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Guapa Paperback – March 8, 2016
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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An Amazon Best Book of March 2016: This debut novel takes readers on a journey across countries and cultures to demonstrate the impact of the definitions we place on ourselves and those around us. Over the course of 24 hours Rasa, a young gay Middle Eastern man—who has just been outted by his grandmother--struggles with the potential loss of everything that matters to him. Humorous, powerful and deeply endearing, Guapa is one of those stories that surprises and stays with you. --Penny Mann
From Publishers Weekly
Family, identity, and politics collide in Haddad's debut. Rasa is an American-educated young man living in an unnamed Arab country. Disenchanted with the failed revolution of a few months prior and tired of his work translating for foreign journalists and businesses, Rasa finds hope and comfort in the arms of his lover, Taymour. However, one morning Rasa's grandmother Teta discovers him and Taymour in bed together: "There is everything that has ever happened, and then there is this morning." The tumultuous day takes Rasa from his grandmother's apartment, to slums to interview Islamist rebels; to a police station to bail out his best friend, activist and drag queen Maj; to the underground gay bar Guapa; and eventually to Taymour's lavish wedding to a woman. Throughout the novel, episodes from Rasa's past bleed into the narrative. Much as Teta spied on him and Taymour through a keyhole, Rasa examines his inadequate memories, trying to understand how everything fits together and how he can build a future, with or without the man he loves. It's a puzzling choice for Haddad to keep the setting unnamed. During America's post-9/11 bombing campaigns, Rasa thinks, "The city... had become shorthand to describe an event. The country that once existed was no more." That pattern is perpetuated here, but for whose benefit? Haddad, a former aid worker and consultant, navigates Rasa's interior and exterior worlds with empathy and care. The topic of gay life in the Arab world is richly complex, and Haddad's cinematic, evocative prose rises to meet the sensitive subject matter. (Mar.)\n
Top customer reviews
Rasa, at 70% through the story, asks the ultimate question: “Why am I so stuck in the past?” His answer is, “Because the present has spun out of my control.” The bulk of the story, though, is not really about the one day, but is comprised of a series of long, detailed flashbacks describing how Rasa’s life unfolded to this one present day.
Power to change things is what this novel is about. The story is clumsy, disconnected, rambling, often politically strident, and at times disappointing in its superficiality and ordinariness, but nonetheless it makes its point with profundity. When does anyone ever have the power to change anything, except the minutiae of our own small lives? Rasa’s life is small, really small, and he wails, “I am not sure of such except that I’m unbearably alone, and it’s unbearably hot.” (Again at 70%) And alone he is indeed. Aren’t we all? He never reconciles his ultimate dilemma of a lost lover, a completely absent family life, and a culture which rejects him with his realities of the present.
During this long, painful day for Rasa, he has lost his one true love, Taymour, to, of all things, marriage to a woman. This is the night of the wedding, and it is considered eib (shame) not to attend. So, Rasa, descends further into despair and submits to tatemae (false societal pretense). Even the friendly, familiar confines of Guapa, where he goes prior to the wedding, a gay bar that is sometimes shut down, seems only to depress him further, except for the free drinks. Even his best friend Taj, who is the star drag queen at Guapa, and who has been arrested and released, but beaten, seems not to understand Rasa.
In many ways the life of a young gay male in an Arab country in the early 2000’s reminds me of what it was like to be gay in America in the 60s. 70s, and early 80s, with one’s personal focus on secrecy, bizarre illegal drag cabarets, cigarettes, booze, and hidden thoughts and deeds, all the while living a double life in a bigger culture that thoroughly despises you and would rather you did not exist. The AIDS epidemic changed everything in Western countries, because it forced gay men to take political action (which worked), but not so in the Arab-speaking world. Thus, it’s a form of time-warp there today.
There’s a big dose of self-pity in Rasa’s persona and in his musings and his silent or often vocal complaining. He’s a big complainer. Such a personality trait does not endear him to a reader. There’s also a lot of simplistic political polemic, with lightweight summaries of the arguments for and against various political theories. However, political theory is not at the heart of this book. Rasa, of course, is one of the disenchanted demonstrators when the much-touted “Arab Spring” dissolved into nothingness – and worse. The USA is held mostly in contempt, eventually, by Rasa, even though he went to university in America for 4 years. American characters in the book are fundamentally unlikeable and weird. I did not recognize one of them.
There is a crisis of sorts at the end, but the story has no denouement at all. The day ends, the next day begins, and life proceeds. That’s one of the problems with day-in-the-life books.
Rasa comes from an upper-middle class family, and he maintains this singular perspective throughout. He rarely shows that he understands his beneficent background or an in-depth understanding of his privileged social position.
I never quite understood the character of his grandmother, Teta – his father’s mother. She is an awful person, the ever-present voice and authority of the past, the enforcer of old Arab ways, despising change and modernity, especially influences from the West. When Rasa returns from America after University she throws away all his American clothes, and, what’s worse, he lets her. He never achieves independence from this tyrant. Does she represent all corrupt, backward-looking political leaders of Arab countries? At least so it seems. Her significance is so omnipresent and oppressive that even the reader feels intimidated by her.
All-in-all, while not at all compelling, “Guapa”” is an interesting read. You’ll maybe not care much for any of the characters, but hey, who liked Madame Bouvary anyway? It’s a real treat to find the primary character in any novel who is a young gay Arab and written by someone whose last name is Haddad. With all that in mind, it’s barely a 3.51, rounded up to 4 for recognition of the author’s sheer effort and monumental chutzpah.
While the description says it covers 24 hours, the bulk of the book is spent in flashbacks to key moments in Rasa's life. I found his time in America one of the more interesting, especially confronting his Arab identity. However, there are some loose ends and half-complete stories in the book. Particularly I wish the relationship with Sufyan was deeper and hadn't ended so incompletely.
Nonetheless, it's a fantastic story with a voice that's both somewhat familiar and unique. The intimate scenes are engaging and, as another mentioned here, Acimanesque -- which is a very high compliment indeed. I enjoyed reading his debut novel very much, and I'm looking forward to more.