Identity, gender expression, and sexuality. An interview with Saleem Haddad. Written by Antonia Kreissl. Photos by Sami Haddad
“To hide myself felt like an act of survival. So publishing the book felt like exposing my vulnerable side”. The critically acclaimed, debut novel ‘Guapa’, first published in 2016, discusses the experiences of a gay young man in an Arab capital after the Arab Spring. Author Saleem Haddad speaks to My.Kali about identity, gender expression, and sexuality.
It has been a year and few months since Guapa was first published. How do you feel about its reception? Are you happy with the way it is being received?
I have been happy with the way that it has been received. For me, it was very important that the novel resonates with the LGBTQ community in the Middle East. I didn’t want the novel to alienate people or make someone feel exploited. And I don’t get that impression. I think the novel has been very well received by the community.
One big learning experience from all of this is the realization that what people think of the novel is none of my business. It is hard to do because the novel is and was a very personal project. Not because it is autobiographical! It is not! Yet so much of me is inside of this book and letting it go and letting the world see it is a very vulnerable experience. There are lots of layers of vulnerability that I am dealing with. It is a question that I am still processing in many ways.
I grew up in Jordan, in an environment where I felt if I revealed myself to the world I would suffer horrible consequences: rejection, humiliation, shame, hurt. I was bullied quite a bit in high school, often quite violently, which many LGBT people have faced. So from a young age I learned how to hide myself in many ways; in fact, to hide myself felt like an act of survival. So publishing the book felt like exposing my vulnerable side.
One thing people took from the book was the issue of being Arab and ‘queer’ at the same time and all the struggles that come along with that identity. What is your impression of this discussion on Arab queerness: Has it become broader and better informed since Guapa’s publication?
Yes, I think so. I feel like it has been very affirming to my own questions around the meaning of these different identities I had while writing – how you can and can’t reconcile them and find a space for yourself within those two identity markers that people often tell us are irreconcilable. That part of the novel really resonated with a lot of the readers, which has been very confirming to me. It touches on a topic that a lot of people are struggling with, not only for the LGBTQ Arab community, but more broadly concerning issues of identity,gender, and sexuality.
These are things people across the board are really questioning now and are trying to come to terms with. I am glad that the novel gives people a way to think about it. For me, what I have heard from a lot of Arab readers is that seeing a queer Arab culture being represented in the novel, whether it is in the bar , in the drag scenes, or in the way the characters talk to each other. Seeing that on the page was very important for people. It affirmed their own identity, which is not something I intended to do. It is simply a really positive thing that came out of the book. Together with many other queer Arab activists and cultural products that are around at the moment, whether it be Mashrou’ Leila,My.Kali, or others, I feel like it is contributing to a new queer Arab identity, which is also very cosmopolitan. That is something that is great.
Do you see this new, cosmopolitan,queer Arab identity evolving?
Yes, definitely, and I see people being more confident in being themselves. I think that only happens when people see other people being themselves. Guapa is only a part of a broader movement that is happening around the region. It feels great to be a part of it in a way. It is funny because I never saw myself being that person. I was never an activist or anything like that. I just happen to be gay. That is really the only criteria that I have.
Why is there a discourse that has made Arabness and queerness seem irreconcilable?
I think there are a number of different cultural, social, and political factors that have contributed to that reception. One thing is, if you look back at the history of Orientalism, especially when it comes to narratives and representations of sex and sexuality, you see that the idea of the sexually conservative Orient as put forward in Western cultural production is a recent phenomenon.
Only recently has Western discourse on Middle Eastern sexuality developed to portray the Middle East as a hostile and dangerous place for women and for people who are LGBTQ. This narrative can start to play into the minds of the LGBTQ population in the Middle East because they feel that the only way they can be themselves is to remove themselves from the community. So you see a lot of narratives that say that in order to be free you must leave, you must run away from the Middle East. You must go to the West. That is the only way to escape the oppression in the Middle East. So this stereotypical discourse of Middle Eastern sexuality being ‘repressed’ promotes l the idea that LGBTQ categories are a Western concept. This idea is also propagated by radical Islamists and by secular nationalists in the Middle East. All this contributes to the idea that you cannot be gay and Muslim and not be gay and Arab. I think that is very difficult for a lot of members of the LGBTQ community.
That coupled with the fact that in the Middle East, people generally don’t talk very openly about issues of the sex and sexuality, whether it be heterosexual sex or homosexual sex. When you have an environment where these issues are not openly discussed, you render marginalized sexual and gender identities invisible.
What I often push back against is people who say: ’Well, anyway you can’t talk about sex and sexuality, whether it is hetero or homosexual.’ I say: ’Fine, except that you have heterosexual weddings and these things being celebrated all the time.’ Heterosexuality is an integral part of Arab social life and society. Homosexuality is not often celebrated that way. So, you do have a large marginalization in that.
You mentioned the political elite, be it Islamist or secular nationalist, using sexuality to exert pressure on and control people they rule, by limiting certain sexual identities while putting forward other sexual liberation agendas. Why do you sexuality has become this vehicle of power?
That is a very good question. That would be a very good topic to discuss in the bar Guapa (the namesake of the novel). I feel like that question is kind of what drove me to write the book. I wrote the book partly because I wanted to understand where the personal ends and the political begins–If there is ever a place where we can differentiate between the personal and the political. Gender and sexuality are an absolutely integral part of our society, politics, and culture. It is so difficult to pull that away from all the other aspects such as socio-economic and class dimensions and also political dimensions that I touch upon in the novel, such as rights and freedom of speech. These are systems that are all interlinked and the novel is trying to explore that.
Why do you think places like Guapa, the bar in your novel, are important?
When I remember living in the Middle East,I was staying with my family and really I did not have space at the house. At home we are busy performing ’the good son’ or ‘the good daughter’. In bars you can say what you want. Bars and coffee shops become very important spaces for young people to meet and talk. Also from my personal experience, working in many different countries in the Middle East, I saw this pattern repeated. Even in places like Yemen, there are coffee shops where men and women can meet. It was the only space for them to meet in a public place. You would have these very important spaces that allow people to discuss politics, culture, and social issues in a way that they were not able to in other places.
When it comes to Guapa specifically, I don’t think that this is a thing limited to the Middle East, across the world queer places and bars are super important and remain important because the sad reality is that most places for us are dangerous. Even walking down the street in London I would think twice before holding my boyfriend’s hand.
Why do you think safe spaces are being limited everywhere, especially in the Middle East? Why are they under threat and in need of secrecy?
They pose a threat to the status quo. Now there is a resurgence of authoritarianism across the region and the discourse that says ’There is no third way’. There is only ISIS or secular dictatorship. Solutions for a third way are seen as a threat. Another point why these safe queer spaces are limited has to do with class. There is growing inequality in the Middle East and a lot of places are inaccessible to many people. If you look at cities like Beirut and Amman, there is no shortage of coffee shops and bars like Guapa. You go in and you pay 20 JD for a beer! Not everyone can go there! I am exaggerating here but in Amman now a beer costs 8 JD in a lot of places. I think it is important to talk about these places and issues of accessibility and these places being under threat for a range of political and economic reasons.
Do you see any project that manages to bridge the gap between Arab, queer, and poor?
I don’t know of any specifically but I am sure they exist. I think there is a wider discussion that is happening and we need to talk about how people identify themselves and what that means for accessing certain spaces. For example a lot of refugees who have left Syria also might be part of the LGBTQ community but may not identify as LGBTQ. That is what a lot of NGO-workers and a lot of people working on these issues are finding. For example that there is a man who says ’I love this man’, is very open about his love for this man and that they have been together for a long time, but he would never say that he was gay.
I think there are some activists who are on the ground and who are trying to expand the idea of how do we articulate what our community looks like and identifies itself. I do see them as part of our community, right? So obviously people say jama’at al-meem, which is basically the Arabic equivalent of saying LGBTQ, but there are also people who are talking about gender and sexually nonconforming individuals – that sort of language.
Projects that give space and voice to less privileged Arab queerness are probably not as easily detected or understood by the more privileged academic eye.
I am sure it exists and does so everywhere, not only in the Middle East. If you look at the United States and how working class queer people of colour – they don’t say working class but you know what I mean – the way they identify themselves and their community looks very different from a privileged white person who is gay and lives in Manhattan. There is a huge diversity in how people express their gender and sexual nonconformity. And I think we should be ok with that, right? We are a very big community. We are not all the same, we shouldn’t try to be all the same. And this goes back to the question of representation, right? For example, there is no way that Guapa is going to represent this entire community. It represents an aspect of this community and that is all it can do really.
What are some occasions when the queer Arab identity has been denied?
After the attack in Orlando last year, I did a few interviews, and first of all, they kept wanting to make me into a Muslim. They kept asking me ’How does it feel like to be a Muslim and queer?’ and I was telling them, ’First of all, I am not even Muslim’. But they did not want to hear that. They did not want to understand that you can be Arab and not Muslim but then even when they would understand it, they would suddenly start to ask ’How can you be Arab and queer’ as if they were asking me to solve something inexplicable. It is as if they had to figure out how I can be drunk and sober at the same time! They are talking about it as if they were two unreconcilable things. It is bizarre to be asked that question, as if someone is asking: ’How do you even exist?!’, like ’How can this pen be blue and still exist?’. When you have people from both sides saying this, it fucks with your mind, for a lack of a better word.
This denial can lead you to questions of ’What does it mean to be Arab?’ and those are really hard ones to be asking ourselves. In the region we are going through a major identity crisis beyond sexuality, right? What does it mean to be Arab? Are you Arab or are you Muslim? Are you Jordanian or Lebanese? There is this huge anxiety over identity that is now being directly and violently contested in places like Syria, Yemen, and Egypt in different ways.
Do you want to elaborate on the different ways the anxiety over identity plays out?
We are slowly discovering through the Civil War in Syria, the war in Iraq, and the Arab revolutions that even the identity of the Arab is heavily contested. Not everyone in the Middle East and North Africa identifies as Arab. You have Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Berber, and that complicates everything. And then you have people who say ’No, we are Muslim first and then we are Arab’ but also that is contested! You have religious minorities that don’t refer to themselves as Muslims. I guess that is what I mean by an anxiety over identity. We are asking ourselves who we are and what does that mean.
Do you want to ask yourself where these identities come from? I they are an outcome of socio-economic processes or if there is something pre-cultural to these identities?
We can go into a world history conversation about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of ideologies, etc., that brought forward the age of ethno-religious identity. But I mean that is kind of what it is in a way, no? And I think this identity crisis is manifesting itself very violently in the Middle East but we have it in the US, we have it in Europe, this idea of ‘Who are we?’, which is partly a consequence of globalization and partly of neoliberalism. For me, I come from a very mixed background, so I have always been questioning where I came from. At this point I am a bit tired by that question.
Has it not been answered long ago, when you told yourself, “you are home when there is good wifi and good coffee”?
Yes, maybe. (Laughs) Perhaps.
In brackets: this is provided by a certain class status.
Yeah, I think that might be it. We’ll see. I mean, questions of home are very complicated for me, as someone who has been living in London for the last ten years and settled there, but doesn’t necessarily feel at home. The idea of home becomes very fragmented for me. You feel like you are in a constant state of flux. Currently I am writing on this topic as well, so my thoughts on this are work in progress.
One last leap back to the emergence of ethno-religious identities and what came before that: Do you believe in this golden age of a queer Arab past before European imperialism, when Abu Nuwwas was writing homosexual love poetry and gender identities were allowed to be more fluid – as it is sometimes evoked by Joseph Massad, for example?
I don’t know, I feel like I would question why we are so obsessed with looking into the past to justify our actions in the present. Maybe I am just a modernist in that way and a bit of a pragmatist as well. I am a bit critical that the past has been evoked so much, even if it is done for ‘progressive causes’, to show that homosexuality has a long and rich tradition in the Middle East. The reality is that at the moment, the queer community – especially when it comes to the trans community – is really suffering. I feel like trying to look at how things were better 500 years ago is not helpful. A lot has happened in 500 years! Sure, let’s look at history to gain inspiration, but the answers to our present problems are not 500 years ago. They can maybe provide us with a bit of inspiration, but we need to put ourselves in the present and deal with the problems of the present.
For me, you can talk to someone who is homophobic and who is Arab and you can tell him ’But Abu Nuwwas was gay! And Rumi was gay!’ – so what?! I am more interested in him turning around and finding out that actually his cousin is gay and his daughter is transgender. To me I think that is where the real change is about to happen, when we start dealing with the reality. If people want to gain a sense of authenticity by recognizing that a poet who lived in the Middle East a thousand years ago was gay, great. But why are you so surprised that there was homosexuality in the Middle East a thousand years ago? There was homosexuality in the Middle East a hundred years ago, there was homosexuality in the Middle East five minutes ago. There was always homosexuality in the Middle East. I feel like sometimes the only way to win this argument about ‘Homosexuality in the Middle East – Authentic or Not Authentic to the Region?’ is to just live it and be it and that is how you slowly begin to create the culture. And that is happening, which is why it is exciting.
English below ? تناقش رواية غوابا الأولى، والتي نشرت للمرة الأولى في عام 2016 ولاقت انتقادات لاذعة، تناقش تجربة شاب مثلي الجنس في إحدى العواصم العربية في فترة ما بعد الربيع العربي. يتحدث الكاتب سليم حداد إلى مجلة ماي كالي حول الهوية، (الدور الاجتماعي او التعبير الجندري)، والجنسانية الرابط في معلومات الصفحة ☝ فوق. #ماي_كالي_بالعربي تصوير سامي حداد The critically acclaimed, debut novel ‘Guapa’, first published in 2016, discusses the experiences of a gay young man in an Arab capital after the Arab Spring. Author Saleem Haddad speaks to My.Kali about identity, gender expression, and sexuality. Find it on our English site.