Published by Other Press
Publication date: March 8th 2016
At 27 Rasa lives with his grandmother in al-Sharqiyeh, a large city in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. He works as a translator for foreign journalists because he speaks fluent English after going to college in America. The novel Guapa by Saleem Haddad spans 24 hours in Rasa’s life that are an emotional flash point. He has participated in the Arab Spring protests, wants change for his country, but the pressure to get married and live a life of lies explodes when his grandmother catches him in bed with his boyfriend. Suddenly, her knowledge and the events of the day ahead means that everything and nothing matters.
Rasa’s sexuality has been a source of confusion and shame for him since he was a young teenager. Haddad complicates this issue with the fact that both of his parents are gone, his father from cancer, but his mother as only a disappearance from his life. His grandmother’s traditional beliefs and the social structure in his country leave him no room to maneuver so he hopes that the time away will allow his feelings and identity to coalesce. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of 9/11 his college years are spent defending/hiding/apologizing for his nationality. His attempts at dating are abortive and ultimately, he directs his energy outward
I took all my rage and channeled it into activism, into human rights and justice and things that were clear and simple. I was passionately angry about the unjust wars, the brutal occupations, the massacred children, and the exploitation of people for profit and the pursuit of new markets. The angrier I became, the less time I had to think about how lonely I really was. I would never have admitted it to myself at the time, but underneath it all I wanted nothing more than to satisfy an inherent feeling of the unfairness of the world in my own life.
Through Rasa, Haddad encapsulates the passion of a group of young people who are striving to mesh dreams of freedom with the culture of their homeland. Scenes of police brutality, abject poverty, and the fear of being locked up for unknown infractions are pervasive throughout Guapa. That Haddad then layers in the most intimate aspect of human nature—who we love—and wraps it all in the heavy cloak of eib (the Arabic concept of shame) makes Rasa’s situation even more oppressive. His idealism about the protest movement wanes as he realizes it has become religiously radicalized. Under a fundamentalist government he will have fewer social freedoms than he does now.
Haddad propels the plot of Guapa through its 24 hours with a pace that conveys the building tensions in Rasa’s mind and his inability to keep it all together. Where things wobble is regarding his mother. Her disappearance early in his life seems largely unremarkable for most of the story but then becomes paramount to his feelings of resentment and abandonment towards the novel’s end. While this dilutes the energies of the many vital elements in Guapa it is still a forceful work that provides worthwhile insight to a world most of us will never experience.