Meet Saleem Haddad, the author exploring homosexuality and shame in the Middle East
Author Saleem Haddad is one of the shortlisted authors the Polari First Book Prize for his debut novel Guapa. We spoke to Haddad about the book, and his life as a gay Arab man, for our Spring 2017 issue.
“A part of me always wanted to write a story like this,” says Saleem Haddad, the 33-year-old gay Arab man whose debut novel, Guapa, weaves a compelling narrative that explores homosexuality and shame in the Middle East. “But I struggled with the framing,” he continues. “I was aware these issues are so misunderstood and divisive, and the fear of not giving the subject the sensitivity and complexity it requires put me off writing it. When the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions happened, it seemed like a very appropriate lens with which to examine how ‘queerness’ plays out politically, personally and socially.”
Guapa follows Rasa for the 24-hour period immediately after his grandmother has discovered him in bed with boyfriend Taymour. The book is set in an unnamed Arab country and, though the plot is fictional, it’s an emotionally-autobiographical piece of writing for Haddad, who grew up with the shame of not being the man his family expected him to be. He came out to his parents a decade ago, and they struggled to come to terms with his sexuality initially, hauling him to Abu Dhabi from London, where he lives with his boyfriend, for crisis talks.
Despite this, they didn’t try to talk him out of publishing the book. “My parents have always been strong believers in allowing us the freedom to make our own choices – even if they don’t agree with them,” Haddad explains. “I don’t think they could understand why I would want to write and publish a story like this. But seeing how much the novel has touched different people has given them a new understanding of why I had to tell this story. They are quite supportive of me now, and I’m so proud of them for that, because that isn’t easy for them either.”
Saddad moved to Canada aged 18 to study, but shortly after he arrived, the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place. Though Christian, he was affected by the wave of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment that soon followed, spreading from the US into more tolerant Canada. Though over 15 years have passed since then, he sees similar – if not higher – levels of scrutiny towards members of the Arab community in America, with the rise of Trump and the alt-right movement fuelling hate. “It’s ironic, because I regularly get asked about the effect of the novel on my safety in the Arab world,” he says. “Very few people ask about my safety as an Arab gay man in the West, yet in the last year, the only direct personal threats I’ve received have been from white supremacists.
“What saddens me the most is that I sense a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab rhetoric within the LGBT+ community,” Haddad continues. “The far-right have done a great job in building a narrative that all Arabs and Muslims are homophobic, and a threat to LGBT+ communities worldwide. Yet when you look at the biggest challengers to LGBT+ rights across Europe and North America, it’s by these far-right groups, not Muslim or Arab communities.”
The subject his follow-up book will explore is yet to be decided, and the author knows himself well enough not to predict where his imagination might take him. “Often the subject of the story chooses me,” he offers. “I’m often plagued with my own existential questions that I then try and answer through fiction. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about my body, Iraq, the environment and grief. We’ll see what the final result ends up looking like.”
Whatever form it takes, Saddad is part of a new vanguard of authors offering global perspectives on queer stories – and he’s just getting started.