The minute I had known of “Guapa” by Saleem Haddad, I knew I wanted to read it. I also strangely (well not so) enough knew that I would love it. Is it because I am gay? Is it because there is this sense of alienation I feel sometimes, as most minorities do? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s one of the major reasons why I thought I would love the book, but it was definitely playing at the back of my mind. “Guapa” extends itself from being just “another gay novel” and that’s what I love about it.
The novel opens strangely enough with a scene that I can most associate myself with. The protagonist, Rasa’s grandmother catches him in bed with his lover Taymour. That’s how the book opens. That’s exactly what happened to me many years ago – my mother caught me with a man (random and not my lover at all) in bed and I was mortified. I was ashamed (Eib as Rasa calls it in the book and you will know the context and the way the word is used). I was not scared. I was just helpless as it happened. Anyway, that is how the book begins.
It is a book set in an unnamed country (and yet we know it is Iraq) and takes place over 24-hours and what happens to Rasa, a disillusioned gay man – caught between two worlds, between his grandmother and the love he has for his lover, between tradition and modernity and always looking within to find means of escape. The book is about Guapa, the underground night club where the city’s clandestine LGBT community meets and lives their lives, day by day, with no hope in sight. The same day, Rasa’s best friend and drag queen Majid has been arrested. That’s another aspect of the book. Let me also add another very interesting part of the book here: Taymour is about to get married. For the rest, I beseech you to read “Guapa”.
There are some authors who debut and you know it is their debut novel. There are some who are brilliant with the written word and their first novel doesn’t seem like the first novel and this is the case with Saleem Haddad’s book. The writing is mostly in the first person, but doesn’t ever fall in the territory of stereotypes or its creation. It if anything, breaks and rips them apart with each sentence and thought. It is not a coming of age novel, though one would be so tempted to fit it in that genre. Honestly, for convenience I have categorized it under literary fiction and LGBTQ fiction but I think the book is broader in scope than that. “Guapa” is about what goes on behind headlines, it is about lives who want to be free and live the way they must, it is about issues that are seething and often ignored; marginalized lives and hopes and dreams and above all empathy toward one and all.