More on 'Guapa'
WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR 'GUAPA' COME FROM?
I have always wanted to write a queer story set in the Arab world. There is an incredible diversity of experiences and perspectives that I didn't feel was adequately represented in English and Arabic literature, both fiction and non-fiction. For a long time I struggled to find the right lens through which to explore these issues, so eventually I let the idea go. The idea for Guapa finally came to me in September 2011, while I was bumming around my friend's beach house in Morocco. The Gaddafi regime had just fallen, the Arab revolutions were in full swing, and as I watched the ten-year commemoration of the 9/11 attacks on television, I began to reflect on the impact of the last ten years, not just on my own life, but also on the world more broadly. Suddenly, the parallels between the political and the personal came together in the form of Rasa and Taymour.
I wrote the first draft hurriedly, often in the early morning before work. I wrote in London, but also in hotel rooms in Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, Cairo, Tripoli and Sana'a. During the day I worked on many of the issues the 2011 revolutions brought to the region: the wars, police brutality, transitional justice processes, refugees, and the novel became my way to reflect and process the changing world around me. And with each draft and each new political development, the novel became deeper, and the parallels between Rasa's personal life and the trajectory of his country became clearer.
At the beginning of the process, I had a triumphant ending in mind: this image of Rasa and Taymour walking hand-in-hand towards the horizon. Of course, as events in the region unfolded, this image slipped further and further away. Ultimately, while this is a story of loss- both political and personal- it was important for the loss to be layered in a certain type of self-deprecating humour and wit, in a way that many of us living in the region come to terms with the reality around us. So I made it a point to have fun with the book, crowdsourcing from Facebook friends about their own experiences with in-laws to construct the relationship between Teta and Rasa’s mother, having Rasa and Maj reference quotes by Shakespeare and Beckett in their dialogue, and continuing to dance and drink at Guapa, even as their country collapses around them.
IS THE NOVEL AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL?
Not in the traditional sense, but it is autobiographical in the sense that each character represents an aspect of my emotional personality. The conflict between those characters echoes the internal conflict I went through in the years since that moment when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid on the 17th of December, 2010.
WHY AN UNNAMED ARAB COUNTRY?
Firstly, I wanted the story to take on a metaphorical nature by exploring the parallels between political disruption, personal disruption, and familial disruption. Also, I was wary of writing something that would be read as a political or anthropological 'study' of one particular country. I wanted to draw out a common dimension that Arabs from many different countries could relate to, develop parallels between a political revolution and a sexual awakening, and explore the uncanny similarities in how countries, societies and families are governed.
Secondly, I wanted to disorient the reader, make them feel- much like Rasa- at once foreign and at home, inside and outside. I collected elements from different countries, picking out bits of urban geography of different Arab cities, so that the reader would one minute feel they were walking down a street in Cairo, the next instant feel they were drinking in a bar in Beirut, and then suddenly be convinced they were in a Damascene prison cell.
Finally, there’s a practical reason: I visit the region regularly, so not naming a country allows me more freedom to travel. It’s either that, or publish anonymously. And I didn’t want to publish anonymously.
INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCES?
Growing up, it was next to impossible to find positive depictions of queer Arabs. Arabs are demonised in Western media and culture, and queer people are similarly demonised in Arab media and culture. So I grew up picking bits and pieces from different Arabic and English media to construct a positive image of myself as someone who is both queer and Arab. In many ways, I wanted the novel to echo this process, so I sought out novels, movies and music that inspired me, and either 'queered' them or 'Arabised' them to construct this story that was both queer and Arab. The two most influential books to me were Waguih Ghali’s ‘Beer in the Snooker Club’ and Gore Vidal’s ‘City and the Pillar’. Reading Ghali was the first time I read a character I felt could be me, with such similar thoughts and background to my own. That novel helped me discover my own voice as a writer, and my novel echoes his and speaks to his: this young, idealistic and jaded young man who is struggling to find his place in a rapidly changing society. Although my novel and his are set sixty years apart, so much has changed and also so little, and I wanted to echo that in the text. Gore Vidal’s novel was one of the first modern American works of gay fiction, and one of the first things I read once I realised that I was writing a novel with a central gay character. The way he wrote about the life of a closeted gay man in the US taught me a lot about how to write a similar story set in the Middle East. There’s a small nod to him in the book: City and the Pillar starts with the main character spilling his drink on the table and tracing rivers and oceans in the liquid, and in my novel Rasa spills his beer on the table and starts to trace the trajectory of the revolution in his country: from uprising to crackdown to war to refugee camps and despair.
I studied great works of gay fiction, particularly those examining desire and the anxiety of being in the closet. The novels of Abdella Taia of course, being the only out gay Arab writer I know of, were a natural influence, particularly 'An Arab Melancholia'. I also studied the way Baldwin constructed sentences in 'Giovanni's Room', the way Andre Aciman wrote about sensuality and desire in ‘Call Me By Your Name’, the way Colm Toibin drew characters and relationships in 'Story of the Night'; the way Christopher Isherwood wrote about the city in 'Goodbye to Berlin'. Then there were contemporary writings of youth activists, journalists and storytellers during the Arab revolutions: Mariam Alkawaja, Atiaf Al-Wazir, Omar Robert Hamilton, Laila Alodaat, Youssef Rakha, Ghaith Abdul Ahad and Lina Sinjab, among others. I consumed the news and political writings of youth activists and revolutionaries in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. For a period it was all I could read, they were the most inspiring words I had come across, and I drew on their experiences to construct this world that was somewhere between a revolution and civil war.
Of course other writers I was reading at the time bled into the work: Hemingway, Philip Roth, Lydia Davis, Teju Cole, Junot Diaz, Donna Tartt, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jonathan Franzen, Charles Bukowski, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Mavis Gallant, Fitzgerald, and Dostoevsky, among others. Arab writers as well: Hassan Blassim, Khaled Khalifa, Nihad Sirees, Elias Khoury, and Ahmed Saadawi. I was like a sponge, studying different ways these writers expressed ideas and thoughts, wrote dialogue, and decided what to describe in a scene and what to leave to the reader's imagination. Themes, ideas and styles from these writers are echoed throughout Guapa. In a world where positive depictions of queer Arabs are hard to find, reclaiming key works in Arabic and Western literature becomes a way to carve a space for a queer Arab identity within these dominant narratives. In that sense, Guapa speaks to all these works and tips its hat to them, echoing and alluding to seminal works in 20th century queer fiction, revolutionary writing and Arabic fiction to develop a style that felt both recognisable and alien, like looking through a funhouse mirror, in the hopes of producing something that was Arab and queer and political and personal.
I'm in the early stages of a story about modern art in Iraq, and the role that art movements have played in telling the story of Iraq in the twentieth century through the perspective of one Iraqi family. For this I've been particularly interested in ideas around dictatorships, imperial wars, climate change, Mesopotamian history, family relationships, the Tigris River, and the relationship between memory and exile.