeks to reveal parallels in how countries, societies, and families are governed. In the process, I hope that Guapa captures an element of the shared experiences of people living in the region, drawing on our collective histories, our cities and cultures, and echoing the spirit of being young and Arab in the twenty-first century: the sense of uncertainty, fear, and decay, but also the hope and humor and resistance.

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