By Natalie Bozimowski
Kuwait-born aid worker and novelist Saleem Haddad knows what it’s like to live as a gay man in the Middle East and has written about his experiences in a number of personal essays as well as exploring those themes in his debut novel Guapa.
Released earlier this year, Haddad’s Guapa tells the story of Rasa, a young gay man in an unnamed Arab country that’s undergoing political and religious upheaval. The story, published by Other Press, explores themes of identity, alienation and social acceptance as Rasa searches for his best friend – a political activist who has been arrested by police – over a twenty-four hour period.
Singled out by the New York Times this year as one of “5 Writers to Watch” in the wake of the Arab Spring, Haddad now lives in London.
The Literary Show Project recently spoke with Haddad via Skype to discuss his reaction to the tragic events in Orlando over the weekend, where 49 people were killed and 53 injured in an attack on a gay nightclub by a Muslim man in the most deadly mass shooting in U.S history.
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“Your first thought when this happens is, 'I really hope it's not an Arab or a Muslim,' because we know the violence that is perpetuated on us afterwards in the media and by politicians.”
Literary Show Project: When you heard about the shooting in Orlando what was your immediate reaction?
Saleem Haddad: I was actually out, at a gay club. So when we got back early Sunday morning, London time, and we found out the news, I think — and I think for a lot of Arabs and Muslims as well— your first thought when this happens is, 'I really hope it's not an Arab or a Muslim,' because we know the violence that is perpetuated on us afterwards in the media and by politicians.
Being both gay and Arab – it was a tragedy and sort of an attack on both fronts. When you're queer and you're a Muslim or an Arab and you've just had one of your safe spaces destroyed or violently attacked – gay bars are safe spaces for us – you don't even have time to mourn because you're also then quickly going online to see: how is the media going to spin this? And, what further safe spaces for us as Arabs or Muslims are going to be attacked?
LSP: How hard is it to be a gay Muslim today?
SH: I'm not a gay Muslim. I'm a gay Arab. There tends to be acceptance within the LGBT community because [it] understands what it feels like to be ostracized and attacked. But I think within the wider community you often find yourself attacked for your Muslim background, or your Arab background, and then also for being gay, so it's almost like a double attack. People don't seem to accept that those two identities can live side by side. But of course they can; everyone has multiple identities.
LSP: Have you noticed a shift recently in the Muslim community in how they're accepting, or if they're accepting of members of the LGBT community at all?
SH: It's a very difficult question to answer because the Muslim community is so broad that it's impossible to really talk about. That's the equivalent of me asking a white American queer person 'how do you feel, like, the Christian community's understanding of LGBT or accepting of LGBT issues?' So I don't know if I can answer that question to be honest.
“I've grown up in Muslim-majority countries my entire life. I've been exposed to homophobia in those communities and I've been exposed to incredible love and support by members of those communities as well.”
LSP: In your opinion is Islam intrinsically incompatible with homosexuality and gay rights?
SH: I think all three [major] religions have texts in them that demonize homosexual relations. I've grown up in Muslim-majority countries my entire life. I've been exposed to homophobia in those communities [and] I've been exposed to incredible love and support by members of those communities as well.
Religion is really what someone makes out of it. For me the key point that often gets missed in all of this, in the aftermath of Orlando, is that religion is definitely a problem but it's what people do with religion. There needs to be a broader discussion about toxic and violent masculinity. Homophobia is not a poison that is specifically in the Muslim community; it exists in all communities and especially in American society as well.
LSP: Do you think people will respond to this event by coming together or will prejudice just continue to grow?
SH: I think the queer community is strong enough to come together and that's been my experience in being part of that community, even in the aftermath in terms of the messages and support from members of the community who don't identify as Arab or Muslim. What I'm more worried about is how the blood of those people, who were part of our community as well, will be publicized or manipulated by politicians like Donald Trump who, last week, did not care about gay lives and cared even less about Latino lives.
I have a lot of faith in the queer community. We’ve endured decades of struggle and we've come out stronger and I think we will come out stronger from this. You don't mess with the LGBT community. We're a very powerful community and we are united.
“What I'm more worried about is how the blood of those people... will be publicized or manipulated by politicians like Donald Trump who, last week, did not care about gay lives and cared even less about Latino lives”
LSP: Your debut novel Guapa discusses the realities of gay life in the Middle East. In light of the shooting in Orlando, what do you want readers to take away from your book?
SH: Orlando is not the first attack on queer safe spaces. Whether [it be] in the Middle East or in the U.S there's a long history of queer attacks. So I wouldn't want this particular attack to be suddenly politicized as, ‘is this an Islam or Muslim thing?’
My novel is about friendships within the queer community and the importance of the safe spaces in our community, like bars. These spaces are safe for us not just in the U.S or in Europe, but also in the Middle East. They're places where we congregate, where we feel we can be ourselves, where we can talk openly with each other. My novel is named after the bar in the novel, which is called Guapa, and the centrality of that bar is very important for me.
If people read my book following the events in Orlando I hope they can understand the universality of queer lives and that the spaces that we hold sacred are under attack everywhere around the world. I would also hope that people come out of reading the book with a nuanced understanding of what it means to hold a number of different identities, and the struggle that can sometimes come from that, and the desire to live authentically within all of these identities.
LSP: In times of tragedy, writers have an opportunity, and some might say a duty, to give a voice to people who can’t speak themselves? How will you do this and how do you think others should do so?
SH: For me the most difficult thing in the aftermath of what has happened is that… there's been no space for mourning, and there's been no space for reflection or self-criticism. As a writer, when you want to express yourself in this environment it can be very difficult and I've found trouble myself finding the words to express all of the feelings—the feelings of anger that I have, the feelings of fear—and I think as writers we need to have the courage to create that space for reflection, to create that place for self-criticism.