Saleem Haddad: On the Arab Spring and Writing About the Queer Arab Experience
Author: Stuart Waterman
May 21, 2016
“It was very challenging to write this, about such a sensitive subject as sexuality and shame, knowing that it would be read both by a Western audience and an Arab audience. So I kept telling myself: Just tell the truth.”
Saleem Haddad’s debut novel, Guapa (Other Press, March 2016) tells the story of Rasa, a young gay man living in an unnamed Arab country that has some resemblances to contemporary Syria. The finely wrought narrative maps Rasa’s “childhood, American education, return home, career as a translator, and relationship with his secret lover, Taymor.”
Haddad was born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-German mother and a Lebanese-Palestinian father, and has lived in Jordan, Cyprus, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He has been an aid worker for Doctors Without Borders and other international organizations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt. In addition to writing, he currently advises international organizations on the inclusion of refugees, women, and young people in the transitions of the Arab Spring, as well as other humanitarian and development issues in the Middle East and North Africa. He lives in London with his partner and their greyhound, Jack.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to fiction writing? Your professional background is somewhat unique among writers.
I have always written, but the idea of writing fiction never seemed like a realistic option for me. I never saw stories that were written by people like myself, or about people like me. And I became politicized during college, which led me to humanitarian work. I was working full-time as an aid worker for many years, until I got burnt out and needed to take some time off. I took a fiction writing course—a very short six-week thing—here in London, and started to read more fiction as an escape. And that’s when I began writing fiction, probably around 2010.
What exactly prompted the writing of this novel? Was there something in particular you wanted to accomplish from the outset?
I always wanted to write a queer story set in the Arab world. But there were a lot of factors that prevented me from fully exploring this as an option. This particular story was prompted largely by the Arab uprisings in 2011, where I felt that there was something I wanted to explore—a parallel between political revolution and a sexual awakening. I didn’t set out to accomplish anything. A lot of the process of writing this was me trying to figure out all these questions that were swimming around in my head during 2011 and 2012, when the revolutions were in full swing.
Now that a few years have gone by and we have some space to evaluate, what are some thoughts you have about the revolutions, what they’ve accomplished?
I don’t think enough time has gone by for us to really assess what they’ve accomplished. I think we were all naive (we both in the Arab world and in the West) about how long revolutions take. I remain optimistic. We are in a dark period, but there is hope. I just got back from southern Turkey, where I was interviewing Syrian activists who remain committed to the idea of a Syrian democracy, and are doing amazing work on the ground in Syria, under terrible conditions, to achieve a better future for the country. These voices are rarely heard in the global media, which tends to focus on the boogeymen of ISIS and Assad. I think these revolutions will produce a better future, but I’m less certain of whether we will see this future in our lifetime.
A lot of readers will see Guapa first and foremost as a novel of the gay (or queer) Arab experience, and I could imagine different writers having different feelings about those labels and the readiness with which they’re used. What are your feelings?
It’s a story of a queer Arab experience, but it’s only one story. It does not set out to speak on behalf of the thousands of different queer Arab experiences. But the novel, from the feedback I’ve received so far, does seem to reflect the lives of some queer Arabs in the region. And that’s great. We’ve grown up being demonized by Western culture for our Arabness and by our own Arab culture for our “queerness,” so having stories that reflect our realities is very important. But this is just one story.
More generally, how do you feel about the notion of a “gay Arab experience”? There’s an argument that a term like that presumes a Western way of thinking about sexual identity, and may distort what it’s intended to describe. At the same time, as I read Guapa, I was struck by the many things that felt familiar—the importance of nightlife and alcohol in gay culture; drag queens; cruising; the tensions among men who have varying degrees of openness about their sexuality; etc.
I don’t think there’s a single gay Arab experience. Many people in the region who pursue same-sex relations don’t identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, or even queer. For example, the taxi driver in the novel, who Rasa sleeps with, wouldn’t in a million years identify with any of these labels. But there’s no denying that Western sexuality labels have impacted the rest of the world, so there are certainly many commonalities between Western gay life and some gay lives in the Arab world. I think class plays a big part in this.
Can you tell me about your decision to set the novel in an unnamed Arab country, rather than a specific, known one?
So there are different reasons: politically, practically, and from a literary perspective. Politically, I didn’t want to present an “anthropological” or “political” study of one country. There was something appealing about confusing readers that I enjoyed, and I wanted to, as much as is possible, make it difficult for someone who wanted to take my text and use it as a “study” of gay or queer societies in a specific country. From a practical perspective, so much of gay life in the region is underground, so there’s an element of not wanting to expose how queer people live in a single country so as to not put them in danger. I’ve had the privilege of being from different Arab countries, and living in different Arab countries, so I could pull out common threads from queer cultures in these different countries to construct something that would speak to different queer people across the region. Also, I wanted to publish this in my real name: That felt very important to me, and not singling out a specific country helps me travel around the region better. Finally, I wanted to draw out parallels between how societies are governed, how countries are governed, and how families are governed, and creating an imaginary Arab country allowed me the liberty to do that.
There’s a deeply embedded convention of grouping writers by nationality, and it’s evident in everything from how books are marketed to how they are studied in universities. But I get the sense that nationality is a complicated question for you. Do you see yourself belonging to any particular national tradition as a writer, or a different type of tradition entirely, or no settled tradition?
Nationality is very complicated for me! I’m all mixed up—Christian, Muslim, Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, German, but having grown up in an entirely different set of countries. And then being queer. I was always an outsider. I think that’s partly why the idea of writing fiction never seemed like an option for me: I don’t fit neatly into these literary canons. But to be honest I don’t give it too much thought, or worry about where I will be placed on a bookshelf or in a certain literary tradition. I just write.
Was timing a consideration when you wrote and published this book? I ask because I found it to be a deeply humanizing portrait of the Arab world, and I can’t help seeing how it contrasts with the Arab world as presented by the media recently (with such a focus on ISIS among other things).
I wrote this book over a year ago now, but even back then Western media had a particularly negative bent towards Arabs and Muslims. It’s only gotten worse. I’m glad that it provides a humanizing portrait: I was very aware that I was writing in English, and with a Western(ized) audience, so it was on my mind as I was writing. But again, I just kept telling myself, every day: Just tell the truth. It was very challenging to write this, about such a sensitive subject as sexuality and shame, knowing that it would be read both by a Western audience and an Arab audience. So I kept telling myself: Just tell the truth. That was my daily mantra while writing.
Do you have hope for the queer Arab community (or communities) and for LGBT rights in the region? Do you think art has a role in that fight? Are there any particular bright spots you see?
I have so much hope for the queer Arab community. There is so much that is happening everywhere you look, not just politically but also in the arts and in media. I think queer voices are becoming louder, and telling their stories. Bright spots are many: There was a recent ruling in Lebanon (in January, I think) that was groundbreaking in terms of recognizing transgender rights. It’s a small but important step. Queer organizations in Palestine are doing amazing work, linking their personal struggles to their broader political struggles for freedom. Even in places like Yemen, which is quite conservative, I’ve had some of the most interesting discussions with young men and women about gender, sexuality, and how sexual freedoms cannot be delinked from the broader fight for dignity, freedom, and equality. There really is so much out there, and I hope more of it starts to float into global public consciousness. Queer Arabs face a host of complex and diverse challenges, but they are also important agents for change.
Who are some writers, of fiction or nonfiction, who’ve had a significant influence on your writing and your thinking?
So many! One of the most groundbreaking for me was Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club. He literally “freed my mind” to be able to write about my own experiences without having to fit into what is often seen as “traditional” writing from the Arab world. So I wanted to echo a lot of his writing in my novel. I was hugely influenced by a lot of writers from “immigrant” backgrounds—for lack of a better word!—whether it’s Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, etc. Writing this book, I learned a lot from queer Western writers—Colm Toibin, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (I recently discovered Aciman isn’t gay, which was amazing considering how beautifully written his novel was). Oh, and Christopher Isherwood. I could go on. . .
What books are you reading right now?
I just finished Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which I’ve been forcing into the hands of anyone who will listen. I am currently in the middle of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I tried to pick them up a few times but didn’t “get” them. Then in Turkey I loaded it again on my Kindle and something clicked; I was enthralled by her writing.
Are you writing anything now?
Late last year I started working on another story, which is very different. It is very much set in Iraq and follows the story of an artistic family through the twentieth century. I’ve been very interested in the role art has played in Iraq’s modern history, and the role artists have played in telling the country’s story. It’s very much based on my own family’s story (the Iraqi side). But I don’t know yet if it’s a novel, a family project, or just a bit of research for another story entirely. To be honest, I’ve also thrown myself back into the aid world a bit: I feel I need that connection to keep me grounded, so I’ve been spending a lot of time doing aid work this year, which I’ve been enjoying.