If being gay is complicated, being gay in West Asia is even more so
This book is an ode to disillusionment — personal, political, national — yet written in prose that soars and tugs at the emotions. Haddad’s hero Rasa is back in his unnamed country after doing his undergraduate studies in the U.S., full of hope, enthusiasm and a zeal for reform. He does some desultory translation work, hangs out with his radical activist friends at an underground bar called Guapa, regarded as a den of iniquity by the truncheon-wielding guardians of society. But Guapa is nothing less than a sanctuary and solace to Rasa and his friends who drown gallons of red wine, smoke cigarette after cigarette and talk till the idea of going home becomes bearable. Oh, and Rasa’s also gay.
He bears the scars with pain and a quiet dignity. He was raised by his feisty grandmother Teta after his artist mother, deep in the clutches of depression, walked out on them, handing down lifelong feelings of abandonment to her son. His father dies of cancer, and Rasa’s hitherto happy world collapses around him, even as he is emerging from the closet. The story starts on a gripping note: The morning begins with shame. Teta peeps through the keyhole of Rasa’s bedroom and catches him in bed with his lover. There is much screaming, shouting, a horrific scene, and the narrative proceeds from that point.
But Rasa’s time back in the U.S. was not one of unalloyed delight, coinciding as it did with the 9/11 attacks. He and others of his ilk were branded and viewed with suspicion. Survival called for keeping one’s head down, trying harder than ever to fit in, and yes, giving up speaking in Arabic.
Since Rasa has always felt he was a kinder, more passionate human when speaking Arabic, one can imagine the aridity of his psyche now. He reflects that if the U.S. smelled of butter, he smelled loneliness and rejection all around him and that too smelled like butter.
The people we meet here are interesting, vibrant, intelligent. They are different, either because of their political affiliations, desire to live free, or sexual orientation. Soon we start to root for them against the all-encompassing, looming figure of the country’s president. Like a Barbie doll, remarks Rasa wryly, the president comes in different costumes: Tribal President, Business President, Islamic President, Secular President. Later, another dismal picture is drawn, of a people stuck between terrorism and authoritarianism. “Praying five times a day, all that hand washing and strict rules gives people some structure and purpose, keeps them from true despair.”
Where the book stands out is in its depiction of a revolution going up in smoke, of people’s hopes fast dissipating, the dream of a pan-Arab nation evaporating, to be replaced with the dull realisation that nothing has changed or will change. People being people, though, some continue to fight the system, some quietly go with the flow, others make the transition awkwardly and still others continue to sing the songs of denial. Rasa’s story also finds its place in the growing pantheon of gay literature coming from West Asia.
If being gay is complicated, being gay in these countries is even more so, and that comes through clearly in Haddad’s book. The pattern of lies and fabrications that seems necessary to keep his country going is replicated in Rasa’s immediate life, too. Even as he rages about the lost potential of his people, the reader cannot help but feel a pang for the lost potential of Rasa’s life.
If sadness permeates the story, it does so in the most poetical manner. Yet, while disillusionment keeps rearing its head, cynicism is markedly absent. By the end of the book, Rasa’s mask is off but his future remains uncertain.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author based in Bengaluru.