“The morning begins with shame.” It sounds like the slogan for an oddly judgmental brand of frosted breakfast pastry, but it’s actually the first line in Saleem Haddad’s debut novel, Guapa, which follows a day in the life of Rasa, a gay Middle Easterner who involuntarily comes out to his live-in grandmother in a most spectacular way: she finds him in bed with another guy.
After the big surprise, Grandma squeals and shuts herself in her room, the beau scrams, and Rasa is left wondering what’s next: will his grandmother, his only surviving parent figure, kick him out? Will she let the whole town—an LGBT-unfriendly place in an unspecified Arab country—know? Will Taymour, the other guy just caught with his pants down, now fear so much for his own straight-man-by-day reputation that he refuses to see Rasa again? Rasa is vexed, but he doesn’t have time to sit still and stew: he’s got a job to get to, a drag-queen friend to bail out of jail, and, later that evening, a wedding to attend.
As we follow Rasa around, it soon becomes clear, however, that this isn’t the first day begun with shame, nor will it be the last—not for Rasa, not for his friends, his coworkers, or anybody within at least a few hundred miles, anyway. It turns out that shame is simply the water Rasa and his neighbors—gay or straight, man or woman, young or old—swim in. They are waters Guapa’s author knows well. “I was always haunted by this idea of shame, growing up,” says Haddad, who was born in Kuwait, spent much of his youth in Jordan, and identifies with many aspects of his first-person protagonist. “It played a big part in regulating my own behavior.”
Shame isn’t a Middle Eastern phenomenon, of course. It doesn’t take but one look at a tattered “Straight Pride” bumper sticker on some jerk’s pickup truck to remember shame’s virulence in the United States, despite recent progress. “Gay Pride” doesn’t really mean proud to be gay, after all; it means not ashamed to be. And besides, everywhere in the world people are unfairly made to answer for themselves, for their attitudes and behaviors—especially women and sexual and ethnic minorities. But shame in the Middle East, Haddad says, is of a particular kind. It’s a way of life, an everyday system of societal checks and balances, a code of expectations.
The English word shame doesn’t quite capture the concept in all its complexity. “Eib is so much more than [shame],” Rasa explains to the reader. “The implication is…what will people say.” This “what will people say?” question is a litmus test for determining the boundaries of personal, and especially public, behavior in Rasa’s world, and while some acts—such as conspicuous displays of homosexuality—are haram, forbidden, and really can have serious consequences, it would be grossly inaccurate to assume that everyone lives in constant bodily fear of the ramifications of shaming. (“People don’t just kill each other like you hear on TV,” Rasa has to explain to a caring but confused Westerner he goes to college with in the United States.) No, everyone’s a studied player in the shame game. It’s like a sport, and the best contenders know how to countershame, how to use the rules of the game to their advantage.
When Rasa and his friend Basma are driving to the wedding, for instance, a fellow commuter at a stoplight motions for Basma to roll down her window. “It’s evening prayer time,” he says. “Have some respect and turn off the music.” Basma will have none of it: “Eib on you for interfering in a woman’s affairs,” she parries. “Mind your own business.” His shame is greater than hers; point for Basma.
Haddad, who in 2006 moved to London not long after coming out to his own family, has played this game himself. He once tried to bring a boyfriend back with him to Lebanon, where his parents were living at the time, but his father wasn’t keen on it. “He was saying, ‘We’re not ready for this….I’m against it.’ ” Haddad played his card: “I said, ‘Well, that’s fine. We’re coming anyway, and we can stay in a hotel room.’ ” The thought of his son, returned from abroad, staying anywhere but the family home was so shameful for Haddad’s dad, he changed his tune.
Haddad had reached a turning point in his life by then. “I had just thought, ‘Fuck it. I don’t care what they say anymore,’ ” he says. “I didn’t want to live two lives.” Maj, Rasa’s drag-queen friend, has the same attitude. His brazenness gets him roughed up by the police on occasion, but Guapa, the underground bar after which the book is named, doubles as the private residence of its owner, which places it in an eib gray zone—as long as Maj does his act there, he’s okay.
These kinds of contradictions exist in abundance in the Middle East today. For instance, the gay dating app Grindr, Haddad says, is a godsend for men in the strictest nations, but it’s also a new weapon for law enforcement. Gay-rights advancement elsewhere in the world is changing the conversation around sexual identity and behavior, but often to a degree that’s seen as aggressively Western. And the hopes of the Arab Spring have been tempered somewhat by the Arab Winter. Who knows what the future holds, but Haddad is optimistic: “I feel like change will happen, and it will happen suddenly, but it will be positive.”
When it comes the navigating the boundaries of shame, though, a central question—one that Haddad says is at the heart of Rasa’s struggle—remains universal and eternal: “How do you live within society but also be true to yourself?”
Matthew Patin is a book editorand a board member at Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit writing center for kids and teens.