Between two worlds: Saleem Haddad on being queer in the Middle East

11. Juli 2016
Saleem Haddad by Sami Haddad

In advance of his appearance at the Empfindlichkeiten festival (Jul. 14-16 at LCB), the author discusses his coming-of-age novel 'Guapa' and the West's mispercetions of Arab queers

Jul. 12, 2016 – This spring, Saleem Haddad made an impressive debut into the literary world with Guapa. Born in Kuwait to an Iraqi-German mother and a Palestinian-Lebanese father, Haddad has done aid work with Doctors Without Borders, and likewise, his novel somehow transcends a typical East/West divide. It depicts a day in the life of Rasa ­– filled with flashbacks – after his overbearing grandmother catches him in bed with his male lover, his internal turmoil intertwining with the political upheaval of the Arabic country he lives in. Before Saleem Haddad takes the stage at queer literature festival Empfindlichkeiten (Jul. 14-16 at LCB), Danijel Ćubelić from the University of Heidelberg asked the author a few questions

The novel opens with the sentence, “The morning begins with shame.” What role does the concept of shame – of having same-sex desires, not fulfilling familial expectations or the societal ideas of “being a man” – play in your novel? Shame is a concept that I’ve always been interested in exploring in some way, because it played a huge factor in my upbringing. Shame was a way to police the behavior of children, and it was not only done by parents but also by teachers, shopkeepers, and other adults. And the shame I felt growing up, due to my same-sex desires, was very much related to not fulfilling ideals of masculinity. But I wanted to explore the good and bad that the social construct of shame creates: shame polices individuals, but it also builds trust with communities. In writing this novel, I was interested in the question of how people engage with, manipulate and live within the malleable constructs of what is shameful or deviant – politically, personally and sexually.

In one scene, Rasa remembers masturbating to the school bullies who policed his masculinity as a boy. One of the bullies now works the authoritarian state’s security apparatus. Do you see a connection between the concept of masculinity and authoritarianism? Absolutely, in my view. There is not one version of masculinity – masculinity is not any one thing entirely, so in itself masculinity is not an inherently negative thing. But there are certain strains of masculinity that are violent and are about the desire to control, dominate and, if necessary, punish. When you look at many authoritarian regimes, there is a strong element of this violent masculinity that drives how these regimes operate. So I wanted to draw that out in the story – of how this violent masculinity exists in all forms, from bullies in school to bullies in state security.

Why did you choose to have an Arab-Spring-style uprising as a backdrop? The revolutions were very transformative in my life – I felt that rather than an observer, I was a citizen who could demand certain things. I wanted to examine this personal and political transformation, which I felt, in some ways, echoes sexual self-discovery.

The matriarchal figure of Rasa’s grandmother Teta breaks the Western idea of the submissive Arab woman. What is the role of women like Teta in maintaining the status quo? There are so many older women like Teta in the Middle East, and I suppose they represent a certain type of woman of a generation who lived through the patriarchy for so long, and when they get to a certain age, they drop the pretense of being weak and submissive and in some ways actually play a part in maintaining the patriarchy. In general with the female characters in the novel, I tried to show how the diverse ways patriarchy has influenced them. There tends to be this very one-dimensional view of patriarchy in the Arab world that highlights this single image of a submissive woman: women become this object of oppression and are stripped of agency. The reality is that women react to patriarchy in different ways.

The novel is often regarded as a gay Arab or gay Muslim novel, although the novel could also be seen as a post-Arab-Spring novel or a coming-of-age story. Do you feel comfortable with this focus? I don’t really see it as a “gay” novel at all, and certainly not a “gay Muslim novel”. In fact, I would say that to read Guapa as simply a “gay novel” would be to lose sight of the larger themes the book explores: about family, revolution, identity, class, desire, and how interconnected all of these are with one another. But I would say it fits into the “coming-of-age” literature: both a political coming-of-age and a personal coming-of-age.

You have discussed how LGBT Arabs are often portrayed as helpless victims of “backwards” Muslim countries. How should the rights of sexual and gender minorities in the Middle East be discussed? The are three major issues about discourse around sexuality in the West: first this idea that LGBT Arabs lack agency, when in fact there are many different types of LGBT movements across the region who for decades have been fighting for equality, protection and recognition. The second is the sheer diversity of LGBT perspectives, challenges and visions in the region. Different people face different challenges depending on their class, gender and sexual identity, geographical location and ethnicity or religion. So it’s hard to talk about the challenges, and solutions, in a broad sense. And finally, the increasing tendency to link sexuality in the Arab or Muslim world with the rhetoric of Islamophobia and the “War on Terror”, which exploits LGBT individuals and other sexual and gender minorities for these broader political and military narratives. Ultimately, I think the solution is to listen to the diversity of stories coming from the region rather than to seek one single narrative, to develop a solidarity that also recognizes some of the loaded colonial history – and present – between the West and the Arab world, and also to understand sexual and gender rights within a broader fight for freedom, justice and equality for all citizens in the region.

Interview: Danijel Ćubelić

Empfindlichkeiten, Jul. 14-16, Literarisches Colloquium Berlin
w/ Édouard Louis, Abdella Taïa, Perihan Mağden, Saleem Haddad et al.