One Last Drink At Guapa
Speaking Tiger, 2016
The Gay Arab Idealist
Saleem Haddad’s debut novel is about a 27-year-old gay Arab youth caught in the vortex of the Arab Spring, the fight for democracy that consumed the lives of hope-filled Arab youngsters from December 2010 onwards. And thus in one stroke, the writer manages to engage the reader in at least two concurrent issues – the invisible gay Arab (an unacknowledged presence, unlike the very apparent gay Caucasian), and the ongoing dormant fight for democracy in the affluent yet stormy world of Arab dictatorships.
It’s an entertaining and empathetic narrative that leaves one laughing along -- or touched. It’s an inside-look at a youthful Arab society that is dismissive of Islamists,of youngsters busy with the business of life, of identity and finding oneself, coming out of the closet if so inclined, or quietly marrying as expected; of pragmatism versus idealism.
And Haddad is a valid voice considering that he is also a self-acknowledged gay Arab, a multi-ethnic mix, an activist-writer, mostly Muslim, partly European-Christian.
Fittingly, the story is set in an unnamed Arab country that could be any place– Egypt, Lebanon, Libya…the clues are strewn about in lines that evoke laughter and recognition: ‘You can measure his (the President’s) popularity in certain neighborhoods by how many posters of him the government has put up. The less popular he is[S1] [S2] , the more posters the thugs hang in defiance.’
The novel follows the narrator-protagonist Rasa as he wakes up with a feeling of shame – a dominant motif through his life, vocalized in the book through the Arabic term eib, which signifies shame and loss of honour. Rasa who lives with his grandmother Teta, has been discovered in bed with his obsessive love Taymour; the latter has sneaked out, the outraged Teta unseen, but Rasa needs to move on.
The book is essentially a diary of the next twenty-four hours through Rasa’s chaotic life, as he tries to make sense of conflicting emotions – eib at his stupidity in being discovered; anger at the unfairness of it all; resignation about the political situation around; fear for a close missing friend Maj, the drag-queen, activist-humanist; extreme aching love for the lover who shies from being acknowledged in public…it’s a wild ride around Rasa’s head and his day through this unnamed Arab city.
As he goes through the motions of his mundane job—at a translating service – Rasa relives his years : a childhood centered around a dedicated dad lost to cancer, after his loving, freethinking artist mother suddenly upped and left; a youth shaped by a British school and American television ; a grandmother who deified her dead son, simultaneously saddling the grandson with the albatross of eib – and importantly, college years in America post nine-eleven: the encounters and books that shaped Rasa’s thoughts , his newly discovered empathy for the underdog, the quiet American acceptance of homosexuality, the realization that an Arab-Muslim in America simply learns to survive suspicion – and here he is back home restless and hopeful, despite the chaos around.
Rasa recalls taking part in the revolution, a few months earlier: the demonstrations, his exhortations to friends abroad –‘We need you to help us rebuild’. And then the insight: ‘We were so hopeful then, so ridiculously naïve.’
And it is Guapa, the underground dance bar, that helps Rasa and his generation cope. It is here that he meets up with friends and survivors like Basma his current boss and old female schoolmate-friend; Rasa’s soulmate Taymour who marks his presence unobtrusively unlike the wildly campy Maj with his popstar impersonations -- but now missing since the night before. Rasa’s search for Maj leads him to a city prison, where his encounter with prison officials leave him bone-chilled…. the day ends at the flashy wedding of Taymour to Leila, another mutual friend who dreamt of the revolution…but is now prepared to blend in.
But Rasa isn’t so willing. And in a rather melodramatic meltdown, the book’s central gay character comes clean at a wedding of all places – but not exactly in the expected manner as understood.
Importantly, this isn’t just a novel about a gay Arab’s struggle for dignity. Haddad makes some significant points: about a Pan-Arabism that is less about race and more about inclusive unity and solidarity; about bars being political nurseries; regime repression and the taming of the revolutionary spirit; about Arab youth’s dismissal of Islamic fundamentalism; about Rasa’s resigned acceptance of his beloved Taymour’s big decision: ‘If Taymour wants to act out the role society wants of him, who am I to tell otherwise? ‘
In the final pages, the writing simply soars.
Ultimately Rasa does end up with a consolatory key to his past, and possible happiness. Besides, Maj is there for him; both are ready to protest, fight repression – but only after a drink at Guapa.