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Guapa Paperback – March 8, 2016
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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
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It's perhaps disingenuous to say that the novel takes place in a single day because major portions of the novel are flashbacks that Haddad presents to explain how he got to the day on which the novel nominally takes place. Some of the stories are more pertinent than others but most of them eventually pay off, and a few of them pay off extraordinarily well. The idea of a single day in the life of a young, outgoing, gay, Arab man that goes from bad to worse to revelation is a terrific structure, but because of the required backtracking and explaining, "Guapa" sometimes drags in the middle. The fabulous ending at a lavish wedding, however, blasts away most of the gritty and carefully laid details to reveal an emotional world that ties the previous stories together.
The narrator, Rasa, lives with his grandmother and brings his handsome boyfriend home for the evening, which leads to one of the major events and conflicts of the novel. Rasa, educated in the US, works as an Arab-English translator, which also puts him at the center of a number of dangerous political situations.
Taymour is Rasa's closeted boyfriend. Taymour feels it's best to stay quietly closeted, which is a requirement to thrive in a strictly Muslim country but forces Rasa to make decisions that wouldn't be necessary otherwise and drives the novel to its solid ending.
Rasa's campy friend Maj dances in Middle-Eastern drag in the underground club called Guapa. He's rounded-up during a pre-Stonewall-style morality clean-up from a cinema noted for gay cruising. Maj is the opposite to the survivor Taymour; he's the queeny complement to Taymour's straight-laced pretender.
A major part of the story that Haddad slowly reveals centers around his strict grandmother Tata (and her maid) with whom he lives, as well as more (but incomplete) background about his mother and father.
The novel is moderately erotic when appropriate and has some pretty good sex. It's also very visual and suspenseful at times.
I've never been to the Middle East and am often unsure of the nuanced politics, but "Guapa" felt real and, while sometimes surprising in its details, leads me to believe that some battles are the same around the world. But the emotional story, intercut with family drama and work stresses and political instability, demonstrates the truly life-and-death differences between cultures. Highest praise for bringing this story to such terrific life.