المقال بالعربي هنا
By Olivia Cuthbert
Photographed by Abdullah Dajani
Post-production and art direction by Reema
Creative directed by Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Styled by Fadi Zumot
Make-up by Yara Shawabkeh
Amman – Jordan
When I ask Saleem Haddad whether he would ever take back publishing Guapa, the novel that garnered critical acclaim and established his credentials as a writer, he pauses and considers. He’s a private person, he says, and the book’s success thrust him on to a stage he never solicited. International gay literature, the category publishers ascribe to his beautifully nuanced depiction of a young Arab man feeling for an identity between the boundaries, doesn’t normally sell. Except this one did, despite the label, or maybe because of it – he doesn’t know.
“Some days I wish I’d gone down the Kafka route and kept everything in a drawer for someone to publish when I die, but that’s more from a creative perspective.” Writing Guapa, he says, was like an apprenticeship. “There were no expectations about what I would produce.” Now, having published a successful debut novel he feels the pressure. “Either people say you need to produce another queer book, or they say are you really going to write another gay novel?”
We’re sitting in a theatre-side café in Dalston, the hipster hub of London’s East End and Haddad is halfway through a late-afternoon sandwich. He’s been rushing from meeting to meeting all morning putting together a team for his latest project, a short film that he’s “very passionate” about. “I think the script is really good,” he enthuses, which he can say because unlike Guapa this is a team effort. “I’m hungry for collaborative work. Writing a novel is such a solitary process.”
The plot follows the experiences of a Syrian refugee – based on the life of a man he met in London, as well as the experience of a friend in Beirut – , and explores the alienation and vulnerability that can permeate male intimacy in a metropolitan setting. For the film though, he switched the setting to London. “There’s a threat, a danger in putting yourself out there and forging a connection with someone in a city like that, especially for immigrants and refugees.”
Haddad knows this first-hand, having lived in London for 11 years. Last October he moved to Lisbon, “I was tired of engaging with a certain type of discourse that comes with being a double or triple minority and always having to position yourself in opposition to this idea of a dominant culture. I don’t want to write in position to that culture – I want to write in position to my own.”
Initially, he and his partner Adam planned on moving to Beirut, a city Haddad used to visit on holiday as a child, but they decided it would be too far for their dog, which suffered from anxiety. It didn’t matter too much where. For Haddad, born in Kuwait City to an Iraqi-German mother and a Palestinian-Lebanese father, with stints in Jordan and Canada and work assignments in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt, it’s “people not places” that create a sense of home.
Upping sticks to Lisbon has also been about “getting back into my cocoon” and stepping off the publicity trail. “I needed to get out to focus on my next book. “With all the fuss around Guapa I was struggling to do that here.” This is the only interview he’ll do for a while, he says, and only “because it’s My Kali.”
Leaving London has helped, not least in shrugging off the expectations conferred by his sudden status as the author of Guapa – a novel that sent ripples of recognition through queer Arab communities with its open portrayal of a gay man’s search for acceptance in the Middle East. “The book has touched people in a lot of ways and it’s very heart-warming to receive messages, but people also come to me asking for help or to talk and I can’t do that, I’m not qualified….I’ve had emails from people who threaten to kill themselves if I don’t respond.”
Part of the learning curve has been about accepting that the book has a life of its own. Often he finds that “the reader adds a richness” by making new connections but it’s also hard to accept that “suddenly it’s out there and you have no control.”
…There’s this deep cynicism that’s settled inside me after the revolution and I don’t want it to be there.”
The first time he realized this was while working in Tunis on a humanitarian assignment, during a conversation with with man from Sirte (in central Libya) a conservative city in southern Libya. “This man I was speaking with kept giving me weird looks and said he’d seen an interview about Guapa on BBC Arabic. Until that moment I had always assumed those worlds were different.” It was a turning point for Haddad. “I thought, will I be able to keep doing this (aid) work that I’ve been doing?”
Yet there was never any question about publishing under a pseudonym. “I felt it was important for me to be a physical presence around the book, for an author about shame in the Middle East to take ownership and say yes I did write this and I’m not afraid to speak about it.” Then, as now, visibility was a moral standpoint for Haddad, an important gesture of solidarity. “The more of us out there, the more we find each other and create this cultural capital, so for me visibility is really important.”
Born into a middle-class household with what he describes as a “very Arab-Palestinian mentality” revolving around career, money and family, there was always a pressure to conform. Writing was a way of finding freedom, comparable, he says, to “coming out of the closet.”
“A lot of people in the Middle East don’t want to come out of the closet, they feel it’s a western construct they can navigate without, which I can understand.” But for Haddad, who found the courage to own his gay identity through seeing other queer Arabs out there, it was important to be visible.
“People say it’s really brave, and I think you know what, it is brave. It’s also forced me to confront a lot of demons I had kept in the background.” There are still traces of the anxiety that took root in his early teens. “I remember thinking for a long time that I was going to rot in hell, which is a terrifying thought for a kid. Even after I gave up on that idea, I thought my society was going to eat me alive if they found out the secret about me.”
Residual fears “about shame, ego and rejection,” surfaced as Guapa hit the shelves in October 2016. “Living the first 20 years of your life thinking that the world is going to tear you apart – in the run up to the book coming out I kept waiting for that to happen.” Instead, Guapa wowed readers and won critical acclaim. The New Yorker called it a “vibrant, wrenching debut novel” and Haddad was awarded the 2017 Polari First Book Prize at the London Literature Festival. He’s pleased with the reception, which he didn’t see coming. “I really, really didn’t expect it.”
These days he’s hot desking at a creative studio in Lisbon, which turned out to be owned by a former member of Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila. “I can’t escape the Middle East anywhere,” he laughs. But away from the whirlwind of publicity and the “noise and stimulation” of London, he’s finally finding the focus to begin his next book which looks at the role art has played in twentieth-century Iraq, inspired partly by his own family story. “I have slowly found a way to re-discover that playfulness in my creativity, and I am now fiercely protective over it. Once that playfulness is gone, then an artist is in real trouble.”
Life in Lisbon, he says, has been an opportunity to “distance himself” and explore his own perspective outside the narratives that, as a gay Arab man living in the west, he is pressed to provide an opinion on. “I’d had enough of talking into that space – you can come out very damaged and burnt out by talking to Western media about the Middle East all the time.”
Haddad has always been “uncomfortable” with labels, particularly in an LGBT+ context. “There’s a lot of policing that happens around terminology…people should use the label they feel comfortable with, whether that’s gay, non-normative or whatever. Just be in control of your own label.” He questions the way LGBT+ issues have been hijacked by political narratives, “not for the right reasons” but because it’s “temporarily trendy.”
For now, he’s done with going over old ground and being asked to trot out insights into the political issues people attach to him. “I find myself rolling my eyes when people start talking about politics, whether it’s identity politics, Syria politics…There’s this deep cynicism that’s settled inside me after the revolution and I don’t want it to be there.”
Processing the outcome of the revolution hasn’t been easy. “I have the luxury to grieve and take a step back but there’s a deep sense of guilt that you’re turning away from this horrible conflict.” Looking back, he recalls the “anger and rage” he used to feel returning from aid-work missions and credits his boyfriend Adam with helping him to “stop, take a moment, enjoy something as simple as a cupcake.”
It was this that allowed him to write Guapa, “the receptacle for a lot of the anger and questions that I was unable to process.” And despite the pressure that comes with publication, and the expectations people have piled on him since, he doesn’t have any regrets about putting his voice out there. “I wrote Guapa with a sense of urgency that I don’t feel with this new novel and I think that’s because I felt it needed to come out at the time that it did.”
Read Saleem’s interview on identity, gender expression, and sexuality…. and Guapa here
(English ? ) . Issue number 63 – March/April 2018 which have humanitarian turned novelist Saleem Haddad @salhad . The issue’s theme revolves around the topic ‘Representation’, and through it we debate the various layers and demotions of that perceptions. Blanket coat worn by @fadifzumot designs. Read about this issue, link in ☝bio (english version linked in the arabic page, linked above). . Photographed by @a.s.dajani makeup by @yarashawabkeh Styling Fadi Zumot Art direction: Khalid Abdel-Hadi Cover design by Atef D. . العدد رقم ٦٣ لشهر مارس / أبريل 2018 و الذي يتدر غلافه الروائي و الناشط الانسان سليم حداد. العدد يتمحور حول فكرة ‘التمثيل – Representation’ و الذي من خلاله ننقاش عدد من طبقات و ابعاد هذا المفهوم. إقرأ عن هيكل العدد الآن، الرابط في البايو. . تصوير: عبدالله الدجاني مكياج: يارا الشوابكة تلبيس: فادي زعمط اخراج: خالد عبد الهادي تصميم الغلاف: عاطف د.
(English ? ) . العدد رقم ٦٣ لشهر مارس / أبريل 2018 و الذي يتصدر غلافه الروائي و الناشط الانساني سليم حداد. العدد يتمحور حول فكرة ‘التمثيل – Representation’ و الذي من خلاله ننقاش عدد من طبقات و ابعاد هذا المفهوم. اقرأ عن هيكل العدد الآن، الرابط في ☝ البايو . تصوير: عبدالله الدجاني مكياج: يارا الشوابكة تلبيس: فادي زعمط اخراج: خالد عبد الهادي تصميم الغلاف: عاطف د. . Issue number 63 – March/April 2018 which have humanitarian turned novelist Saleem Haddad @salhad The issue’s theme revolves around the topic ‘Representation’, and through it we debate the various layers and demotions of that perceptions. Read about this issue, link in ☝bio (english version linked in the arabic page, linked above). . Photographed @a.s.dajani makeup by @yarashawabkeh Styling @fadifzumot Art direction: Khalid Abdel-Hadi Cover design: Atef D.