In an unnamed Middle Eastern country, a young translator deals with the fallout after his grandmother catches him with another man.
Set against the backdrop of a country on the brink of civil war, Haddad’s debut novel follows a young gay man, Rasa, over a tense 24 hours. First his grandmother catches him in bed with his lover, then his best friend is arrested at a gay cinema. As Rasa grapples with these conflicts, he also remembers his past—from his sexual awakening to his four years in America for college to experiences at his one refuge, the neighborhood bar/underground gay club that gives the novel its title. Rasa, introspective and witty, makes a sympathetic narrator, and the story is filled with moments of heartbreak and tension (a loaded scene involving Rasa, the Western journalist he translates for, and a husband-wife team of Islamic revolutionaries is especially well-done). But a certain coyness pervades the narrative, at times distracting from an otherwise absorbing story. For a novel so much about place and politics, Haddad’s decision not to identify the Arab country where the bulk of the narrative is set, nor the American city where Rasa studies, is difficult to understand. It also leads to some clunky phrasing: a woman wears a T-shirt “which has the name of the college I went to in America,” etc. More frustrating, at times Haddad seems so bent on saving the major confrontations for novel’s end that early sections become bogged down in bouts of interior monologue. Still, readers will find no shortage of characters they’ll want to spend time with, and a dramatic wedding scene at the end makes up for earlier missteps.
Those looking for a nuanced portrait of gay life in the modern Middle East will find plenty to admire in this flawed but promising debut.